Sunday, January 20, 2013

A little Flash Fiction (maybe not fiction) A little humor and a little pain.

How the Fourth Grade Changed My Life

Last week during my Spanish Class, I realized I was unwillingly, re-living a life changing experience from the Fourth Grade.

That’s right.  1954.  I was eight years old and there were lots of changes in my life that year. 

It was the first time I ever left my home state, Connecticut. 

My first trip on an airplane.  We flew to Florida for vacation. 

I had my tonsils out, my first stay in a hospital.

You remember eight.  The Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny were fading memories, just like Santa Claus.  The world was opening up. Everything was changing.

Oh, and, then there was the thing that changed everything for me. Yeah, it was a thing.  The Accordion. 

My little town was growing and the baby boomer children were straining the local school district’s capacity.  Building new schools took time, so some of us were transferred to a neighboring town, Oakville, for one year while our new school was constructed. 

Fourth Grade.  New kids, new principal and a new teacher, Mrs. Strockbine.

Nancy Strockbine was a pleasant middle aged lady who defined the word frumpy.  Her standard dress looked like a lumpy tent with some lace on it.  Her hair was always pulled back in a bun so tight it looked like when she smiled, her skin might tear.  She was nice lady who maintained order with the threat of the Principal’s office where we all knew, the STRAP was kept.  I never actually knew anyone who got the strap, but we were all sure it was there behind the principal’s desk and we all knew it could be used on us if we did something bad enough to warrant a trip to the OFFICE.

I started having trouble with math in the Fourth Grade.  We had moved on from addition and subtraction to fractions and it got so bad that one day my mother got a phone call summoning her to a dreaded, parent/teacher conference.  It wasn’t my fault, fractions and I did not get along.  I was having a hard time with the whole concept and my mother had to make an appointment to meet with Mrs. Strockbine.  At the conclusion of the meeting, my mother promised her she would take charge and see to it my grades in math would improve.  After that I vowed I needed to do something to make my Mom proud of me to offset the shame of  her having to come to see my teacher.

That year, part of the school day was devoted to Music.  For me anything was better than math, or so I thought.  We got to listen to records and sing and it seemed things were okay for a while.  I could not sing a note but that was okay, I just moved my mouth and kept quiet.  Then came the announcement we would all get the chance to learn to play a musical instrument.

  On my first trip to where the instruments were kept, I saw immediately spotted three Accordions in the corner.  Passing up the clarinets, the trumpets the violins and the Tuba, I headed straight to where they were.  They were shiny and cool.  We were made for each other, or so I thought and there was mine, waiting for me in its own genuine simulated leather case lined with blue velvet.  There had been an old player piano in our back kitchen that my sister taught me to play chopsticks on when I was five, so I figured if it had a keyboard, I could learn to play it.

Up until a week or so ago, I have for the most part, successfully suppressed that memory as well as the ones from the weeks that followed, but Spanish Class here in Cuenca has caused it to come flooding back. 

You know Spanish, purportedly the easiest of the Romance languages and the first real challenge I have been faced with since moving to Ecuador.  Our teacher is a certified language expert.  She is a patient, intelligent Cuencana who works very hard to teach me something, actually she works very hard to teach me anything, about her native language.  At first I figured if she could learn English, I should be able to learn Spanish.   I’m not stupid.  At least until now, I didn’t think so.

I actually believed I was making progress with the program until we got to Reflexive Verbs.  It was that day in our Spanish Class that Fourth Grade and the challenge of learning to read and play music came rushing back to haunt me.

Oh yes I remember the DAY.  A dreary, rainy, Thursday.  It was the day I picked up my Accordion so I could take it home to practice.  I should have sensed right then I was doomed, but I was just a kid, what did I know? I wasn’t into omens and Karma yet.

I remember thinking,  “…playing the accordion would be easy, a piece of cake”. Then slowly, I realized you had to learn to read music in order to actually play the damn thing.  You had to identify notes and translate that into pushing the right key on the Accordion. 

Okay, I can do this I said to myself, only I couldn’t.  It didn’t help that I was tone deaf and have no rhythm either.

I remember the shiny white keys with the black ones in between.  I remember taking it out of the case and trying it out. I expanded the bellows and it groaned.  That should have told me something.  Then I noticed all the other stuff on it like the bass buttons on the other side of the bellows and the treble switches and so on.   I gave it a shot anyway and I found I could really make nice sounds, I just couldn’t make real music. A lot like Spanish, I can’t make real conversation.

So there I was.  My mother was so proud of me. She was convinced I would soon be belting tune after tune of her favorite dancing music, The Polka.  That’s right, her son would soon be entertaining everyone who came to visit with “Roll out the Barrel” and displaying his prowess with the Accordion.

My father on the other hand was not so sure about my abilities or the Polkas, but he signed on and coughed up the money for the rental and music lessons.

Every Tuesday and Thursday Mrs. Strockbine would send me down the hall to the music room promptly at 2:00pm so I could take my music lesson for one hour, before I had to get on the bus and go home.  You may not believe it, but try as I can’t remember anything about the lady who actually conducted the lessons, Nothing.  I can’t recall a thing about her, not her name, what she looked like, not a thing.  I wish I could have been as successful about blocking the rest of it out.

To begin with it seemed pretty easy.  I could play the scales and pick out some chords.  Kinda like Spanish.   A word here and there and you are speaking the language… Right?  Well NOT really!

I guess when I was eight it was my time to begin to see there were things in life I could not do.  Oh, there had been hints.  One day after watching the latest installment of Superman on TV, I decided the only thing keeping me from really being able to fly like Superman was my lack of a cape for takeoff.  So I climbed to the second floor of one of our barns and jumped out the door with one of my mother’s best bath towels using a safety pin to hold it around my neck.  Well, that day I proved to myself I could not fly, with or without a cape.  That failed flight resulted in a badly sprained ankle not to mention crushed pride.  The cape, (towel) and the takeoff failed, but I did not fail to piss my mother off.  Unlike that harmless fun, failing to learn to play music was a real disappointment to the important people in my life, my mother and father, not to mention me wanting to kill my sister who by then was laughing at me every time I tried to play the thing.

There it was.  I had hit my first wall in my life and I didn’t know how to deal with it.  I was embarrassed to discover there was something in the world I could not do.  Since then, there have been other things I have found beyond my abilities, like landing a plane on an aircraft carrier, but I thought I had learned to deal with stuff like that.  I was wrong. 

So, regarding learning Spanish, I am realizing the wisdom of the cartoon, character Pogo, uttered the famous line,” We have met the enemy and he is us.”