“Ex-teachers still coming through to me,
tough kids don’t stop trying to kick me to the ground,
I don’t care,
Go on just do what you do to me,
you look so sick when you’re pushing me around
See me, hear me,
Don’t you know you can’t get near me,
you can only hope to hear me on your radio.”
– Joe Jackson, “On Your Radio,” 1979
Maybe it was the naïveté and restlessness of youth, but when Joe Jackson would sing that lyric in 1979, I’d consider it a call to power. In 5th grade, though — a few years prior — with the eyes of the world watching every gesture I made, I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t reproduce something so rote, so much in my wheelhouse; an involuntary movement, like breathing. Yet I always thought I would have that opportunity to make a name for myself, find success, maybe even call them out in a song that bellowed on a radio frequency somewhere in the ether, or in the pages of a book, and prove them all wrong.
But I didn’t yet have that fortitude.
* * * * *
Today’s class is highlighted by a show-and-tell segment and I’m slated as one of the featured showers/tellers. I have chosen to play a classical guitar piece, a bold move considering my limited experience in the genre. Still, it’s an opportunity for me to cement my legacy; I had been routinely voted “most artistic” in year-end class polls due to my drawing abilities, and I also have a reputation as a wildly introverted music geek, so this is a chance to prove my worth. Also, Sister Joanne — our current quirky proctor — always provides a supportive, fun space in which her students can thrive. Usually incongruous with most of her contemporaries, it’s no wonder we’d catch wind of her leaving the convent just years later, shacking up with a mere mortal.
“And now, Allan will play some guitar for us,” she announces. With that, though my heart jumps a little, I proceed to the top of the class with guitar, music stand and tablature in tow, setting up and proclaiming this particular piece is called something-or-other composed by who-knows-who. Though I am the subject of scrutiny by some jealous classmates, I feel comfortable in my virtuosity as I’ve fulfilled my commitment of practicing the obligatory hour-plus per day.
As I make my bid to entertain, I realize that the back of the classroom is filling in with a few older students from other grades. This doesn’t really affect me, though one particular kid catches my attention.
His legacy won’t fully crystallize until two years later, but already Albert is somewhat of a perceived icon at St. John’s, particularly with the girls and especially to those with a bullseye on our backs. Adorned with a heartthrob Mediterranean-sculpted face, impeccably-coiffed feathered hair and bronze suntan even in the winter months, he is one of the most popular kids at school. In passing, he has thrown jeers my way, particularly after I was caught cursing in the schoolyard and was summoned to his classroom for a “trial” to determine how many weeks of detention I’d receive as punishment. I’m convinced this little asshole influenced his fellow classmates to vote for the maximum number of two weeks, which is what I received.
Two years later, when I’m in 7th grade — when Albert has graduated and is attending high school — he will come back with his rock band and perform in our gymnasium. We’ll be ushered downstairs for a “special performance” in the middle of our school day where Albert and his band will play a set of hard rock songs for the school. It is the only time I can recall that my ultra-conservative, God-fearing school did something this cool. Albert would brandish a white Gibson Les Paul — the axe of choice in the 1970’s, played by guitar idols like Jimmy Page and Ace Frehley — and that will leave an impression on me. And though I’ll still harbor resentment toward him, I’ll be in awe of his band’s energy; they’ll be loud, tight and look great. This will be the first time I’ll see a rock band live and up close. It will also serve as my initial awareness of how powerful it is to be a performing musician; Albert and classmate Laura will apparently have something magnetic unfolding before us all. He’ll play exclusively for her and it’ll be the beginning of a torrent love affair between them, planting the seeds of future relationship ideation. Of course, Albert is aware of this, too, and his cocksure stage presence will reflect it. At one point, though, he’ll fix his gaze on me and shoot me an icy, cavalier glare, as if to say, “Remember when…?”
I fucking hate him.
My fingers are nimble traveling across the fretboard, like bees dotting nectar-rich flowers; I am still new at this classical stuff, and don’t particularly enjoy it, but I am urged to study it because “rock is just noise” and it won’t get me anywhere in life. This disdain is exemplified by my guitar teacher’s attempts to whack me on my fingers when I hit a wrong note, claiming that there’s no margin for error, and the subsequent rhetoric about classical music’s rich tradition, that it requires perfection and other superfluous diatribe lost on me because at this point, I tune out.
Still, I’m enjoying the satisfaction that comes with successfully playing something so difficult; chords requiring a hand stretch over 4 frets that change positions with each progression, interpreting these black and white notes, like a secret but universal language among those who can decode it. I feel that I now belong to a sacred society where such skills are revered. And my right hand is plucking away, quick fingers finding their way amidst the 6 nylon strings, long fingernails against thin wires producing a pleasurable plucking sound, giving my playing depth. All of this complexity as my right foot obediently taps the tempo. At this moment, I’m a music-making machine, feeling proud that I’ve been given this gift to share with others. As the last notes of my performance reverberate, I turn to Sister Joanne and she verifies my success with a broad grin. The class applauds and I’m feeling high as fuck going into recess.
As people mill about the classroom, a small group migrates toward the back wall. Classmates are socializing and talking about the entire event, some trading ideas of what to present at future show-and-tells. Reluctantly, I take part in the mingling — typically reticent of group gatherings — but some classmates congratulate me which offset the few critical jabs I receive. All told, I’m feeling proud until I notice Albert standing toward the back door surrounded by a small harem of obedient 8th grade girls. My schoolboy loathe must be evident but ultimately steers me clear of him; I am terrible at defending myself. Of course, he hones in on this conflation of confidence and contempt and proceeds to target me for attack.
“Hey, Day, I bet you can’t even play a C chord,” he snickers. Now, after a performance like the one I gave — complex arrangements and all — a C is considered child’s play, as it were; a simple beginner’s chordal voicing. Along with other first position chords, C was among the first I learned on guitar. And after three years of playing, I knew it by rote, switching formations with grace, fluidity, sure-footedness.
That is, until this moment.
There is a term called herd mentality which suggests that people in a crowd can be influenced by their peers to adopt certain behaviors on a largely emotional, rather than rational, basis. This is particularly concerning and perplexing in cases of bullying; an entire classroom can turn against a fellow student on a dime given this sociological phenomenon, potentially causing a child lasting emotional trauma. Maybe this should have been part of our early curriculum.
Sensing the palpable tension, a crowd is now forming around us, a pack of hungry wolves looking for some fresh meat on which to feast; my response to Albert’s challenge is that flesh. And I felt it, mostly in my gut, the stress sending my breakfast into a spin-cycle. Claustrophobic, a human wall inching toward me and all the expectations thereof.
Now, on paper, this isn’t a big deal; clearly, I know my shit. And it isn’t about proving myself to some fucking bully and the rest of my classmates. Sure, my entire artistic integrity is on the line as well as my reputation. But I didn’t necessarily want to be one of the cool kids; I enjoy being the weirdo of the bunch. It distinguishes me from the beaten path and that would continue throughout my life. It isn’t about that; it’s about something much more fundamental.
It’s about that time in the bathroom, standing naked in front of the full-length mirror mounted on the back of the door, first discovering my body and my sexuality. It’s about my father barging in and catching me with my cock in my hand. About me screaming with embarrassment and slamming the door shut. Hearing him on the other side of the door reporting the details to my mother, their muttered voices clear enough to reveal their shock and disgust. The sex shaming dialogue between them. The self-reproach of coming out of my room later on to join them for dinner and the looks of disgrace on my mother and father’s faces.
It’s about being the subject of an untrue rumor, the type that made me wish I could transfer to a school across town, or in another state, where nobody knows who I am. It’s about the discovery of a concealed class note I had never written and the whispers of schoolmates, not knowing why they were peering, pointing, eyebrows raised, mouths agape, one by one. About the betrayal of a friend in whom I privately revealed a crush on another classmate. About the ensuing game of telephone that turned an innocent secret into an inappropriate desire. Being directed to stand up at my desk as the note was read aloud, the girl’s face flushed with embarrassment — only matched by my own — after discovering the lie that I wanted to see her naked. Our frail bodies in full Catholic uniform regalia shrunk further to the size of the tiny milk cartons we drank from at recess.
It’s about the plausibility of a public humiliation replay.
“Of course I can play a C chord,” I respond. “Anyway, I just finished playing,” and try to casually turn my attention away from Albert. Of course, he wouldn’t let it go.
“Yeah, but I bet you can’t play it right now.”
“I don’t have to just because you said so.”
He turns to his lady enablers in search of validation, sneering.
“See? I told you. He really isn’t that good.”
My classmates are getting restless.
“Come on, Day, just play the chord.”
Every voice inside of me is screaming not to relent to this asshole; that I would do myself a great service standing my ground, setting an example for future targets of bullying. Maybe I could take it further by organizing a protest, attracting the press — Local Boy Makes Good Calling Out Bad — meeting with members of Congress about passing legislation that such crimes should carry a mandatory life-without-parole sentence, spearheading a nonprofit called Bullish on Bullying, become a global hero, memorialized with a plaque in every school and a national park of my choice.
But with the pressure reaching fever pitch, I’m unable to summon the courage.
Against my better judgment, I grab the guitar and take position on the edge of a desk, pressing it to my body, like a vest of armor. I ready myself to play; all I have to do is strum once and this is over. My left hand is in the familiar pattern: x32010, my thumb against the A string, poised to ring at 131Hz for the low C, 165Hz for the E, 196Hz for the G, and so on; each string, when plucked, will produce a different sound frequency, determining the pitch of the note. These are the dynamics of playing guitar, the glory of making music, the cluster of individual notes that are evenly spaced, producing a melodious chord that is soothing to the ear.
By contrast, the sound of disharmonic frequencies — ones that clash — elicits the fight or flight response and the rush of adrenaline; it is the call to alarm. Like those on a chalkboard, the sound of fingernails haphazardly scraping nylon and metal wires creates an atonal dissonance that invokes fear in humans.
Ok, just stroke downward, one string at a time. First, the low C.
Plink, clank and thud are some examples of this dissonance.
Next, the low E.
The collective sound of laughter — human voices resonating at different frequencies — can also trigger discordance, throwing an unsuspecting person into a state of shock.
Now, the open G.
So can the fading sound of heels shuffling against a linoleum floor.
The high C.
Or the shrill of ill-oiled hinges bolted on a solid composite door lumbering closed.
Finally, the high E.
Or the murmur of children’s voices forming discontent that gradually vanish into the cold cinder block walls of a 5th grade classroom.