94: Just One Note

94: Just One Note

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Just One Note

From a small seed a mighty trunk may grow.

~Aeschylus

I endured middle school. I agonized through almost every moment. I pulled myself through every day hoping to stay invisible, and yet somehow wondering why it was impossible for anyone else to see me.

It wasn’t that my lot was worse than that of any other seventh grader. Of course, students shoved past me in the hallways, boys made crude comments on the stairs, and old friends dropped me for someone new. But those things happened to all of us. I knew the rules. I was simply supposed to blend in with the giant mass around me.

My teachers were competent, and most would never have been mean, but my invisibility was never stronger than in the classroom. They just didn’t see me. I was not the most intelligent, beautiful, or interesting. Therefore, I attracted no attention.

The few times a teacher did notice me, I desperately wished I could disappear again. There was the math teacher who turned my name, Maya, into a Meow Mix commercial when he took roll every day. Then there was the science teacher who threw a dried corncob at a misbehaving student but missed. The flying missile misfired and smacked me hard on the top of my head. It hurt, but I was too afraid to say a word. The teacher looked at me, assessed that I was not dying, and continued the lesson without an apology. After one second in the limelight, I gladly retreated back into the shadows for the rest of year.

The one class in which I felt fairly safe was concert band. Sixth period became my sanctuary. It wasn’t that anyone noticed me there. I was one of a long row of flute players. And because I didn’t want to make anyone angry, I never challenged for a higher position, I sat unnoticed in last chair. Still, I was somewhat happy.

In band, every instrument had a voice, and every voice had to perform, or the entire band suffered. As small as my part was, at least I had a part. I didn’t need to speak to my peers. It was enough to add my voice to theirs and make something more beautiful than any of us could create on our own.

Even though we were all needed, I quickly learned that did not make us all equal. One of the prettiest girls in seventh grade sat next to me. Compared to my own wild mop, her hair was always straight and smooth. I wondered if my hair would behave better with different hair products. After several days, I finally summoned enough courage to ask, “Kaley, what shampoo do you use?”

She raised her eyebrows in surprise that I could speak, yet she was nice when she answered me. Almost immediately, though, the girl on her left leaned over and smothered a laugh. “What in the world did she have to say?”

“She asked me what shampoo I used!” Kaley laughed softly. “What a strange thing to ask!”

Now, I have to laugh when I realize the truth in Kaley’s answer. She was not trying to be mean. It really was a strange question! But I probably don’t need to state that it was a long time before I spoke to any of them again.

Then, one day, a simple comment from a teacher changed my life.

Although we had an award-winning band program in our district, we still had a lot to learn in middle school. One of the things we needed to work on was our tone. One day, our band director, Mr. Curtis, curtly waved his hand to cut us off in the middle of a song. “You are not in tune!” he exclaimed. “We must learn to play in tune!”

He played a B-flat pitch and pointed to our first-chair flute. “Tune your instrument!” Then, as he went down the line of flute players, he expressed his dissatisfaction with each tone. No one escaped.

The realization slowly dawned on me that my turn was coming soon, and I was horrified. In just one small moment, I would lose my invisible cloak and have to play all by myself while my peers sat and listened. I felt frozen in my chair.

“Maya.” Mr. Curtis had to call my name twice. “Maya! It’s your turn. Play!”

It was only a note. A few seconds of music heard in a school full of jumbled voices, class bells, footsteps, and slammed locker doors. But it was enough. I sat up, held my flute to my lips, closed my eyes, and took my turn. I played my single note quietly, with vibrato, and with all the feelings I had felt that year. I poured my heart into that one moment of music, and the sound echoed softly through the room. I was right on pitch, and I knew it, but I didn’t expect Mr. Curtis’s reaction.

He looked at me as if for the first time and smiled. “Band,” he stated. “That is what I have been waiting for! That was a perfect note, with perfect vibrato, and perfect pitch!” And then he said something I have never forgotten. “Maya, that one note has earned you an ‘A’ this year. Keep it up.”

I would like to say that I was brave enough to challenge my peers and earn first chair that year, but I wasn’t. Instead, I was grateful to sit under my teacher’s leadership in a place where I belonged. And as I learned to trust him more, I learned to trust myself. I stayed the course through high school and finally earned a coveted place in our band.

One comment, one moment, one ray of light into the shadow of my middle-school life, and a seed started to sprout. I was firmly planted, and my roots took hold. Thanks to one teacher who shed light on one small voice, I had found a place to grow.

~Amellia Pinson

Editor’s Note: After Amellia’s story became a finalist for this book, she sent us this note:

I wrote this story as a response to a challenge from my students. They stated if they had to submit “painfully honest” journal entries to me, I should have to submit my writing, too. As they implied three journal entries a week might be impossible, I wrote four stories in the same amount of time to show them it could be done. That week, I sent the stories off, one by one, never daring to hope one might actually make it this far in the selection process. I haven’t shared “Just One Note” with my students yet; I think I’ll wait just a bit longer now. The suspense would not be good for them or for me!

Then, after Amellia learned that her story was chosen to be one of the 101, she wrote this:

After I received your e-mail, I actually forgot to eat my lunch! When my 5th period students came into my room, they asked why my food was still sitting on my desk. Because these are the students who challenged me to write, I told them “our” story had made it to the final selection round.

I was not prepared for their response. My most cynical class, full of brilliant but streetwise students, suddenly broke into loud cheers and applause. In fact, they were so happy, it took me a bit to settle them down. As excited as I am, I think this might mean as much to them as it does to me. Several immediately asked if they could write stories, too. Of course, I said, “Yes!” Thank you for giving me such a moment to share with my students. It is not one I am likely to forget!

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