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Chicago Cello

I get to choose an instrument in fourth grade. I have to talk over the forms with my parents, so I’d better be prepared. The saxophone is so exotic—I’ve never seen one close. I’ve heard it though and I know it sounds rich and beautiful. We don’t have Jazz in my house—lots of opera. But my parents talk about big band music that was popular during the war. Well, that’s saxophone. They’ll understand.

“Sax isn’t on the list. What? It’s not offered at my school?” The teacher tells me that students from my school can apply to go to Nichols Junior High for lessons on instruments we don’t offer here. But not girls; girls don’t play the saxophone.

“Oh.”

This is so unfair. I want to shout and tell them this is the silliest thing I’ve ever heard of—just like my Father says about most things. My parents roll their eyes and tell me to choose another instrument.

“You can’t get to Nichols for lessons, anyway.”

OK. My second choice is bassoon. The Bassoon is also very beautiful and very exotic (“exotic” is big—I am not going to play the violin like everyone else.) Bassoon is so exotic that nobody else even knows what it is. Well not kids; not even my teacher. That’s what makes it so right. I know it’s the long, skinny wooden tube you blow through a reed.

There’s the fatal flaw of the bassoon. I’m not allowed to play anything that goes in my mouth, because of my teeth! Ethel next door—my favorite babysitter—has worn braces for four years apparently because she plays the clarinet. It pushes her teeth out while the dentist is trying to push them in. I’m not so sure I believe that’s why she’s had braces for so long. And my teeth need to be pushed out. But as usual, there’s no arguing with my Mother’s edict.

“How about flute? “

“No—nothing in the mouth.”

“But the flute doesn’t go in the mouth. It just leans against the lip.”

Facts are no match for my Mother’s pronouncements. I’ve run into this before. You can’t predict things with her and you can’t make sense of them. It drives my Dad crazy, too.

OK, I’m studying the list. I have to have an answer by next week. Exotic and beautiful.

“I’m thinking about the cello?”

They seem to like this. They discuss how expensive cellos are—in case they need to buy one in a couple of years. But we all agree the cello is very beautiful and doesn’t go in the mouth.

I’m barely taller than my half-sized cello. School lessons and orchestra begin in a week. It’s not so heavy, really, but it’s kind of hard to carry, especially since I live at the end of the school boundary. I walk it a mile to school and then back again. When the wind blows a lot I have to stop walking and throw my weight over the top to hold it down.

Mrs. G, our conductor and teacher, is supposed to be mean. She is very tall—I’ve never seen such a tall strong woman. She wears old lady shoes that tie and nylon dresses with belts and little prints. Her gray hair is swept around into swirls and held together with combs. She’s always nice to me; she laughs at my jokes.

Mrs. G’s main instrument is the trumpet. A woman who plays the trumpet! I announce this important information at dinner. I’m sure girls can play the saxophone! But it’s too late now. I need to reaffix my loyalties to the cello.

Mrs. G gets really angry during orchestra when the boys haven’t practiced and they won’t shut up. Our trumpet players are the wild boys. She waves her stick at them. When they jump up, she chases them around the section and out the door and down the hall.

Harold Hwang is our brilliant first violinist who shows off all the time because the rest of us bore him to death squeaking and blatting away. When he plays it really sounds like somthing, so he gets all the solos. All together, the orchestra has that slow sour school wheeze.

Getting the cello to school becomes harder when the snow starts. Robin’s mom drives her bass to school. A VW bug can’t hold a girl and a bass, so Robin still walks. My Mom doesn’t drive, though. I try to make it to the middle of each block before I set the cello down and change hands. As I get close to school though, I have to change hands a couple of times a block, so when I get to school the canvas case is soaking wet.

Of course, with the cello, I don’t walk on the snow piles that line Dodge. But it’s harder to avoid the ice balls that fly across the street. Once we cross Oakton, I can barely walk with the cello. It’s crowded and pushy and the top of the ice layer is wet and slick. It’s so crowded, I have to hug the cello to me, so I can’t keep kids from sliding into it. But it’s a good shield.

One day the cello takes a critical ice-ball hit to the bridge. I’m terrified during the wait for orchestra, but fortunately, Mrs. G can get the bridge back in. My parents don’t even have to know about this near disaster.

When I start sixth grade at the new junior high, even though my walk is two blocks shorter, it’s the new theatre that wins my heart. I drop orchestra and start learning about the apron and the battons.

As hard as it is to push my way through the wind and sludge on Sheridan Drive for piano lessons each week, I’m very relieved I’m not carrying a cello.