Fifth Grade Strings
You don't want to be a violin
"What'll it be?" Mrs. Rosenthal had the voice of a giant muppet.
"Violin...I want to be a violin."
"WHAAT?" Her arms flailed dust around the musty old music room, "You want to be a violin?" My face reddened.
Yes! I wanted to say. Yes! I want to be the violin! I want to be shiny and pretty and high-pitched and held up. I wanted to be Marcy. Marcy was all light and spring-smelling and baby-pink. Marcy was a violin; a first-chair of life, held up high by the fifth grade. One subtle nod from her and the whole world started playing. Maybe if I played the violin I would be important, too; not all lank and gawk and gap and grease like I felt around the other girls.
"I want to play the violin," I corrected myself, pleading with the empty chairs for a sign of empathy.
"You don't wanna be a violin," she said flatly. "There are too many, anyway. Everyone wants the violin. You don't want to be like everyone else, do you?" Was she kidding?
She bent over staring through me with her googily-eyes rolling around behind oversized goggles that seemed to float in front of her face. I tried not to make eye contact. I knew she was trying to find something else that would fit. Good luck, I thought.
"I got it!" She announced.
"Well, I really was thinking that the vio…" She was already waddling off to the instrument storage closet before I could plead my case.
Standing alone in that old room I could hear no sound of the sweet pitch that was supposed to be girlhood; recorders, flutes, violins. There was only the hollow banging and bumping from whatever Mrs. Rosenthal was trying to pry out of the closet. A few moments later she appeared.
"Ta Da!" she beamed, filling the doorway with her roundness. "Now this is you!" She held in her hand a violin the same size and mass as she. She barreled over to give me a closer look.
"What is it?" I knew I sounded stupid.
"It's a cello!" She must have noticed my cluelessness. "You've never seen a cello? You'll love it! It's perfect!"
There was no time to respond as she yapped on and dragged a stool behind my knobby knees. At least she didn't seem to notice the fact that I had to raise the seat to accommodate my height. Or maybe she was just being polite and didn't want to draw attention to it.
Sounding less like a muppet, Mrs. Rosenthal faced me and held my chin in her hand, even though she was barely taller than me. "Honey, You don't want to be a violin, not really, do you?" She was trying to find a way in, but I wasn't budging. "You have to hold the violin under your chin and tilt your head and hold your arms up for a long time. Blah! It's awkward!"
Awkward? What could be more awkward than lugging that hulking thing around? Marcy never looked awkward carrying around her violin. She always had it with her. I had never once seen her slouch or bend or even drop the tiniest bead of sweat. She stayed perfectly straight, even when she got on the bus.
Oh, God, the bus! There was no way I was going to haul a cello on the bus. It was bad enough having to face the aisle everyday like I was on some nightmarish runway at a fashion show. I could just hear the buzz of sixty kids looking on as we boarded, making side comments as the judges weighed in on the new boots, the cute hair, the great purse…then, as was almost always the case with me, the new zit. Add a cello to the mix with me clodding and banging into every seat in every row and what do you have? Social suicide. No thanks, I'll stick to the violin.
"Here… sit down." She navigated the cello between my knees and circled around behind me without letting go of the instrument. The top edge of wood rested just below my collar bone. I hadn't seen the kindness coming when she placed the end of a bow in my right hand and cupped her hand over mine as she positioned the fingers of her left hand over the strings. Then, guiding my hand in hers, she slowly moved the bow over the strings and we began to play.
"See?" She whispered and swayed. "You surround yourself around this instrument. You hold it all over you. You feel it all through you. It's comforting."
I felt my back against the warmth of her chest. The cello guarded the front of me like a shield. I could feel the deep sound vibrate through my bones until I couldn't tell if I was playing it, or it was playing me. It gave all my parts a purpose. It was beautiful.
"The violin may be the voice, but the cello? Now, that's the heart." She held me and played a few notes more. I didn't want the spell to be broken. "You don't just play it, you love it." I nodded slowly and she stopped.
Mrs. Rosenthal stood and made her way around to face me as I sat there holding this mysterious instrument. "Oh, yes, this is a great fit!" She was proud of herself for making the match. "What'da think?"
What did I think? I thought of Marcy. I thought maybe she got tired of being held up like a violin all the time. Maybe she wanted to lean on someone like the cello leaned on me. Maybe it would be nice to have a shield sometimes, or to hold something and feel it all the way into your bones. Maybe Marcy never even thought about it at all. Maybe she never had to. I let out deep breath, realizing that I hadn't really been breathing since I first walked in to Mrs. Rosenthal's music room. Choosing an instrument was a big decision for a fifth grader, after all. What did I think? I looked up to meet Mrs. Rosenthal's eyes and said, "I think I'm a cello."