Every Friday, Miss Wolflin would let students in our 8th grade music class bring in their favorite record album to play.
Slim with short, black hair and a cheerful smile, our young teacher was enthusiastic and friendly. Her class was a place I loved to be, even if I couldn’t exactly sing on key as we belted out hippie-era songs like “Time in a Bottle” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
I loved music. The daughter of a piano player, I had played keyboard since I was 8-years-old and had recently learned to play the flute. I could sing, although my voice was basically monotone, and had even joined Miss Wolflin’s choir. Music was a safe haven in the train wreck of my junior high life.
Smart, shy, and painfully skinny, I was a misfit. I tried so hard to fit in, but even my new Gloria Vanderbilt designer jeans and black t-shirt somehow looked out of place on my angular figure. I was not only shy, but decidedly less worldly wise than my peers.
My classmates were generally a tough lot. Thornton was a small quarry town where dynamite blasted every day at 2 pm shaking the cinder block walls of our school.
For our Friday record album event, Jim Smith had brought in his most prized possession: the latest KISS album. While Jim and his friends were not allowed to paint their faces white like Gene Simmons and his entourage, they did wear stacked heels and had even brought packets of fake blood to spit into the air at appropriate moments.
Miss Wolfin looked a bit concerned as Jim took centerstage and placed his album on the record player. As the music crashed, he leapt up and brandished his air guitar. Troy, Tom, and Robert, unable to control themselves, also jumped to their feet on the risers and turned our junior high classroom into a mosh pit. Realizing her classroom was on the brink of losing control, our pretty teacher reached over and lifted the handle of the record player.
The music went abruptly silent, and Jim fell to the platform with a thud. The room erupted with boos and stomping. Trying to regain control, Miss Wolflin employed the teacher stand by – lights out, heads down.
When the sounds had finally died down, she flipped the lights back on. “Alright,” she said. “Who’s next?”
“Jamie, would you like to take your turn?”
This was the moment I had been dreading. I hated being up in front of class. I also had a problem with record day.
You see, as the oldest child, raised in a conservative Baptist home, I had no awareness of popular music. I also idea what type of record I should bring. I only owned two albums: Barry Manilow’s Even Now and the soundtrack to The Sound of Music. Neither one really seemed appropriate for this crowd: Barry’s songs brought me to tear, but I feared they were too romantic for junior high boys.
Desperate, I decided to raid my dad’s album collection, looking for something, anything to bring to school. Finally, stuck between Joan Baez and The Kingston Trio I found a record that I recognized – actually, I had heard this musical group play at a local Baptist conference center.
“This will be perfect,” I thought.
Or, at least, I had thought that, until the moment came to actually put my album on the player.
I walked to the front of the class, knobby knees shaking. I hesitantly handed the album to Miss Wolflin who looked at it with a mixture of surprise and sympathy. As was the custom, the student who chose the album would stand and face the class while the song played.
My album? The Spur Family Sings About Jesus.
The moment the song started, I realized with crystal clarity, that my choice was wrong. Terribly, horribly wrong.
The students, at first, were completely silent. No one could believe that I was actually playing the album. But, as the bluegrass, twangy Spur family strummed enthusiastically and sang about Jesus, the snickers began. Soon, the entire room erupted in laughter and jeers.
Jim Smith and his bunch were laughing so hard they were rolling on the ground, holding their sides.
I stared at the ground wishing it would open up and swallow me whole. What had I done? Why had I made such a terrible choice? I was like Daniel in the Lion’s Den, standing alone in the center of the room completely unprepared for the onslaught.
Miss Wolflin, in her kindness, ended my song a bit early, and decided to spend the rest of the class period teaching us the harmony for “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” I took the record album and quietly slid it into my school bag.
In junior high, music was about fitting in. To own the latest album, or to wear the t-shirt of the most popular band, meant that you were somehow cooler by association. Record day certainly wasn’t the last time I did not fit in with my peer group. I was behind in terms of music and social awareness.
It was not until much later that I began to discover what sorts of music I enjoyed. I also realized that it didn’t really matter if my choices weren’t the same as everyone else’s – music is as much about individuality as it is about community.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
I like that. Music has continued to play a significant role in my life. From those early days of Barry Manilow and the Spur family, my musical tastes have expanded. I just returned from a rockabilly event where my husband and I bopped to early tunes by Gene Vincent and Johnny Cash. My 14-year-old daughter, her IPod always close at hand, has introduced me to younger artists like Owl City and Panic at the Disco.
I’m a bit jealous, actually. Sabrina is not much older than I was as I stood, insecure, at the front of my junior high class. Yet, unlike me, she listens confidently to her own beat. She is not afraid to be herself, to try new things, to declare her choices proudly.
Perhaps, I taught her a bit about that.