I came back to life at band camp. Whoever I was before that had been ripped apart a piece at a time over a very long year. 8th grade played out the same story over and over with tiny variations, the way a theme modulates through a piece of classical music, a melody repeated in different keys. The story was losing friends, one after another; until, by the start of summer vacation, I had none. My life as it was ended with the close of junior high.
My new life started two weeks before high school. Joining high school marching band is like suddenly finding yourself in the middle of a social research experiment. Before high school, you’re rarely with people outside your own grade. Band shoves everyone together into a room, seats freshmen next to seniors, teams honors students with kids just getting by, and expects them all to get along. To be certain they bond, it drags everyone into school two weeks early and stands them under the hot, August sun and shouts that they’re coming in two beats soon and do they want to be out here all day?
As a tenor saxophone player, I was found myself in the back of the formation with the other lower woodwinds: bassoonists, bass clarinetists, and the one and only baritone sax. Most were older than me. None of them knew me. None of them knew my life had fallen apart six months ago. We all had something in common. We were musicians. Bad musicians. Lazy musicians. But musicians nonetheless.
Also, we all felt like losers standing out in the sun, playing horn arrangements of 70’s rock classics.
For two weeks, I was okay. I could talk to people without searching their eyes for what they really thought about me. I had an identity. I had a me. I was part of band. I was a lower woodwind. When the first day of high school came, the people shouting, “Nipple!” in the hallway were still waiting for me. The friends who’d cut me loose – lest I drag them down into loser hell with me – still wouldn’t meet my eyes. I still had to find the lunch table full of other loner rejects so I wouldn’t have to sit alone. None of that had changed. I had. Just a little. A tiny bit. For a period a day, and every Friday night, I could play the bass line of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and be part of something that wanted me around.
If I’d had to start high school as I was, I don’t know if I’d have made it. No friends, no confidence to make friends, shame so intense that I even stopped taking the bus to and from school out of fear of facing the people who knew how to hurt me. Walking through the doors of a new school without a place that was safe might have finally been too much. I’d retreated to the edge of a cliff. Maybe I wouldn’t have had the strength not to take that last step back if things had gotten worse. I’ll never know, and I don’t really want to.
Things would fall apart again. They always do. They never fell apart as completely, though, because they were never able to strip me of myself. Not completely. Being a lower woodwind gave me somewhere to stand while I figured me out. When I left band at the start of senior year, it wasn’t because I’d been chased out, but because music had led me to something else. Something I loved even more.
I’m no longer a part of band, but band will always be a part of me. Two weeks in the sun with a tenor sax brought me back to life when I had nothing else left. I’m a writer now, not a musician, but I’ll always be a lower woodwind.