The Timpanist — Inspired by Jessie Heninger

Today’s story was inspired by Jessie Heninger as a part of my September Challenge Contest.

Jessie is a very dear friend. I’ve known and loved her for MANY years. She is sweet, energetic, talented and will take a bullet for her dog. No. Really. She would. It’s just a testimony to her loyalty and devotion. You can find Jessie at Confessions of a Housewife where she blogs about motherhood, thrifting, being a wife, etc. You can also check out her furry friend blog Memoirs of a Golden which tells the stories of her adorable dog, Ranger. Yup. THAT dog…the really protected dog.

Also, don’t forget to vote for the 3 stories from last week. Find the stories and the voting instructions here. You have until midnight (9/5/2011) to cast your vote! GO!!!!

This was Jessie’s idea…

“Alice is 14 in 1951. She wants to play timpani in the school band, but the director says “no” because she’s female. He thinks she should play the flute or clarinet.”

The Timpanist

My great-granddaughter is coming to my apartment. I’ve been told that she is in need of some good, homemade cookies. Peanut butter-chocolate chunk. That’s my Junie’s favorite cookie.

She’s having a terrible time at school this year. She’s being teased. One day it’s that her hair is too curly. The next is that she doesn’t have the right cellular phone. It seems like something different makes her a target every day.

Her father insisted on this private school. He said it would be worse for her at public school. I say he’s just paying top dollar for her to be bullied. But why would he listen to his old grandma anyway?

But my Junie is 14 years old. It’s a tough age. All those hormones taking charge of the body and emotions. That can’t help matters much. And, really, those wires they make her wear on her teeth. I guess they call them braces. They seem more like torture devices than anything.

I’ve been trying to remember what it was like for me when I was 14. Golly, that was 60 years ago. If that doesn’t make a lady feel old, well, I don’t know what will. But, really, life was so different then. Being a kid was easier. Nobody wore tight jeans and skimpy tops at that age. And, if they did, they were sent home in a hurry. There were even a few families in my neighborhood that didn’t have telephones yet. Life was just simpler.

My only problem was Mr. Beamon. He was my first band director.

When I was 14, Mr. Beamon decided to kill my dream.

When I was a little girl, I wanted nothing more than to be in the band. I got my very first chance in 1951. I was 14 years old and an 8th grade student at Chester A. Arthur Junior High.

There had been a lot of changes that year. My father died in a farming accident. My mother, unable to live where her beloved husband had died so tragically, sold the farm. She moved us to the city. My brother and I were thrilled.

“Do you think they’ll have a school band?” I’d asked my mother. “I really hope they do.”

“I asked the principal. He said they indeed have a band,” she’d answered. “What do you think you’ll play? A flute? Clarinet?”

There was only one instrument for me. I had been dreaming about it for years. Ever since I listened to my first symphony.

“I want to play the timpani,” I said.

“The what?”

“You know, the really big drums. They sound like thunder coming up overhead.”

“You want to play drums, Alice? Isn’t that more of a boy instrument? Don’t you think that the xylophone would be better?”

I, as a matter of fact, did not think that the xylophone would be better. I was sure that the band director would welcome me as the new timpanist. On the first day of school, during the first band class, I told him my intentions.

“You want to play what?” Mr. Beamon asked. Then he laughed, puffed on his cigarette. “No. No, little lady.”

“No?” I was devastated. “But I’m willing to learn. I promise I’ll practice three hours a day. I’ll do anything. Please let me play timpani.”

“Nope. Can’t do that.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Listen, girlie, the timpani is a man’s drum. You gotta be strong to play a drum like that.”

“But I am strong.”

He laughed again and walked away. “Now, kids, get in your seats!” he hollered.

The students obeyed. Well, except for me. I didn’t have a seat.

“You,” Mr. Beamon called to me. “Go sit in the percussion section. I need a xylophone player.”

I rushed to the seat. It was three seats away from the timpani. I was determined that by the end of the school year I would be pounding those drums. Then Mr. Beamon would have to eat his words.

Mr. Beamon chose Edwin Rithner to play the timpani. He was an impossibly thin boy. If I remember correctly, his glasses were bigger than his face. He played the timpani with about as much passion as a child eating brussel sprouts.

“I hate it,” he confessed to me one day after class.

“How is that even possible?” I asked. “It’s the most beautiful sound ever made.”

“I guess if you like loud, boingy sounds.” He pushed up the thick, plastic framed lenses. “I just hate music, is all. I’d rather be on the chess team. But my father thinks that’s for sissies.”

“So, you wish you could quit the band?”

“Yes. That would be the best thing to ever happen in my whole life.”

That’s when I got my first idea.

In late September, Edwin and I had it all figured out. He just had to hurt his left arm. We got my brother in on the scheme. He would slam Edwin’s left arm in a locker.

The problem was, my brother slammed it a little too hard. Edwin’s arm snapped in two places. But he was happy. He promised not to tell on my brother because it got him out of playing the timpani.

“We’ll just do without the stupid drum,” Mr. Beamon said.

“But, sir, I can play it,” I said. “I know the part.”

“There’s one problem. You’re still a girl.”

Edwin joined the chess team. At least one of us was happy.

October was when Mr. Beamon introduced the Christmas concert music.

I wore overalls and a flannel shirt to band class and tucked my hair into the back of my shirt. I thought I could convince Mr.  Beamon that I was a new male student.

“Do you really think I’m stupid?” he asked.

I suppose I had thought that for a moment.

By November I had considered giving up my dream of playing the timpani. I’d never even touched the actual drums or mallets. The disappointment was wearing on me. And I missed my father. Changing towns and schools and friends all in the same year proved too much for me.

I sat in the band room at lunch time. The timpani stood, uncovered, across the room from me. Mallets were placed on the drum head. I turned and read the sign on the wall. Mr. Beamon had written in black marker on yellow paper, “DO NOT TOUCH any instruments that aren’t yours!”

But he wasn’t there. I was alone. No one would ever know.

I picked up the mallets and very gently let them drop on the drum. The sound thrilled me. I did it again and again. Eventually, I forgot myself and played booming thunder and raging wind. The swell of waves and the gentle fall of snow. The range of the instrument surprised me.

“Hey!” Mr. Beamon’s voice snapped me back to reality. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m sorry,” I was afraid. This act of disobedience was sure to get me fired from the band. “I shouldn’t have touched it.”

He crossed his arms. His face was a combination of annoyance, anger and wonder.

“Do that again,” he said.

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“Oh, quit it out with the apologizes. Just play that drum again.”

From that day forward, I was the timpanist.

Just two years ago I retired from the community symphony. All the pounding caused my shoulders and wrists to ache. Old age will get us every time. But it was a good ride. My passion for the music only grew with every year. To this day I picture Mr. Beamon’s face when he discovered that I was more than he’d wanted to believe.

Junie and I sit at my kitchen table. She’s wearing a new pair of jeans. She says they’re what all the kids wear. She tells me that she just wants to be like everyone else.

“Well, I think it’s good to be the person God made you to be. Even if that means you’re a little different,” I say, nudging the cookie plate toward her.

She hasn’t had even one. She’s been here for over an hour.

“Being different is the kiss of death, Grammy.” She takes a cookie and picks it apart. “Anything that makes you stand out is bad.”

“Things are just not like they were when I was your age. I guess I just wouldn’t be able to understand.”

“Yeah. Probably not.” She puts a small piece of cookie into her mouth. “It’s like I have to be who everyone tells me to be. I don’t get to pick anything for myself.”

“I understand that.” I pour her a glass of milk. “Have I ever told you the story of when my family moved from the farm and I met Mr. Beamon?”

Maybe things aren’t as different as I’d thought.

8 Comments on “The Timpanist — Inspired by Jessie Heninger

  1. Thanks Susie, lots of kids need to read this story especially now at the beginning of the school year. They need to hear it’s okay to be the person God wants you to be.


  2. That’s very similar to my band experience except it was just because there were too many dummers already. I chose flute because my Mom already had one and I knew we didn’t have money to pay for another instrument. Two schools later, there were no drummers and I finally was able to begin my dream.


  3. Our female band teacher wouldn’t let me play drums either! I got stuck with the clarinet. I hated that thing. Never went back to band after that first year.


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