One of McDonalds’ random, non-superhero, ‘not-attached-to-some-recent-movie-tie-in-to-help-bolster-advertisement-and-sales’ happy meal toy saved my life.
“Stop!” he shouted, flicking his wild, untamed mane from his face. Before we started middle school, we all had heard of him. He was the band teacher, famous around our neighborhood for being a rude and tough teacher. Many of his students were split into two camps a la Team Edward and Team Jacob. Either you loved and adored him for his ability to push you to learn an instrument and play at a high level or you hated and abhorred him for his consistent bullying, which often manifested itself in his effortless ability to criticize and embarrass you in front of your peers. At the beginning of fifth grade, I was definitely in the latter half, filled with resentment and hurt feelings.
I played the trumpet. I sucked at playing the trumpet. I dreaded band class.
I was a fairly popular student in middle school. At a time when students clamored for the acceptance and approval of teachers, I gained popularity because the teachers ‘liked me.’ I was a strong student academically, but struggled with being loquacious, especially at inopportune times. In band, it was all different; I never said a word in class. More importantly, the teacher hated me. I was convinced. He picked on me non-stop. I could read music well, mostly because I took an academic approach to learning how to do it. Similarly, I learned the fingering of the values well. I could not play the trumpet though. I could not master the pressed lip technique and subsequent spitting/blowing needed to produce the proper notes. The ultimate insult came when he stripped me of the trumpet, and handed me a cornet, a baby trumpet, as he called it. In front of the class, he explained that this move was the last move before he removed me from the class.
One weekend, my mom took my baby brother and I to McDonalds. Inside of my brother’s happy meal was this purple, flat box shaped kazoo-esque toy with a lime green sliding part that manipulated and slightly altered the sound. The mouthpiece for the toy was tiny. To play it, I had to tightly purse my lips. I blew on it a couple of times, which made my baby brother squeal and laugh with excitement. Throughout the weekend, I played with this toy, pretending it was a trombone, sliding that oddly colored green part up and down. I played it for my brother. I played it for my mother. I played it alone. I played it non-stop.
“Trumpet and cornet section, play!” he gruffly screamed. While we played he walked past our row, with his head down, intently listening. When we stopped, he lifted his head and he had a perplexed look on his face. He then asked each of us, one by one to play a line of music from the new song we were learning. I dreaded my turn. This was the same technique that he used to publicly demote me to the cornet. Could this be my last band stand? After I played, he astonishingly complimented me. He told me to try it with one of the trumpets. I thought this was another attempt to embarrass me again because I had previously failed with the trumpet. Once again, he complimented me, impressed with the clarity of my notes. My confidence was slowly being encouraged. I was added to the trumpet section that day as the lowest chair.
Over the next few weeks, I was eventually promoted to the first chair of the fifth grade band. Towards the end of the year, I began to attend the sixth grade band practice in preparation for the end of year show. The lead trumpet for the combined band was skilled at hearing music and then charting it on blank music paper. He showed me how to play the theme song to Power Rangers, a wildly popular show amongst my peers at the time. I wanted to learn how to compose music after spending more time with him. I found myself listening to jazz and orchestra music because that was what my music teacher did. I wanted to emulate both of them. I fell in love with the trumpet so much that I asked and received my own silver trumpet from my grandparents that christmas.
My trumpet is still being played today. I no longer play the trumpet, but my youngest brother now plays it in his seventh grade band. I shared this story with him while we drove home, after I picked him up early from school. When we got out of the car, he cynically asked, “So you really got that much better from that random McDonalds’ toy?”
“Absolutely,” I smiled. “It saved my life.”