Ms. Perrett, my violin teacher, gave a short sigh, but managed to avoid rolling her eyes.
She was doing better than me.
“Everyone, please put away your instruments,” she said.
A bank robber, we’d been told over the public address system, was in the area and John Adams Middle School was on lockdown. The authorities, no doubt, were on the case, but there might be car chases, gun play and maybe some swearing.
We needed to be out of the way before any of that happened.
The class of maybe a dozen 11-year-olds (and me) shuffled in our seats and then awkwardly began to put away our slightly battered violins and cellos.
“Carefully,” Ms. Perrett added.
We packed them up snuggly, covered them with soft cloths and then snapped the cases closed quickly.
Ms. Perrett locked the door and directed us to sit on the floor in the shade of a gloomy corner of her classroom, away from the big windows, and I thought, “How much does it suck to be a public school kid in 2019?”
Old song, new verse
This was not necessarily the lesson I’d come to learn. It wasn’t what I’d signed on for when the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra asked if I was interested in spending a month in their school strings program.
The music education program, in conjunction with Kanawha County Schools, helps elementary and middle school kids learn how to play string instruments — violins, cellos, viola and bass. Along with lessons on how to play, the program fosters an appreciation and love of music broader than just what’s currently playing in the background while their parents (or grandparents) watch “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Is that show even still on?
The plan was for me to learn how to play a violin — not particularly well, mind you, but enough to get an idea of what it was like to pick up an instrument cold as a student. I would also get a look at the benefits and maybe challenges of the program.
This was a return trip for me with the WVSO, but it was new ground.
Flashback to 2016
During the first year of “One Month at a Time,” the symphony’s communications director, Shiva Shafii, had reached out about spending a month learning percussion and then playing with the symphony at a concert at the Clay Center.
It was too good an offer to turn down.
The show had been the first in a series of tryouts for the new conductor who would replace the retiring maestro, Grant Cooper, and I’d kind of hoped to have fly-on-the-wall access to behind the scenes during the deliberations.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
The symphony tossed me at a maddeningly difficult Prokofiev violin concerto, and I’d spent the month idiotically banging sticks together in the least rhythmic way possible.
Timpanist Scott Christian valiantly attempted to teach me how to play castanets, cymbals, the bass drum and the musical triangle.
I was a wash at all of them, which was both hilarious and humiliating.
In the end, I did not play the Violin Concerto in public and wound up crashing cymbals during a rare Clay Center symphony performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
This was how I completed my agreement with the symphony. I succeeded in what needed to be done, but I failed at what had been originally intended.
I still wince whenever I hear Prokofiev’s name mentioned.
This return trip would give me a crack at another instrument without the pressure of ruining a concert and potentially derailing the career of a young conductor. I expected I might not be as good at music as your average sixth-grader, but at least I couldn’t be a lot worse.
I wouldn’t be sticking around long enough for everyone to get that much better.
But my getting started had been delayed. The last few days before the Spartan Race in August, I’d been scatterbrained and distracted. I misunderstood when I would actually be attending classes, so I didn’t make it to the first class.
I arrived on the second day at the little teaching cabana behind the school, where I met Ms. Perrett and was given my loaner instrument — a full-sized violin in a durable shell case.
I had to think Scott told them what kind of a percussion student I had been and the symphony had planned accordingly. I was lucky they were allowing me to take an instrument out of the sight of a trained adult, let along leave school grounds with it.
Patiently, she showed me some of the things I’d missed the day before. We were now on page 4. I could read over the previous pages, if I liked. She said she hoped I practiced, then asked what the other kids should call me.
I said, “Bill, I guess. I’m a student, too.”
I figured that would be less weird than me calling them by their surnames.
This seemed fine with Ms. Perrett, but then she warned me that the school had scheduled a lockdown drill. This would likely happen a few minutes into the lesson and might very well last through most of the class.
She’d been through this before, and so had I.
I’d been stopped a few mornings from reading to a kindergarten class for Read Aloud West Virginia because of these drills, but I’d never actually been through one. I hated missing another lesson, but I was interested to see what a drill looked like from the point of a view of a student.
Mostly, it was dull.
Scenes from a school lockdown
For this lockdown, the announcer gave a story about the bank robber, presumably armed and dangerous, who then went from being in the area to on the campus. We were to remain where we were. Students stared at the windows, stared at their fingers, stared at each other.
One kid pulled his shirt up to cover his head and sat their headless for around 10 minutes. A couple of girls fidgeted and whispered something back and forth before Ms. Perrett gave them a look.
Since none of them apparently had a phone on them, I checked the weather. It was sunny and warm outside, which I could also see by looking through the window.
I also looked at my email and fought the urge to update my status on Facebook. That could only end badly, I figured.
At last, the lockdown was removed. The good guys were victorious. The bad guys had been captured by the local authorities after some thrills, spills and maybe a romantic subplot.
That’s usually how it went in the movies.
Ms. Perrett thanked everyone for behaving as well as they had. Sitting quiet is tough for anyone. It’s harder when you’re a kid.
We finished up by getting out our violins and plunking a few notes together. Then we put our instruments away, said our goodbyes to the teacher and went on our way to other classes — or back to the office, for me.
As I left, wandering lost and looking for an unlocked door to get back into the school to sign out for the day, I thought about how charmed my upbringing had been compared to generations before me and the generations that followed me in school.
I’d hated middle school when I was a kid. I was awkward and lonely. I got hassled by a couple of older, cooler kids, but never really worried about getting shot by armed lunatics.
It just didn’t come up.
The closest thing to a lockdown we had were fire drills, because sometimes things broke and would catch fire.
Accidents happen, especially after budget cuts, and we needed to practice what to do, in the event something unfortunate occurred.
I liked fire drills, prayed for them before quizzes. It was a great way to completely torpedo a pesky math class and buy me another day not to study.
But we never practiced hiding from gunmen. Now they do because — like things catching fire — it’s a thing that happens. People with weapons do periodically go on killing sprees, and they don’t mind shooting up a school.
So, that was my first lesson. Being a middle-schooler in America is still a drag. It’s just a drag in a different way than it used to be.