September 10, 2010
This year I was asked to deliver the opening speech to the incoming class of Catalpa University, but then, at the last minute, their first choice to deliver the speech–the owner and operator of the last known video game arcade in North America–became available, leaving me with a perfectly good speech and only one place to deliver it…
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. The original topic of my speech today was going to be "When Life Gives You Lemons Invest In Citrus Futures", but two things happened. First, I realized that, being college students, none of you will have any money to invest for at least twelve years. And second, I took a wrong turn crossing the campus this morning and was stopped by a security officer who asked me if I should be in class. I would have told him classes hadn’t started yet, but it’s not security’s job to know that sort of thing. Instead I just said that’s where I was headed and went on, remembering a time in high school when I was asked that same question. I’d been sent to the office by my English teacher. I don’t remember why, although it might have been the time I was tapping the shoulder of the girl in front of me with a finger. The teacher could have just made me put the finger back in the jar of formaldehyde in the science classroom and that would have been the end of it, but instead she told me to go to the office and see the assistant principal.
At my high school no one ever saw the main principal, who was stuffed and kept in a glass box in his office, but we had at least eighteen assistant principals who were supposed to sit in their offices and wait for teachers to send down students to be disciplined, but that was really a secondary responsibility. Their main job was to roam the halls and find students who were cutting class and, hopefully, smoking. Principals with nicotine addictions never buy their own cigarettes because they get all they need by confiscating them from students. Fortunately now you’re in college, where smoking is banned, although, judging by the smell wafting from the dorms and the faculty offices and the administration building that ban only applies to tobacco, but that’s another story. Is anyone else craving nachos?
Anyway, I had a choice: go and sit outside the assistant principal’s office until the bell rang or wander the halls until the bell rang. What I didn’t count on was the fact that the same assistant principal would also be wandering the halls, and, naturally, I ran into him. "Shouldn’t you be in class?" he sneered at me. Now I could have told him I was coming to his office, by way of the gym and the greenhouses and the parking lot and the snack machine at the back of the cafeteria, but then I might actually get in trouble. So instead I just blurted out something I’d heard my friends say in the same situation: "I’m in the band!" He immediately put up his hands and said, "Oh, oh, oh, I’m so sorry. Don’t let me stop you." In most high schools the football team is at the top of the chain of command, but in my school it was the band that ran everything. This was partly because we had a widely respected marching band that had won some awards, but primarily because the band leader was Ms. Woodaver, who ruled with an iron fist. Normally that’s just an expression, but she had a genuine iron fist. It replaced the real one she’d lost years earlier in a bizarre French horn accident, and it had been kept in a jar of formaldehyde in the science classroom ever since. Ms. Woodaver was the whole reason our marching band was so respected: nobody dared put a foot out of line or play a wrong note around her. She once bawled out a friend of mine for missing band practice because he’d had to go to his grandmother’s funeral. She then got out a Ouija board and told his grandmother that, next time, she’d need to schedule her death so that it didn’t interfere with band practice. Everyone was terrified of her, so if I was on a band-related mission the assistant principal knew better than to interfere. Except I wasn’t on a band-related mission. I wasn’t even in the band, in spite of the fact that all my friends were in the band and were always trying to get me to join so that I could go with them to band competitions in exotic places like the Bahamas or Waukegan. And I would have liked to be in the band, but I was, and still am, hopelessly musically inept. When we were first offered a chance to start learning instruments and join the band I spent a futile half hour with a trumpet before the teacher took it away from me, saying, "You’re supposed to blow in the other end." Before that I’d tried to learn to play the violin but never made it past playing pizzicato. I had dreams of being Paganini but felt like Don Ho. When my friends had band rehearsals the best I could manage was sitting in the corner saying, "I gotta have more cowbell." And after that encounter with the assistant principal, after I realized that I could get out of anything by saying, "I’m in the band" it felt like it would be wrong to actually join the band, because that would mean a lot of extra responsibilities that would severely cut into the time I could spend aimlessly wandering the halls. I see you’re all nodding your heads now, either in agreement or because you’re falling asleep, so, to conclude, I’ll just say that, when life gives you lemons, make nachos.