The leader of the band

“…The leader of the band is tired and his eyes are growing old, but his blood runs through my instrument, and his song is in my soul…”       —Dan Fogelberg

Friends, it’s that time of year again, and I’m going to need a beer to mellow me out before I get started.  For the first paragraph anyway…but you know I might need more than one, just to make sure it’s decent.  I choose “Good Humans,” by Short’s Brewing Company, because the subject of this post is literally about a person with the last name of  Goodman.  And, he is exactly that, as you will see.

The beer is a hoppy brown, and it’s delish.  Those fellas and gals got it goin’ on in Bellaire, a sweet little sleepy town in Michigan.

So what it’s time for are those end of school year celebrations, and “graduations” that make me scratch my head as to why there is a need for an accompanying ceremony.  There are graduations from preschool, kindergarten, and anywhere from 4th through 8th, to the only one that truly matters, from 12th.  The shindigs for the kindy crowd are what really irritate me though.  As long as there are cupcakes and party favors, four year olds are all in, but they don’t understand what’s going on, and I hate it when adults impose their ideas on impressionable children.  It’s almost as if we are telling kids, okay, this wasn’t really “school,” because you didn’t learn anything of substance (total BS, but people believe it), so we are celebrating your departure to the real deal, kindergarten.  And then the next year its the same thing: okay, you did do more work in here than preschool, but we’re having another party and a fake diploma because you have no clue how much you’re going to wish you were back in here for the next eleven years, playing house and building weapons with Legos.  (Although those activities are sadly becoming extinct, too, but that’s another post).  So.  Not my favorite cultural phenom.

Not surprisingly, I also cast a sullen eye upon school award night soirees and the bling associated with them, for various reasons that I’ve spelled out in other writings.  But the truth is, I don’t begrudge the handing out of such items, IF they are meaningful.  And I’m going to tell you about the one and only time I got one, and who gave it to me.  More than that, I want to tell you about the man behind the award.

It was 1978, eighth grade, and I was caught in that weird place of not being able to play with Barbies anymore and yet having the conviction my parents were the stupidest creatures on earth. I literally did nothing but daydream through every class, to the point I’m surprised I didn’t flunk out.  Nothing held my interest, except English with Mr. Greene, and one other class.  A class in which I flourished without even really trying. 

If you guessed band, you’d be correct.

 We started in fifth grade.  In the beginning I actually wasn’t all that interested in it, except that my friends joined.  And I think I picked clarinet because of course, that’s what my friends chose.  So dumb, I think now.  We had a tough but respectful teacher, too, by the name of Ms. Jackson.  I couldn’t tell you an algebraic formula if my child’s life depended on it, but thanks to Ms. Jackson I will go to my grave knowing the proper “embouchure” (successful mouth placement) for the clarinet.  I remember being lectured by my mom about the cost of an instrument, even though mine was used, and that I’d better “stick with it.” At the time, the hour of band meant one less hour I had to deal with boring lectures and one more hour to socialize, so I continued.  And I practiced.  A lot.

Everybody hated practicing, but there was no getting out of it because you had to turn in signed slips verifying you did it. And no way was Mama Marlene signing her name to anything she hadn’t witnessed as truth, so there you go. A half hour every day I puffed on a reed in all my squeaky-mouse glory while Mom and Dad watched the news in the next room.

Blowing on that horn was the only homework that ever wasn’t a complete chore, as much as I probably complained.  Amazingly, my fat, short little fingers popped up and down on those keys with relative ease.  I also seemed to intuitively read music, to feel it, and nobody was more surprised than me.  My absolute favorite activity was playing the songs of the band “Bread,” in my room, and the required half hour bloomed into hours.  Remember Bread?  I had bought their piano sheet music with my own money, and though some of the translation was difficult I honked out “It don’t matter to me,” and “If,” over and over.  (Why such a talented group named themselves Bread is still a mystery to me, but hey, it was the seventies.  Enough said).

By now we had a new band teacher.  His name was Paul Goodman, and he was tall, thin, with lots of curly black hair and a bushy moustache.  He was (and still is) a quiet, humble, unassuming man, with kind of a bumbling professor aura about him.  But one of the things I remember most about Mr. G was his patience.  He rarely lost his temper, and I think even my immature twelve year old self marveled at that.  The bumbling aura didn’t fool me, either.  I was pretty sure the guy was a genius, so in awe was I that he knew enough about every instrument to be able to teach kids how to play them.  In particular, kids whose main musical goal in life thus far was to see who could produce the loudest burp or fart.

I don’t know how he corralled the squirrely bunch of us, but he did.  How does one manage to not strangle a big group of stinky, too talkative, completely unskilled seventh and eighth graders?  There were times even I became annoyed if the kids didn’t take his direction seriously, or if they just outright lacked a sense of rhythm.  When you’re seated right next to someone who is forever off beat, it messes with your tempo, so consequently you must squash the urge to stab them with your music stand.  At least, that’s what I wanted to do.  Thankfully he handled all of us with grace, as he would with all the kids that came after.  I went on practicing.

One day Mr. G sent home a flier about tutoring, and I dutifully took it home and didn’t give it another thought.  However my mother, the one least-likely-to-be-involved-in their-kids’- daily life, read it and promptly signed me up.  The next thing I knew I was having private lessons with Ms. Peterek, and she challenged me in all the ways I needed.  I don’t remember how long the lessons went on, but I remember the day Mr. G made an example out of me because of them.  He said, more than vaguely irritated with the whole class, “If you all took this tutoring like Ellen is doing, you’d improve. See how much it’s helped her, how good she is?”  OH MY GOD.  Let me disappear under the tubas right this second, is what I remember feeling, but there was something else too.  Did he just say, how good she is?  Does he mean ME, the kid who couldn’t read an analog clock until a few years ago?

Yes, yes he did, and I can’t describe the perfect storm of embarrassment and pride that filled up in me, but I do know I have never forgotten it.

Later on, Mr. Goodman asked all the band kids to cast a vote, and it was to nominate one of us as “Most outstanding band member of the year.”  We filled out slips of paper, all a-twitter as to who would bring this honor home, and one afternoon he said he had an announcement.  He had tallied the votes.  “I’m not surprised at your decision.  The winner is Ellen.”  Of course everyone clapped, because that’s what we are taught to do, and again I wanted to dive headfirst somewhere, because this was an imposter he was talking about.  The girl I knew didn’t get awards, except one for Presidential fitness, and even that one was questionable.  I suppose the fact it was a peer-given accolade made it seem more authentic, but I knew they voted for me because of him, because he had genuinely praised my ability time and again.

It’s not an exaggeration to say it was the first and last time it would ever happen in school, and that, too, I have never forgotten.

The certificate did get framed with a few track ribbons, and I hate to report that with all the paraphernalia of childhood it got misplaced somewhere along the line. Along with the feeling I was misplaced.  The following year, ninth grade, Mr. Goodman was gone, and with him my enthusiasm for band.  At this time students “auditioned” and were separated into two categories: concert or symphonic band.  I didn’t understand what this meant, until I found myself as one, if not the only one, of the freshman in the symphonic section.  All of my clarinet friends were placed in the concert band with a different teacher and in another room.  And this was so not fun.  Not to mention, I had no connection with the new instructor.  Mr. Maynard yelled, and unlike his predecessor he did have a temper, waving his arms maniacally and appearing permanently red-faced.

The dealbreaker for me was the fateful day he gave out random “playing tests” to the clarinets in my row.  We were now sitting according to ability; first row, first seat meant you were the head honcho, but anyone could be unseated by these tests.  Now, I don’t know if they still make students do this, but it can be a humiliating experience.  If you screw up, everyone is a witness to your incompetence, and that’s hard enough.  But add in the fact if you have your chair publicly taken over by someone who has outperformed you, AND they are a useless freshman, well…suffice it to say life in band deteriorated rapidly for me from that moment on.  I  was moved up a whole row that day.  I still remember my face engulfed in flames as I passed chair after chair, and the looks thrown my way.  So instead of being glad I was mortified.  I didn’t even feel the changes were due to my superior skills; I simply put myself in “the zone”, didn’t get nervous, and remembered what a special teacher had taught me.  Little did I know not everyone could pull this off so effortlessly.

I began to dread 6th hour after that; the whispering and gossip due to my new stature got the better of me.  My friends quit, and that year (to my parents’ great disappointment), so did I.  I dropped out of band because I wasn’t strong enough to face the petty jealousy of others, I loathed standing out, and it pains me to think about the what ifs.  What if Mr. G had never left?  With his support would I have found the fortitude to suck it up and go on to be a music therapist, something I’ve dreamed about?  Truly, I think the same scenario still could’ve occurred, of course, as the power of peers trumped all else at that time.  I’ll never know, and I don’t blame him for anything at all.  I just missed him.  I missed having someone who believed in me.

Fast forward much later to my own boys, enrolled in the same high school I’d been in.  At some point Mr. Goodman had come back to the district, this time as a guidance counselor, and I was delighted.  He worked his magic there, too, enrolling our older son into advanced placement classes and turning him onto an obscure college that specialized in music (in my son’s case, guitar).  He went to bat for our younger one over and over to make sure he got what he needed to graduate, a Herculean feat in itself.

What I’ve shared here is only a fraction of the many lives Paul has impacted.  In his guidance counselor role, he went way above and beyond scheduling ACT sessions.  For thirty plus years, he was a man who made sure pregnant teens could do work from home and take tests; who appeared at truant teens’ homes, banging on the door to get them to school, who knew about their life challenges and cared enough to see kids through them, who logged the extra mile and then some.  He even donated the money he made playing in a local orchestra to kids’ scholarship funds.  He showed up and showed faith, over and over, whether you were a failing drugged- out mess or the class valedictorian, and that’s what has made him so beloved.  It’s why every student invites him to their graduation parties, why every student speech includes gratefulness to him, and why he’s never forgotten by any of them.

When I heard that Paul was retiring this year, I thought about all the ripples of his service, the generations of families who experienced his kind and encouraging help.  For truly, that’s what I see him as: a servant to the needs of students, doing the work of God.  It’s what I aspired to when I was working, as well.  And what I try to do in my writing now.

So I wanted to tell my story, tiny among hundreds, for a couple of reasons.  One is that I feel we all need to call attention to goodness, wherever it is, but especially in regard to educators.  Looking back there was probably very good reasons we went through 3 band teachers in the time I recall.  (Mr. Maynard left, too).  Working well with children is a gift, and I was so happy to discover Paul hadn’t left permanently.  Whether it was molding budding musicians or securing student scholarships, he is the epitome of what caring, heart-full teaching is all about.  And the other reason I wanted to write this, was to say thank you to him.  Thank you for seeing a spark of talent in an insecure young girl all those years ago.  I know I speak for many when I say thank you for devoting your life to kids, and for all the things you did, unseen and unacknowledged.  May you know the world is a better place because of you.

Paul, you will be missed, but since I’ve seen you at Greenbush we know where to find each other.  Here’s to a new, well-deserved chapter in your life!  And friends who are reading this, may you or your family be blessed with a “leader of the band” like Paul Goodman.  Cheers to you all!