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Everybody has a special skill, something that they can do better than anyone else. Look at Olympians who are the best athletes in the world and those remarkable kids in the National Spelling Bee. But if everybody has a special skill, they also have an anti-skill, an untalent, something they just can’t do, no matter how much they exert themselves.
My downfall was music. I could listen and enjoyed it but that was the extent of my ability. I couldn’t “feel the beat” and I was so tone deaf I should be legally handicapped.
I knew my disability from a young age, but despite this, I still signed up for band my freshmen year of high school. I played French horn at my private middle school and I thought I could handle high school band. My middle school band consisted of five very talented musicians, a kind teacher, and me. My teacher knew I struggled and gave me simple music and asked me to play quietly. So I thought I could apply the skills I learned in middle school and join the high school band with my friends.
Of course, after I signed up I started to hear the rumors. They were just whispers, unconfirmed tidings of a daunting teacher. At first, I thought it was just the normal gossip meant to scare the timid freshmen, but when I asked my older siblings, they just looked at me in complete horror. “It must be Mr. Killington,*” they whispered. I asked what they meant but they refused to explain. My brother just did the sign of the cross and my sister said, “Be strong, Josephine, be strong.”
My first encounter with Mr. Killington was the first day of high school. I arrived with my other comrades to the large band room. We were unsure of what to do so we stood at the base of the risers and did whatever freshmen did. I watched a tall man, unnoticed by the other students, emerge from the back office and stalk through the crowd, slouched over. He came to the box that the band director stands on and straightened his back. As he rose to his full height, the crowd’s eyes were drawn to him and watched his every move.
“Find your seats,” he said quietly. We scattered like rabbits when an eagle flies overhead. There was a mad scramble for seats but when everyone was properly sitting in a chair, it became dead silent. He studied us and we studied him, teacher vs. students. He was very tall and had a pointy chin and nose. His narrow beady eyes inspected the student before him as if searching for any signs of weakness. His dark hair was styled perfectly (I could see the gel from my seat in the back). He was wearing a sweater vest which I learned was popular for him because he wore one every day.
He cleared his throat and everyone held their breath. What would the teacher say? Could the rumors be true? Could he be crazy? He just smiled. “How is your first day of high school going?” A few people mumbled “fine” or “okay” but most just stayed silent, expecting some kind of trick. “Well. Let’s get started,” he said as he handed out the sheet music. “This might be a little more difficult than previous music you’ve played, but don’t worry, you’ll learn quickly.”
To say difficult was an understatement, this was the toughest piece of music I had ever seen. What were those? Sixteenth notes? They might as well have been hundredth notes. And those high notes? I couldn’t even play the low notes. Could this possibly be the fourth chair music? I double checked and it was correct. I looked at my friend Emma (also from my middle school) and she shared a similar expression. Although I had been playing for three years and she had only started taking lesson two weeks before school started, she had already surpassed me and was third chair.
To my amazement, the rest of the class could actually play it. They could even play the next two songs, which were even more complicated. At the end of class, Mr. Killington said, “It sounded rough but with time, we will be able to smooth it out. I think this will be a very talented group.” Ha! I thought, I successfully managed to play the first note.
We started to put our instruments away. I had just been convinced that Mr. Killington was a normal teacher and all the rumors I heard were wrong, when I heard, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Mr. Killington was looming over a girl who seemed to be shrinking by the second. “I-I’m sorry,” the girl was stuttering over and over. “YOU JUST DROPPED YOUR CLARINET IN THE CASE! IT CAN BE DAMAGED IF YOU DO THAT! ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS TREAT YOUR INSTRUMENT WITH RESPECT. IF IT IS DAMAGED, YOU HAVE TO PAY FOR IT.” Mr. Killington continued on and on. That poor girl was practically in tears.
As I watched this encounter, I was reminded of something I saw on the nature channel. Mr. Killington had a freakish resemblance to a praying mantis hunting its victim. This wasn’t the only time I saw the Praying Mantis. Usually once or twice per day, Mr. Killington transformed into the man-eating, insect who reigned over the band room.
The Praying Mantis inside of Mr. Killington threatened to go on a rampage at any moment which caused a constant fear in the band room. It was a great relief when you managed to walk out of the room alive, until you realized you had to go back in twenty-four hours. See, Mr. Killington thought band was the most important thing in the world. He glared down anyone who showed up to his class late even if they had a pass, but often kept us after class for ten minutes. He thought anyone who abused an instrument deserved a life sentence in the worst prison on Earth. And if you dislike music? There was no punishment bad enough.
But there was a good side effect to Mr. Killington’s temperament. Our band was the best in the county. When we entered competitions other bands would forfeit instead of facing the embarrassment of losing to us and the whole back wall was covered in awards. The fear of Mr. Killington caused the students to improve so fast, most of our fourth chair players could be first chair in any other band.
Except me, of course. Not even Mr. Killington’s strict reign could cause me to overcome my handicap. I only advanced from playing the first note to the first three notes. I did become an excellent faker, though. I had amazing timing with moving my fingers and I could puff up my cheeks like I was actually playing. I even scrunched up my eyebrows like I was really concentrating.
Although I was an excellent faker, I made Mr. Killington’s top ten most evil people list by the third week of school. It started with the state of my French horn.
There was a pecking order in the band and instruments were given out accordingly. The best instruments were given to the first chair in the senior band, the second choice would go to the second chair, and so on through the senior band and then the junior/sophomore band. You can imagine the state of my French horn, as I was the last chair of the freshmen band. It was made of brass like most instruments, but turned a hideous brown color. There were more dents in it than a demolition derby car and a few of the slides were stuck.
On one day during the first week of school, before the bell rang, I was practicing my fingering when one of the valve levers fell off. I swear it wasn’t my fault! I was just practicing; I wasn’t abusing the horn in any way. Anyway, as I stared at the lever on the floor, I saw my life flash before my eyes. For a moment, I thought I could just hold the piece in place but Mr. Killington sees everything with his hawk eyes and then I would be in more trouble.
As I walked to his back office, I realized I would probably pay for the damage. It might cost a few hundred dollars. That wasn’t too bad, it might take a few months but I should be able to earn enough money. But what if it can’t be fixed? What if I have to pay for a replacement? Aren’t French horns the most expensive instrument in the band? I was going to have to take out a loan and then I would have to pay off the interest for the rest of my life. Not to mention I was going to get so many detentions it was going to go on my permanent record. I was never going to go to college with all of this debt and I would never get a good job.
When I arrived at his office, I tried to explain that it was an accident and I didn’t want to work at a fast food restaurant, flipping burgers, for the rest of my life, but all I could do was hold out my broken horn. “Oh, it’s broken,” Mr. Killington said. I cringed, waiting for my punishment. “Oh, well, it was very old and can’t be helped. I’ll get it fixed but for now use my horn.” He handed me the most beautiful horn I had ever seen. I mumbled a thank you, too relieved to say anything else. I felt reborn. I had faced death and survived.
You are probably wondering why I made his top ten most evil people list. That didn’t seem so bad. No, I didn’t make the list that day, I made it two weeks later, when my repaired horn came back.
I shudder, just looking back at my stupidity. My mended horn had all of its valve levers properly attached and it also looked like someone tried to polish it. It was still hideous but now it was a shiny sort of hideous. Everything was oiled and working, even the slides.
The day after it was fixed, I was carrying it back to its case, and unfortunately, I was holding it by the slides. The slides did what they do best, and the French horn fell to the floor. The sound of the crash still rings in my ears to this day. The valve lever that was just repaired, once again, was disconnected from the rest of the horn.
I held it in my hands like it was a dead kitten. I have never seen a more depressing sight in my life. My friends patted my back and murmured condolences. They knew this was the last time they would see me alive. I got lucky last time, but this time I couldn’t blame the old age of my horn because it had just been fixed. This time it was completely my fault.
The bell rang and the class filed out with pale faces, already thinking of what they will say in my eulogy. I staggered towards his office. This time I wasn’t worried about paying for it or getting a bad job. In fact, I would be happy to flip burgers for the rest of my life if I could walk out of this band room alive.
Was it always this cold in the back of the room? His office door was made of oak like any other door, but for some reason, on that day it had a remarkable resemblance to the Gates of Mordor.
I don’t remember knocking, but Mr. Killington opened the door when I arrived at it. He could probably smell the guilt on me. Mr. Killington saw the damaged horn and his eyes widened. He skipped right over the Praying Mantis and had transformed into the Hungry-Piranha-Alligator-Lion-Hyena-Eat-Josephine-Alive Monster. My legs got weak and I hoped I would faint so I wouldn’t have to experience the punishment.
But I was saved, saved by the most beautiful, sweet sound it the world. At that moment, the fire alarm went off. I seized my opportunity and ran from that room.
I had a new appreciation for life after that day, a life I planned to keep. I knew it would be a matter of time before Mr. Killington would hunt me down like a lion hunts an antelope. But I decided this was one antelope that was going to escape. I vowed never to speak of the broken horn again. I would become invisible in the band room by blending into the crowd. I used my sister’s horn while mine was being fixed because I was not going to ask Mr. Killington for a replacement. During his class, I kept my head down and never made eye contact. I got so good at being unnoticed, I could have passed as a chameleon.
My skills were really tested when we started to march at football games. Because of my lack of rhythm, I was guaranteed to be out of step more than not. Also, my arms would get tired and I would lower my horn, making it obvious that I wasn’t playing. Despite my horrendous marching, Mr. Killington only yelled at me once or twice a day. My invisible skills were good but my marching skills were worse.
Marching was even more difficult with Mr. Killington’s elaborate designs. We weren’t just marching on the field; we were dancing and spelling words, and playing difficult music, all at the same time. In one song, everyone in the band had to line up in a straight line (which was bad for me because, with no one if front of me, I couldn’t tell if I was out of step) and then we had to spin in a circle. Usually the seniors led the difficult maneuvers, but after we spun in a circle, I had to lead the French horns for a few steps. It wasn’t really that exciting. I just walked right a few steps, then walked down the thirty yard line mark and stopped. Meanwhile the upper classmen behind me spelled out our school name. Then we marched off the field.
I suspect I would have been kicked out of band for sure after one game, if Mr. Killington knew about it. It was a really big game against our worst rivals, so naturally, the whole school was watching. It was freezing that day. I mean negative twenty degrees and snowing, but Mr. Killington said it wasn’t that bad and refused to cancel. Everyone had to wear at least three layers under their uniforms and three pairs of mittens. Wearing a winter hat was difficult because the hat we had to wear with the uniform (the ridiculous type with the plumes) pushed the winter hat in our eyes. Also the two hats made it difficult to hear, but if you didn’t wear a hat, your ears would turn purple and fall off in ten minutes.
We waited on the sidelines for the last ten seconds before halftime. Luckily for Mr. Killington, those seconds lasted for five minutes so he had time to explain the importance of our performance. “You all know our band is the best in the area,” he said. “I wanted to prove that our band is the best in the United States so I signed up for the National Marching Band Competition. We have to send in a video of our performances by next Tuesday so this is our only opportunity to give them our best. I have a friend in the stands filming so don’t screw up. By the way, I didn’t tell you about this sooner because I didn’t want you to be nervous.”
It’s true that on any other day I would have been nervous, but on that day I was too cold to care. I didn’t even know how we were supposed to play our instruments when our teeth were chattering so badly.
When the whistle blew, the band filed on to the field. We performed perfectly like Mr. Killington taught us to do. I remember about halfway through the performance my hat slipped into my eyes and I could only see the ground two feet in front of me. It was okay though, because Mr. Killington drilled the pattern into my brain so much I could do it blind folded.
Towards the end of the performance, we lined up and then I led the French horns away. I thought I did it perfectly; I even managed to stay in step. As we started to march off the field, I thought for sure we would win the competition. That is until I stepped off the field and looked around.
I was standing alone; everybody else was ten yards away from me. To my horror, I realized I marched down the wrong yard line. I instantly looked at Mr. Killington to see if he saw my mistake but apparently he was too far away to notice. I breathed a sigh of relief… until I realized my blunder was caught on tape.
The next day I told my parents not to cry at my funeral before I went to school. I debated wearing a helmet to the band room but decided against it because I doubted it would do much against Mr. Killington’s wrath. I think I had a minor heart attack, when he told us he’d give us the day off of playing and we should all watch our performance instead. “And guess what, I haven’t seen it yet either, so it will be a surprise for all of us… Are you okay, Josephine?” I had just let out a small sob and tried to mask it as a cough. He just gave me a funny look.
I had made it through the first five minute by alternating silent hysterical laughing and silent hysterical sobbing. Finally the pressure got to me and I decided to make a break for it. I slide off of my chair and started to crawl towards the shadows. I had just made it to the door when I heard “WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED?” I cringed as I felt the Praying Mantis emerge. So close. “I HAVE TO HAVE A WORD WITH MY CAMERAMAN!” I turned slowly and looked at the screen. The cameraman, my new hero, had turned the camera so you could only see the middle and right side of the field. You couldn’t see my horrible error at all. My insides were singing with joy.
I watched in relief as the rest of the band marched off the field. Mr. Killington was still cursing his cameraman and causing a huge fuss. Suddenly he spotted me by the door. “Josephine, what are you doing there? Go to your seat!”
“Sir, yes, sir,” I said as I ran to my chair, with a big smile on my face.
A few weeks later, we got the results from the National Marching Band Competition. We got fifth, out of three hundred and forty-two bands. That would have been great for any other teacher, but not Mr. Killington. It was first or nothing for him. In fact, I don’t think he ever had received fifth in his life before. We were nervous that he would let out his anger on us and we would have to play until our lips bled, but in the end, he just blamed the cameraman.
For a few months no major incidents happened in band, and I thought perhaps all of my catastrophes were over. But, alas, there was one final incident.
It was during the last band concert of the year. Everyone from all three bands was packed into the band room in our concert uniforms. I looked ridiculous. The girls wore long black skirts with a white shirt and even a stupid little bowtie. It was inevitable to step on a few skirts and guys moved awkwardly in their tuxedoes.
The whole thing started earlier that Friday and I had a track meet the next day so our whole team dressed up crazy. I wore a ridiculous tie-die, so bright it glows in the dark, t-shirt which was a mistake. My friend (who is also in track and wore a bright orange t-shirt) and I decided to go to McDonald’s after school and hang out for a while that day. We planned to bring our uniforms to school and change before the concert.
Well, we lost track of the time and ran back to the school. In the bathroom, I realized I had forgotten a white shirt to wear under my dress shirt. The dress shirts were really thin and you could see right through them, so I had to wear something. I instantly discarded my ridiculous tie die t-shirt, and asked my friend for her shirt. It wouldn’t be my first choice because it was bright orange, and I mean, bright orange. You practically had to wear sunglasses to look at it. But it was better than mine and I had no time to ask anyone else. My plan was to wear my coat as long as possible and just go on to the stage without it.
My plan worked for a while, and I only took my coat off when Mr. Killington said the freshmen band would perform in two minutes. My downfall was when, right before I left the room, I realized I had forgotten my sheet music for one of the songs. I ran to quickly pick it up before anyone noticed, but Mr. Killington turned around at the exact wrong moment.
“JOSEPHINE! WHAT ARE YOU WEARING? YOU LOOK LIKE A CHICK FROM A BIKER BAR!” Of course, he had to do it in front of everyone, not just the freshmen band. I was so embarrassed my face matched my bright shirt. I was praying for a comet to fall out of the sky and hit me right there. Of course, it didn’t so I had run out of the room instead. Luckily, my band’s performance was not affected by my shirt, although Mr. Killington did give me a few looks of death.
After the concert, there was only two weeks until the end of the school year. I decided band wasn’t the right thing for me and didn’t sign up again. Although band was a challenge, I really did enjoy it. I just recognized that my competence with music wasn’t going to improve and thought my time was better spent somewhere else.
I was in the minority though. Only about thirty percent of people quit each year. If you survived until your senior year, it meant that you loved music and were an excellent player. Not surprisingly, many of the famous musicians I hear of now came from that same high school band as I did.
I learned an important life lesson from Mr. Killington; some things don’t go the way you want them to but that’s okay, it still makes a great story. Now if there’s something I don’t want to do, like give a speech in front of a class or I’m nervous about a track meet, I just tell myself, “At least it’s better than band.”