Come on, Josh,” Mom urged one day. “It won’t kill you if you join band.”
“Yes, it will,” I retorted.
“I’ll take away your video games,” Mom threatened.
“OK, fine!” I finally gave in after weeks of argument. “I’m sure the way to fit in at my new school is to be a band geek, so that’s exactly what I’ll be. Then you’ll be happy.”
“Josh, we both know that’s not what this is about,” Mom said sharply.
I grabbed my comic book from the table, ran to my room, and slammed the door behind me. I jumped onto my bed and crossed my legs. Angrily, I flipped the pages, sighing and shaking my head. Mom never got me. Not since I turned ten, not since we moved, not since I joined fifth grade, and especially not since Dad died.
I lay there for a while, staring miserably at a small chip in the ceiling. Then I heard Mom call, “Josh, time for dinner!” Glancing at my watch, I realized an hour had passed. I threw my comic book off my stomach and ran to the kitchen. Mom was listening to those jazz recordings, like always, though she turned them off quickly when I entered the room.
Another hour passed, and Mom and I had finished dinner without speaking one word to each other. I went back to my room and resumed my position on the bed, until the chip in the ceiling started getting blurry. My eyelids got heavy.
“Good night, Mom,” I murmured. I fell asleep in my clothes but woke up when I heard Mom shuffling into my room. I closed my eyes again and pretended to be asleep. Mom ruffled my hair and kissed my forehead. It was just as well she was acting so affectionate. By tomorrow, I’d be a band geek. By tomorrow, she would have ruined my life.
The next day, a teacher I had never seen before sauntered into my classroom, so tall he had to duck through the doorway to get in. He had gelled-back brown hair, brown eyes, and a huge smile, one that lit up the whole room. His smile almost made me smile. But then that grinning, very tall man introduced himself.
“Hi, everyone. I’m Mr. Huffington, the band teacher.”
Mr. Huffington talked excitedly for forty-five minutes straight, hardly taking a breath, about how awesome it was to be in band. The strange thing was, hearing and watching him, I started feeling like maybe being around a guy like that would almost make being a band geek worthwhile in the end.
* * *
Five months had passed since I joined band with Mr. Huffington. I was OK with going early every Wednesday morning for practice. I was OK with lugging my trumpet case up and down the stairs every Friday for trumpet lessons. I wasn’t crazy about it all, but it was OK. I wasn’t suffering or anything, at least not the way I do in math.
But I wasn’t very good at the trumpet. I was trying hard but just wasn’t getting the feel for it. The band was scheduled to play at the fifth-grade graduation in June. I’d told everybody I was going to play, and now I couldn’t just drop out, but I wouldn’t be allowed to play unless I got better. So I tried even harder. And absolutely nothing happened.
“Come on, Josh,” Mr. Huffington said encouragingly one particularly frustrating Friday afternoon. “Curl in your lips. Let your air take over.”
I took a deep breath and let the air flow through my curled lips. To my surprise, I hit a pretty high note.
“Awesome!” Mr. Huffington said, clapping his hands. “That was High C. Just try to aim a little lower, for G.”
“OK,” I said, suddenly feeling more confident. I aimed lower and got G.
“Good!” exclaimed Mr. Huffington. “You’ll be playing like a pro in no time.”
“How long is no time?” I asked. “Because I have to play at graduation. Do you think I’ll be able to?”
“Probably,” Mr. Huffington said, “if you practice a little more.”
“Hmm…” It was true I hadn’t practiced much, even when I’d wanted to practice. Often I’d pull out my rusty rental trumpet, but instead of hearing my notes flying out of it, right away I’d start to hear the notes from those recordings. My heart would get tight, my eyes would start to sting, and I’d quickly tuck the trumpet away.
But if I practiced, would I ever sound like the recordings? Would I ever be that good? Was it worth it to even try?
“OK,” I said doubtfully. “I’ll try to practice a little more.”
“Great,” Mr. Huffington said. Then the period was over, so the half of the trumpets I practiced with on Fridays all packed up their stuff. The next half came streaming in through the door. I liked it better on Wednesday mornings, when all the trumpets played in unison. No—I liked it on Wednesday mornings, when the entire band played in unison.
This March was a crisp one, not so cold as to have winter gear muffling your voice, but not too hot, where you sweat like a waterfall. It was a mellow March. The flowers were getting planted, to grow in May, and we weren’t getting too much rain—that was April’s job.
I had forgotten to practice during the week, so I practiced extra the Tuesday before band. Mr. Huffington took special interest in me the next day—how I kept missing notes, struggling with my air, and how my elbows were jabbing my own ribs. How tense I was. How sweat trickled down my forehead. He took special interest in me this time—the time I was failing at the trumpet, more miserably than I ever had. He just looked. He listened. He didn’t speak.
At lunch, I ate fast, threw out the white foam tray, and tapped the table and bounced my knee while waiting for lunch to be over. We weren’t going outside, because there was still some ice on the ground from a recent storm, and people could slip. We were going to stay inside, playing games like Hangman, Clue, Sorry, and Candy Land. I liked indoor days. It helped the fifth-grade bond.
Suddenly, I saw Mr. Huffington walk in. People chirruped, “Hi, Mr. Huffington!” What was he doing here? I didn’t have band now! Nobody did.
“Could I borrow Josh Brown?” asked Mr. Huffington. The lunch aide nodded toward me. Mr. Huffington took me outside, where I zipped up my jacket and avoided patches of ice.
Mr. Huffington got right to the point.
“What’s the deal, Josh?”
“Why don’t you try, Josh?”
I sighed. “Well, I’m trying a little more now. But I don’t want to be in band.”
“Why?” Mr. Huffington asked directly.
“I’m not sure if I should tell you,” I replied uncomfortably. I started to feel my heart get tight, just like it always did when I thought of what happened.
“It’s fine. You can trust me.”
“OK.” I took a deep breath. “My dad… he was a jazz musician.”
Mr. Huffington nodded. He could tell where my story was going.
“But he… he…”
My voice cracked. Tears flew down my cheeks. Mr. Huffington put his strong arm around my shoulder and held me. I smelled his good cologne. I felt his soft sweater. I felt his sympathy.
“It’s OK,” Mr. Huffington said. “Music flows through the world, helping us cope with hard situations life throws our way.”
I nodded, wiping my tears off my face. “I don’t feel like I can do this.”
“You can,” Mr. Huffington assured me. His voice persuaded me.
* * *
The whole fifth grade was dressed in black and white. I was going to play a few songs with the rest of the band when the fifth grade came in. After the graduation ceremony was over, we’d play as they walked off. Then we’d take some bows on the stage and leave. The plan was simple. Everybody was ready. I just hoped I could do it, just like Mr. Huffington had told me three months ago.
“Hello,” said Mr. Huffington. This year, he was leading the graduation ceremony. I looked up at him, hearing his smooth-talking voice. Seeing his grinning face. Everybody listened. Everybody looked. Nobody could just ignore Mr. Huffington. He was special. He was very special.
“Thank you all for coming out here today. We are here to watch an amazing fifth-grade class graduate.” Everybody clapped. “Now welcome the class!”
I took a very deep breath, flipping to the right page in my music book. Mr. Huffington winked at me. I smiled. Just a tiny smile, not like the ones Mr. Huffington smiled. I started playing at the same time the rest of the band did. We played in perfect unison, thanks to Mr. Huffington’s conducting.
When we were done, the whole fifth grade was on stage. Then the band jumped onto the stage to join them. We said the Pledge of Allegiance. We sang “O Say Can You See.” Then Mr. Huffington started handing out awards, beginning with academics. The technology award went to Seth Lee, one of the smartest kids in fifth grade. The art award went to Sienna Johnson, a very shy girl, who nearly chickened out of getting her award just because she was afraid to look at the big crowd. The athletics award went to Kevin Peterson. The music award to Judy Madeline. The orchestra award to Evan Rodgers. Finally, it was time for the last award: the band award.
“And the band award goes to…” Mr. Huffington opened an envelope, holding us in suspense, just like they do on the Oscars “…Josh Brown!”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I won the band award? Three months ago, I could barely play, and Mr. Huffington was telling me to practice! For a minute I sat frozen on the stage bleachers. Then I stood up and walked to Mr. Huffington as if I was totally calm, which I wasn’t.
“Thanks, Mr. H,” I whispered. We hugged. I nearly cried in front of that whole audience. I saw Mom, blowing her nose into a tissue. I waved at her, grinning as much as Mr. Huffington did, holding up my award. She took my picture. Then I walked back to the bleachers.
“It’s been amazing watching these kids grow up and develop,” Mr. Huffington said. It was his turn to sniffle a bit. “I can’t believe they’re already leaving.” The entire audience burst out crying. Parents get very sentimental around stuff like fifth grade graduations. The whole fifth grade hugged each other. Suddenly, I walked back up to the microphone.
“Let’s hear it for Mr. Huffington, the coolest teacher on the planet!” I yelled. Everybody clapped and hooted, including the whole fifth grade. Then the band jumped down and prepared to play the
rest of the fifth grade out. Mr. Huffington conducted us as we did.
“Good job, guys,” Mr. Huffington told us at the after-party. We all wrapped our arms around each other. It was our last day. Finally, everybody left except for me.
“Thank you, Mr. Huffington,” I whispered. We hugged again. I felt him crying on my white collared shirt, and he probably felt my tears soaking his. I ran away, because it was too sad to say goodbye to that man. He was too great. It was too sad.
* * *
School was about to start up again. This time, I’d be a sixth-grader. This time, I’d be older, and more experienced. One day, I was spending some time in my living room, where all the photos sat. I saw a picture of Dad, playing his trumpet. I could sort of imagine how he must have felt, because playing trumpet was amazing. I shifted the picture of me holding up my band award closer to his. I felt connected to him, somehow. Connected through the music we would always share.
When school started, I wouldn’t have Mr. Huffington to teach me band, to grow me as a person. But I’d always have Dad, all around me, watching me, telling me I’d done a good job. Dad may have not been at my fifth-grade graduation in person, but he was there in spirit, clapping as I held up my band award. Dad would always be with me, in music. Mr. Huffington taught me that.
Thank you, Mr. Huffington.