Mondays are usually not my best day, first day of the work week and all, but this past Monday was particularly upsetting. I logged into my Facebook account on my lunch hour and had a message from an old friend from my high school days. It was a group message and it was about a teacher that we all shared. He is being transitioned into hospice care for very end stage cancer. The news shook me up and as the day progressed I realize that it shook me up more than I initially grasped. As important has he was in my life at the time, I hadn’t seen him in 28 years, although of late he had been on my mind quite a bit.
I stood on the parking lot on a cold, crisp October evening. Around me I can hear the sounds of scales, woodwinds, brass, the tapping of drum sticks on drum heads, the slap of hands spinning and catching rifles and the snap of silk as flags spun and were tossed in the breeze. In my mind I could see an imposing figure, dark hair and mustache, wearing a blue and white Westminster High band jacket, seemingly impervious to the cold that made the students shiver, fingers cold in their fingerless gloves.
When I open my eyes I’m back to my 45 year old self, listening to bands warm up as my daughter’s marching band prepared to compete, but just for a moment I’m 15, 16 or 17 again and about to step on the competitive field. For a moment I again know the hours and hours of practice were worth it. For a moment I’m being challenged, “feet…” “TOGETHER” “shoulders…” “BACK” “chin…” “UP” “eyes…” “WITH PRIDE!” “Eyes…” “WITH PRIDE!!” “EYES…” “WITH PRIDE!!!”
Now they well up with sadness.
James Paxton was my music teacher and band director in high school. I wasn’t a jock or a cheerleader, I was a band geek. I wore the badge with a fierce pride. Marching band was not only my identity in school, it was what kept me from fading so far into the background that I disappeared without notice … and Mr. Paxton was the reason why.
I was born in Maryland, but because of my father’s career, we moved a lot. I started instrumental music in a different state and at the end of 6th grade, we finally moved home to Maryland. I found that I was a year behind kids my age in musical training, and it made it a bit difficult to catch up. I was again the new kid, and as usual lacking in some way. For this and many other reasons I don’t have the space or inclination to share, I never felt that I measured up, or that I should speak up. The less I was noticed, the better I found it was for me. But music was, and still is, one of my passions, so I couldn’t quit.
Every teen wants to feel they belong, or they are important and I was no different. But belonging always eluded me. Feeling adequate, that I measured up or even the concept that I had talent was as foreign to me as speaking another language. Mr. Paxton changed that for me. If only for an hour or two a day I felt I just might have talent. Standing with the band, in practice or competition, I finally felt I belonged. I’m not sure if he had any idea, but while he had the highest expectations for each of us, his expectations weren’t above our ability, and he was never negatively critical. He knew how to encourage, how to channel our ability and excitement into the music and onto the field of competition.
I have so many good memories. The thrill of winning a competition, the silliness and endlessness of weekends spent band bus trekking to a football game and one or more competitions. The trip to Virginia Beach my junior year. Winning Chapter Championships as a senior. I tried out to be drum major my junior year. It was totally out of character for me and I surprised almost everyone. When Mr. Paxton told me I wasn’t chosen, he made sure to explain that it wasn’t because I wasn’t good enough, it was because he needed my leadership and talents elsewhere.
My senior year I received a letter from Towson State University that I had been selected to participate in their All Senior Honor Band. I was shocked. I was an average musician, how could I even be worthy of that honor? Unbeknownst to me, Mr. Paxton recommended me because he knew I was good enough, and that being exposed to all of the talented musicians that participated could only make me better. I took that to the seat auditions and EARNED 4th chair (out of 10-12). When I told him he laughed. He expected no less from me. It was a watershed moment for me. I WAS good enough, I DID belong.
I’m not sure if I will get the chance to see him again in this world, and while I know this has nothing to do with politics or conservatism, I think we all need a reminder to stop and appreciate those who had a positive impact on us. Thank them before it is too late.
Mr. Paxton, thank you for … everything.
Image: New Year Parade – Arapahoe High School band in Piccadilly; http://arapahoe.littleton publicschools.net/ from Littleton, CO; source: geograph.org.uk; author:David Hawgood; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license
Lower Image: Mr. James Paxton