In my middle and high school years, I had a pretty awful experience with my band elective. It wasn’t bad at the school district I started playing flute at in Mustang schools, but when we moved to a far away town in SE OK, this new talent I was fond of became a begrudging chore of constant anxiety. The band directors were a father and son duo, and neither had a terrific grip on his temperament. The older one, the Senior, held no qualms against screaming in our faces as eighth graders due to shaky notes or flubs during a blind read of a new piece. I remember one day one girl broke down in tears after minutes of being singled out, yelled at, berated all over her shaky clarinet playing. I remember sitting there with a knot in my chest, biting my lip and keeping my eyes down; if I looked at her, I was going to start crying, too. Her sniffles and struggle to get ahold of her breathing were pushing me close to breaking down right with her as the instructor went on about how crying wasn’t going to do anything but make her look pathetic.
I remember playing for my life the rest of that practice, or at least that’s exactly how it felt. My anxiety was never at a normal rate, even then, but I didn’t know that, so for years, I swallowed the shakiness, the tears, and the terrified emotional pain that flared every time I was screamed at for not holding my flute perfectly straight or if my fingers shook too badly to blow a straight, unwavering note. Junior took over the program, which helped improve a little, but even he had given into the stresses and frustrations of the job (I won’t lie, being the program director was a LOT and it’s not like he had a great role model to follow). Sooner or later, his berating became the new normal. Over time, his anger became as sharp and barbed like his father’s, which I’m certain was predicted.
Eventually, through some hot cross wires of miscommunication occurred between me and him (all over a stupid vacation I went on very close to the start of school and during some of band camp), I finally had had enough of all of it. As a junior, I realized I had spent a large portion of my time in high school feeling sick with nausea, shakes, and this constant cloud of impending doom trapping me in a fog every single day (even on weekends). Finally, I thought to myself, “No one is going to get us out of this but us. We are too tired to deal with this crap anymore. Time to quit.”
Obviously, there was backlash towards me from multiple sides; other students in the band antagonized me once word got out that I was planning on walking out halfway through the semester (at the end of marching season and right before concert season). One girl (a clarinet player) had the audacity to chew me out about how I was letting so many people down. I remember keeping a cool head and saying, “If the entire band is hinging on one player staying, there’s a problem alright, and it’s not mine to deal with.” She didn’t seem to understand how to respond, and that was the last we spoke to each other.
Not just school kids but family members were outraged that I was quitting so close. I had family members begging and pleading with me to tough it out through senior year, that it would be better if I could get a scholarship for my flute playing for university or that it wouldn’t look great on applications for me to leave an elective so randomly. One member just “decided” for me that it would be fine to quit, but to wait until marching season in senior year was over so I could do the “walk across the field” at homecoming, get some recognition.
At that point, I couldn’t care less. I didn’t want any of it because it just meant months more of anxiety, feeling sick, even trying to force myself to vomit out of panic before practices so I could be sent home. Finally, it really hit me that the only person who could save me from this situation was only me. No one else either understood the gravity of the situation or seemed to care. But I cared and that’s all I needed.
I went straight to the counselor and enrolled in debate/competitive speech.
My senior year, I placed at the state competition series for extemporaneous speaking, the first in my school’s history (the debate team was fairly new, so it wasn’t that big of an accomplishment but it was something).
I remember two interactions with that last band director of mine: one when I went to tell him face to face that I was leaving the band. He seemed uncomfortable since we were alone in his office and I watched him struggle for the right send off. “Well, at least you came in and told me like a man…er, like an adult.”
I let that expired “be like a man” comment go. I didn’t care. I was on my way out.
The next time was many years later, when my husband and I visited my school during a honeymoon trip a year ago (so about twelve years or so after high school graduation). I went to the band room to visit with the director’s wife, who was a sweet woman I always admired and felt comfortable speaking with (she was the vocal teacher in the same building). Well, she wasn’t there that day, but guess who was?
Immediately, I felt that old defense wall rise around me. He didn’t recognize me at first, though I could tell from his narrowed brows that he was trying to figure it out while asking me why I needed to see his wife. Slowly, I said, “I was a student here a long time ago.” I told him my maiden name, and the recognition lit up in his eyes for a second…followed by what I can only say was a cloud of shame and meekness. Did his shoulders actually hunch? Or did I make that up? All I know is, he took a moment before saying, “Yeah, that was from when I took over the program from my dad. That was…a very rough transition. I wasn’t the teacher or man I wanted to be. So…”
I think that was his way of saying “sorry for being an AH” to you during your most crucial years.
I almost didn’t know how to react. That cold and icy feeling of spite melted immediately, even if I didn’t really want it to. I had been embarrassed, belittled, and had anxiety attacks and watched others suffer the same public shame all due to an elective that no longer became a passion to explore due to teachers who couldn’t keep their anger in check and took it out on a bunch of kids. Of course I was still mad over the years, especially when my senior year became the most relaxed and enjoyable year of my education run due to not having that awful foreboding cloud following me everywhere. My husband even watched this interaction with interest; he knew all about my awful band days and how I openly admitted to hating these two instructors.
But here the latter was, looking rather small right in front of me (he wasn’t the tallest man, either, probably my height of 5’3).
I suppressed a sigh and nodded. “We do the best we can with what we have.”
Did I actually say something to try to make HIM feel better?
In the car, John watched me and couldn’t hold back the laughter at my bemused face. “I think he was really sorry. Don’t you?”
I admitted he did, and suddenly I was mad all over again; where was this apology when it would have made a difference when I was a terrified, nervous teenager? Is it because I’m a grown adult now? Who knows? Admittedly, that day my grudge disintegrated little by little, especially as I now learn that adults don’t really know what they’re doing as much as we were taught as naïve children. Maybe he really was doing his best, not that that made the angry treatment better. The fact is, I did my best and eventually did what was best for myself.
Best decision of my life, much to the irritation of others who I suspect really didn’t have my best interests at heart.
The lesson from this? Follow your gut, especially when the current situation feels it’s drilling physical holes into your gut and filling it with nails and tacks. Others get mad at you for it? This will always happen, even if the topic at hand has nothing to do with them. (Seriously, I had family from out of town get mad at me for this decision and they never even came to a game or band marching competition).
Do what you need to for yourself. You don’t need anyone’s permission but your own to do this.