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A Reassuring Presence

I felt like I’d been sitting there for hours. Hidden away in the band storage room, I sat in an old baby blue folding chair, back to the door. Elbows on my knees, I held my pounding head in my shaking hands. My old tan ball cap was clenched in one fist. I used it to periodically wipe the tears from my cheeks like a makeshift handkerchief. At that moment, my life was a hopeless mess. Just then, I heard the door knob click as someone entered behind me. In the next few minutes, I would learn that just being there for someone is the best way to put them at ease.

That day, a Thursday, started like every other. My alarm rang at 7:00 a.m. sharp. I went through my daily routine as usual. Shower. Breakfast. Drive to school. Class went by as expected: uneventful and boring. It was spring, so I had golf practice right after school. After that I had scheduled a solo rehearsal with Mr. Gruden. I planned on running home to get a bite to eat between the two practices. When I did, I saw my mom in the kitchen and John, my step-dad, in his lazy boy in front of the TV. No surprise. They both looked angry, so they must’ve been fighting. That was no surprise either. As I ate a quick snack, they started arguing again. I can’t even remember why. But it was heated. John stormed out, slamming the door and peeling out of the driveway. Mom turned to me and said, “I’m done with him. We’ve got to get out of here.” I asked her what she meant. She said that she was considering getting a divorce and moving to Fort Madison where she would be able to find work and support her, my sister, Ashely, and I. I was speechless. Moving to Springfield when I was nine was traumatizing enough, and now there was a possibility of having to do it again as a junior in high school?

I was able to hold back the tears on my way to town. I kept thinking about what it would be like to move again. No more Chicken Patty Wednesday. No more Trojan athletics. I’d graduate from some foreign campus. As I pulled up to the side of the school and parked outside the door labeled ‘Music Department,’ I realized what the worst consequence of moving would be: no more Band. This realization hit me in the gut like an uppercut from Muhammad Ali. I doubled over in the driver’s seat of my truck, the idea almost causing me to vomit. The cool rubber of the steering wheel was my only solace for those agonizing few minutes. I then attempted to pull myself together. I had to play through my solo with Mr. Gruden. I walked up to the dull gray doors, grasped the cool metal handle, and stepped inside. It was torture.

Mr. Gruden was sitting behind the old Yamaha piano. Between him and I, Kathi stood, back to me, playing her marimba solo. Her rehearsal wasn’t quite over yet. Good. I had time to cool off. I was thankful I still had on my old tan golfing hat; I pulled it down low on my brow to hide my puffy eyes. I took the long way through the chairs to retrieve my saxophone from the instrument lockers. I was still incognito. Just as I entered the back storage room where I could practice on my own, Mr. Gruden called after me. “You’re up in a minute,” he said. That set me over the edge.

I completely broke down after that. It was just too much for me to handle. Band, the rock on which I’d built my new life at Springfield High, was eroding away beneath my feet and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I sat there, crying uncontrollably, until I heard the door open behind me. Mr. Gruden poked his head in and said that it was my turn. I asked him, still head in hands, “Can you do me a favor?” He said yes. I said, “Instead of practicing, can I just chill here for a while?” Curious, he stepped in to see what was going on. He asked what was wrong.

“Stupid s***,” I mumbled.

“Stupid sh...? Like what?”

“Family stuff. I’m not like in trouble and hiding. I’m not gonna wind up dead. I just....” I couldn’t form a sentence. I was so distraught that simple English evaded me. But he seemed to understand. He left me alone. I dried up, came out, got my sax together, and we ran through my solo like nothing happened. As I packed up and got ready to leave, I apologized for freaking him out and said that I usually don’t just break down at the drop of a hat.

“It happens more than you think,” he said with a shrug. After that we just talked. Just like any other day. It was so surreal. The fact that, first off, I felt safe enough to break down in front of him, says volumes. But the fact that he was undaunted by it, maybe even used to it, was even more eye-opening. How many others, in their time of insecurity or weakness, with nowhere else to go, fled to the band room? I now see why.

Turns out I never did have to move. I got to stay at Springfield High and be Drum Major, just like I’d always dreamed. Being Drum Major, I spend a lot of time in the band room working with Mr. Gruden one-on-one. However, he’s never brought up that day, never asked for an explanation. I respect him so much for that. He doesn’t smother you with comforting words and reassurance. His presence alone is reassuring. He lets you come to him. I think more kids go to him than anyone else because of his less is more attitude. And that’s just what I needed.




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