*Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a series—lucky you. Head to the author’s profile to continue reading.
Nothing Will Stop Me (part of a much longer, book length memoir)
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The summer between sixth and seventh grade was when I first got a taste of my personal power to excel when I commit myself to something. When musical instruments were introduced in fourth and fifth grades in elementary school, I must have not been paying attention but by the end of sixth grade I decided that I wanted to learn to play the flute and play with the middle school band. My friends were already playing their instruments for two years and had a huge head start. Somehow my mother convinced the director of the music department and the seventh-grade band director to let me audition for band in early September when the next school year was to begin. I think that they agreed to this but dismissed it, thinking that I’d not flake out and not show up or that I wouldn’t be able to play. But flake out I did not. My parents got me a private flute tutor who came once a week to teach me to play. I took this very seriously and practiced over an hour every single day the whole summer. Lauren taught me everything from basic fingering and reading music to keeping time and two to break down difficult parts of a piece to master them. Lauren wrote a special version of Color My World for me to play and I was thoroughly prepared for my audition.
The day of the audition, my mother drove me to the middle school where I would be attending school as an incoming seventh grader in a few days. The school was huge. So much larger than my elementary school I wondered how I would ever learn my way around. I walked into the band room; all the chairs neatly arranged in rows on the graduated floor. The director shook my hand and I sat down and took out my flute. While I was setting up, he was at his desk rummaging through papers and seemed to be barely paying attention to me. I was very nervous. I had been practicing and knew I was ready, but I hadn’t ever played in front of anyone before. I took a deep breath, held up my flute and began to play. By the time I got a few lines in, the director stopped his paperwork and was paying complete attention to me. He as impressed. He was surprised. He asked me to play some scales and much to his surprise I knew all the scales he asked for. He told me he was very impressed that I could learn all that in two months and that not only was he pleased to offer me membership in the band, but that I was going to be first chair. This meant that not only was I good enough to be in the band, but I was the best flute player in the band. I remained first chair for seventh and eighth grades. I learned that when I want something badly enough and put in the time, there is no stopping me. I will succeed. I will do it.
Seventh grade was a blur. I loved school and changing classes and teachers. There was so much more freedom when we weren’t stuck in the same classroom all day. I had some very great friends and we were inseparable. Melissa and Rachel became the sisters I never had. I was always with one or both of them. School was social. School was full of things I loved – learning, band, friends and boys.
At this point I was starting to be invited to boy/ girl parties. Kids would play Spin the Bottle or Seven Minutes in Heaven. I was too shy to play and did everything I could to avoid playing, even if it meant I would go upstairs to hang out with the kids’ mothers or go looking for the bathroom and never come back. I was terrified to kiss a boy. I was terrified to not kiss a boy.
This was the year of my first crush. Tommy lived close enough that I was able to bike to his house to play basketball with him or video games on his Atari system. We would laugh and talk, although I have no idea what we talked about. He had dreamy dark brown eyes and the sweetest smile I had ever seen. I tried to conform to be the kind of girl I thought he would like, just as my grandmother told me to do. I wanted him to kiss me. I wanted to be his girlfriend and I was taking my grandmother’s advice – like what the boy likes so he sees how much he likes being with you. Hence, the basketball and video games. These were not things that I would have not chosen to spend time doing unless there was a cute boy involved.
When his birthday came around, I baked him a cake and walked the ten or twelve blocks over to his house, balancing the cake on my nervous hands, to give it to him. I was hoping for some sort of hint that he liked me the way I liked him but I when arrived at his house with the cake, our mutual friend Lila was already there with her arms around him. Turns out, he asked her out that afternoon and I had no choice but to give Tommy the cake and eat it with him and Lila. Grandma’s advice put me in the friend zone as one of the guys. Lila was a cheerleader, wore short skirts, was very pretty and feminine. Tommy liked her. Of course, he did. I was very disappointed, but I did I did not let it get to me. What I did decide to do was not to listen to my grandmother’s advice about boys.
It was around this age that I started keeping a journal. I had read about a person who wrote in a journal for most of her life and after years and years of writing she had a huge pile of journal books. I romanticized the notion of personal writing and began in a lovely hard covered book. Now, almost forty years later, I have a large pile of journal books locked in a filing cabinet drawer in my basement. Someday, when I am very old or gone, people will read them and learn that I was once a silly girl with a quirky and romantic sense of the world. They will also learn that I research everything and overthink constantly. When I started writing every day, I learned very quickly is that it is cathartic. I wrote about everything but mostly about the boys who I liked and my parents’ unfortunate marriage. I could figure anything out if I wrote about it. There were even sometimes when I was totally engrossed in the emotionality of what I was writing about that I wasn’t aware of what I was writing. Only after reading it, once I was done writing it, was I able to figure out how I was feeling.
By the time I was in high school, I was still writing in my journals every night before bed but now I was also writing poetry, short stories and drawing as well. This was a way to make sense of my internal life of thoughts and ideas. I think I have always had an active internal dialogue and since I was an only child and I figured out early on that I couldn’t really talk to my parents about much of anything, I resorted to my interior thoughts and writing for solace. Dad was always busy; mom was always stressed. I had to figure out things on my own and journaling gave me a leg up.
I was generally a shy person. I had my close friends and with them I could be my silly self. Like most teenaged girls I was nervous around new people and especially, boys. I felt that being shy was a liability. People didn’t respect shy people. My mother told me stories about how shy she had been (and still was) and all the experiences that being shy kept her from enjoying. I didn’t want that for myself. Certainly, being shy was not going to get me noticed or get me any friends or boyfriends so in ninth grade I decided that I wasn’t going to be shy anymore. It wasn’t working for me. It sounds impossible, right? But that is literally what I did. I just decided to not be shy anymore.
When a situation presented itself where my normal reaction would be to stay quiet, hide in plain sight on the outside of the group, or whatever it was, I forced myself into the center. I forced myself to introduce myself to someone new, or make a joke, or just interject my ideas. If I embarrassed myself or people didn’t like what I said or didn’t laugh at my joke the world would not end. I would not get swallowed up in the earth. Life would continue pretty much as it had before. The first time I put this to the test was during my freshman year of high school. I was in the hallway after school with a group of kids I had recently met, and we were making posters to advertise the school musical production. They were all joking around and laughing. The old me would not have said anything, just would have laughed along with them. The new me decided to jump in the middle of the conversation and joke around with them all. I don’t remember what I said, but they laughed with my joke. They accepted what I said and felt like I belonged. I had tested the waters and felt buoyed by them.
The amazing part of this is that it worked. It really did. Of course, I had self-doubt and second guessed myself, but I still put myself out there. With this newfound freedom from shyness, I decided that I would audition for the high school musical production. I picked a song, Someone to Watch Over Me, the Linda Ronstadt version and learned it thoroughly. I was so nervous as I walked into the chorus room and because of my nerves, I didn’t do a fabulous job, but I made it into the chorus. I was elated.
Staying after school with all my new friends, learning dances and music, blocking and cues was a great way to make new friends, learn new things and keep me out of my house. During musical season, which lasts quite a few months during the winter and early spring of a school year, I was rarely home before 5 or 6pm and that suited me fine. I was able to stay out of my mother’s way and not have to worry that whatever I was doing was going to be up for her judgment or approval. School sanctioned events were perfect ways to get some freedom. Each year, for all four years of high school, I was involved with the musical productions: Bye Bye Birdie, Oklahoma, Hello Dolly, and Oliver. Those were among the best experiences of my young life reinforcing the lessons I had learned along the way.