In this back-to-school season I’ve been remembering my freshman year of college. It’s not a delightful reverie of my lost youth, although my youth has certainly been lost. It’s more of a painful backward glance.
For starters, I couldn’t decide between majoring in music (with piano as my primary instrument) or nursing. To keep my options open, I registered for both music theory and nursing prerequisites, plus freshman English and a math class. Not so bad, right? But I also had to start fulfilling music major requirements. So I added private piano lessons, choir, concert band, and marching band. I would never have chosen marching band, but it was an extension of concert band. In other words, they forced me to march.
My days, evenings, and weekends were filled to the brim. There
was hardly time to sleep. Daily piano practice, choir every day at noon (lunch was from a brown bag, eaten on the run), concert band rehearsals plus marching band rehearsals, homework, scary chemistry labs, and adjusting to being away from home – what a mountain to climb.
After two weeks or so of chemistry, I could feel myself being weeded out of the nursing program. Nothing I heard in lectures, read in my textbook, or did in chem lab made any sense to me. I somehow made it through with a passing grade, a gift, I believe, from the professor, so he’d never have to see me again.
My other nemesis was marching band. It didn’t take as much brain power as chemistry. I just despised the whole thing. Wait! you may be thinking. Playing music in the great outdoors, making pretty patterns on the field for football fans to enjoy. What fun!
Oh yeah. Marching in the rain while my flute pads swelled to twice their size, like pregnant ankles. Drills on the football field five days a week, right before supper when I was ravenously hungry, while the drum major yelled at us through a bullhorn. Also I had a plantar wart on the bottom of my foot, and I was perpetually in pain.
But the absolute worst thing about marching band was that I actually had to attend football games. I couldn’t leave after halftime, because the marching band was also the pep band. And so I endured the endless, boring spectacle of men in helmets running five feet, crashing into each other, whistles blowing, and then more running and crashing as they made their way slowly down the field. What an excruciating waste of my time and my weekends. I could have been studying. Or practicing.
Dorm life was no haven. I lived on the fifth floor of the freshman dorm, with an elevator so slow that it was faster to run up five flights of stairs, even with two armloads of books and music. I hardly got to know my roommate. Not being a music person, she had a lot of free time on her hands, while I was mostly running out the door to rehearsals, concerts and recitals, or buried in books at my desk. I’m pretty sure she thought I was crazy.
In a macabre twist, my dorm window overlooked a cemetery. A most discouraging sight as I slogged through that first year, overloaded, exhausted, wondering where I fit into the universe, or if I would even live to May. I joked that the cemetery next door was reserved for freshmen who didn’t make it. But deep down I thought it might be true, and there was already a tombstone there with my name on it. All it needed was the final date. At the height of this ordeal I had a nightmare where I watched myself standing next to a piano, opening my mouth and screaming.
And then it was glorious summer, and I’d somehow survived. It was back to the farm for me, helping my mom with the cooking and cleaning for our family of eight. I was thrilled. When the summer waned, although I’d already registered for classes, I said, “I’m not going back.” I couldn’t face another three years of what I’d just experienced. But my parents, with whom I’d not shared my angst, said, “Of course you’re going back. What on earth would you do at home?” They packed me up and took me back to college.
Year two, other than marching band, was a vast improvement. I left all thoughts of nursing behind, and focused on music. I made good friends. I found my place. I lived in a different dorm, away from the cemetery.
My first year of college taught me that perseverance is at least half of success. A good outcome can come from a bad beginning. The second year taught me that I am not powerless. In the summer before my junior year I sold my flute and bought a guitar, thus ending the misery that was marching band.
Because there are no guitars in marching band. Hallelujah!