Friday, June 21, 2013

Music Man

I was in the high school bands (marching and concert) for longer than I was technically in high school, since the music department tended to recruit instrument-playing eighth graders before they finished middle school, at the very least to induce them to come to band camp in August and be ready to march and play as of the very first football game pep rally the first week of the school year. Over the course of four years I had three different band teachers, one for the first two years and two more for a year apiece. The band teacher my senior year was a decent enough guy, and a really amazing musician, but what dominates my memories of him is the really strange dynamic that developed over the course of the year between him and the students, particularly me and my fellow seniors. Not only were we as naturally cocky as you would expect seventeen and eighteen year olds to be, but we legitimately did know more about how the school and the town operated than this well-intentioned newcomer, and we were not the least bit shy about flaunting that. It wasn’t that we didn’t like the teacher, we just found the power imbalance irresistible to mess around with, and as I said, in retrospect it just seems weirdly off.

Now, the teacher my junior year, on the other hand, I couldn’t stand, and I wasn’t alone in that opinion, either. He was insufferably pretentious and rubbed me every which wrong way. But no small factor in getting us off on the wrong foot was the fact that he was replacing my original high school band teacher, Lester, whom I absolutely loved.

Lester was not his real name, but it was an affectionate nickname that had already been bestowed on him by the time I got there (his first year teaching was my eighth grade year). Band (the marching band in particular) was really its own little subculture in my high school and the regular rules of the system were generally suspended, so being on a quasi-first name basis with an authority figure was just the way things went. I’m realizing now that today I am probably older than Lester was when I knew him, but of course at the time he was a grown-up, just a little younger than my parents, and I was a kid. But being in band with Lester as the director felt more like collaboration than anything else, and we all put in tons of extra time nights and weekends and whenever we could, so it felt like we were almost equals. Or possibly that Lester was a very cool uncle, although he generally acted like a big kid. He was funny and irreverent, didn’t take too many things too seriously, he liked the same kinds of music as me and my peers (and the same kinds of movies, too). He was definitely a touch on the dorky side, but so is just about everyone in high school band, so within that specific spectrum he was definitely on the cool end.

And as a marching band director specifically, he was fantastic. He arranged all the music we played himself, specifically addressing the strengths and weaknesses of our particular group of young instrumentalists, while also giving everything some kind of jazz or rock-inflected upgrade. One year the theme of our halftime show was sports and included the Wide World of Sports fanfare, a Beach Boys medley for surfing, and Take Me Out to the Ballgame (with an added motif from Here Come the Yankees - did I mention Lester was also a Yankees fan?); the next year the theme was The Beatles and riffed on Sgt. pepper’s and Yellow Submarine. At the last football game of each season, which was played on Thanksgiving, we would add some bonus Christmas content which we called “Funky Santa” (a backbeat-heavy version of Santa Claus Is Comin To Town featuring the horn line as dancing elves). Lester let us have a lot of fun but also made us sound really good.

So of course, it couldn’t last. In one of those incredibly petty small town power plays that arise every day, Lester’s contract with the high school was not renewed after his third year, primarily because he was becoming romantically involved with the divorced mother of one of the students in the band. Not that the community at large thought this was scandalously inappropriate or anything, but that student’s father, the ex-husband, was on the school board, and so he made sure the band director got canned to spite his ex-wife and her new boyfriend. Seriously.

It’s possible that Lester saw the writing on the wall well ahead of time, and his good-natured, easy-going spirit allowed him to take it in stride, and for that matter to enjoy a certain amount of freedom knowing that his fate was sealed no matter what. I can remember one weekend my sophomore year doing something band-related and then hanging around long after the official activity was over, something which happened pretty regularly. My high school girlfriend and I had met through marching band and we would often delay leaving any given rehearsal or whatnot just to spend time together. So this one time we were following that script and Lester and the mom he was dating (who was there volunteering as a color guard instructor) asked me and my girlfriend if we wanted to go grab a bite to eat. And they took us to a local bar, which I suppose was technically a bar and grill since they didn’t object to two 15 year olds coming through the door on a Saturday afternoon, but as far as I was concerned at that young and innocent age it was mainly a bar. Lester and my girlfriend ended up talking a lot of trash to each other about baseball. Raised in L.A., she was a genuine Dodgers fan, and this was 1989 or 1990, which meant not only had the Dodgers won the World Series only a year or so before, but the time they won before that, beating the Yankees in 1981, was the last time the Yankees had even made it to the World Series at all. Dark days in the Bronx, those ‘80’s, and a time I’m ashamed to admit my own Yankees fandom was at a low ebb, so I didn’t comment on the conversation much. Mostly, though, I was just in awe of the fact that I was in a bar, and kind of on a double date, with a couple of adults who I thought were pretty cool. It made me a feel a little grown up, but even more importantly for the way I thought at the time, it gave that relationship between me and my girlfriend some legitimacy, which I was forever and always desperately craving. (And rarely getting, and rightly so, because we were just a couple of dumb kids who were really way too serious about each other for our age and respective life experiences, but so went that chapter of my life.)

In hindsight, being a high school teacher and spontaneously taking a couple of high school kids out to a bar (I’m positive Lester didn’t buy us drinks or anything, but I’m also pretty sure he had a beer or two himself) seems absolutely insane to me, the kind of thing parents would run a body out of town on a rail for today. But I know Lester’s heart was in the right place, and it had nothing to do with giving his blessing to a couple of teenagers making moon eyes at each other. My high school girlfriend never knew her father, and was raised by a single mom who was not exactly the most stable provider or healthiest influence imaginable. I think Lester took being a positive male role model for her fairly seriously, somewhere deep down under the jokes and the Tommy Lasorda insults. He didn’t want to adopt her or anything, but he wasn’t averse to demonstrating from time to time that she wasn’t completely alone in a world where no adult gave a crap about her. After all, what were they going to do, fire him from teaching for being too nice?

OK, so we live in a world where that actually can happen to anyone (and did happen to Lester). So far I haven’t really run into any situations in my adult life where I’ve crossed someone more powerful than me and had to choose between my personal and professional success, following my heart or falling in line. And now that I have a wife and three kids to provide for (none of which applied to Lester) I’d almost certainly choose whatever kept a roof over our heads. Still, at least I would know I had a choice, and rather than unthinkingly capitulating I’d have to force myself to really reckon with what I was doing. Of all the lessons I took out of adolescence, that one’s probably worth holding on to.

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