The Day the Music Died

I began today as I do many others: pensively. It was a still, quiet morning and there was something almost melancholy about it. I opened Pandora, as I usually did and for the very first time, American Pie was in my playlist. I’ve heard the song before (obviously) and I’ve read about the secret theories behind it, but I never really thought much of it. I sang along, as best I could, and when it got to the part that says:

Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.

I raised my drink, like I was toasting the sky and sang it anyway.

The thing is, the music did die today. But let me tell you why.

Ms. Eileen Ruffing was known as a steadfast music educator who instilled discipline, passion and work ethic into each of her students. Spending decades of her life as a musician and as an instructor, she maintained the utmost professionalism of any human being I have ever known. Her classes were run with a strict policy and it was impossible for you to get away with something wrong without one of her characteristic eye rolls.(It was like she could see through her closed eyelids-you knew you were in trouble.)

She not only ensured that four grades of students had multiple concerts each year for years, she ran a middle school jazz band as well as privately coached students for Solo and Ensemble (a competition event). She was a clarinet by nature. This is the blurb offered by her church: (It’s an option for lessons.) “Band for fifth through eighth grade students with Mrs. Eileen Ruffing. Mrs. Ruffing was the band director at Highland Schools for 35 years and retired in the spring of 2015.  She is a clarinet player and brings with her an enormous amount of personal talent and experience as a band director, and is a long time Saint Vincent de Paul church member.” She was active in “pit” music sections for the Mount Vernon theatre programs. She was involved in several “band” camps at the University of Wooster, as well as at the high school she taught at for 35 years.

Cleveland-Indians-Logos

(She had a poster in her office of the Cleveland Indians for as long as I can remember.)

I remember the very first day of fifth grade band. It was a little before-right when we were signing up for our instruments. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to play-I just wanted to play music! I remember she asked me if I remembered how to  “bite down” to play a clarinet. I thought I did, but I bit my top lip instead of bottom and she rolled her eyes at me and said “No. You’re biting the wrong lip.” I felt so embarrassed! I eventually chose flute, and stayed with that for my high school career-although I did learn other instruments on top of that. She was there for every performance, gave me my first solo and was my biggest supporter when I decided to become field commander.

I was a new commander, and I found out that some of the band members I commanded were doing things that I perceived to be dangerous. I was so upset that I had to be taken aside by the color guard coach. She said, “You know, you’re not the only one who cares that much.” And I said “I know. I just worry so much. I love my friends. I don’t want them to get hurt.” And she said:

That’s how much Eileen loves you. You’re all her kids. But she’s the reason you became commander. She believed in you and you’ll be okay.

I never doubted my abilities to command after that.

So as I sit here, reminiscing about the wayward flute player I was, I’m reminded of the great things about having such a wonderful woman as the one who introduced me to music. Music was the one thing I turned to when times got hard. It’s still my first line of defense. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the music will always find you in your time of need. And so, as your eyes have closed one last time, I offer these words as your soul joins those who have come before.

And I would liked to have known you
But I was just a kid
Your candle burned out long before
Your legend ever did.

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(This is her several years before I met her. I knew her when her hair was salt and peppered with the stresses of the education system. But I’ll never forget her laugh. It may have happened rarely, but it was something that remains.)

Hindsight

When I was in high school, there happened an event that has stuck with me ever since.

I was the field commander of the high school marching band. It was the best thing that could have happened to me, honestly. I took my job very seriously, regarding each of the band members and color guard as members of my own family, who I would defend to the death (I was very theatrical back then). Anyway, part of my duties was to ensure safe transport of persons and equipment post game. Our instruments were hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. So I would holler out “Band coming through!” And other things, like “Watch out!” And “Excuse us!”

 

(This is basically my podium/ladder-basically huge)

 The event happened one home game my first year commanding (I was commander for 2 years-the first in school history, I believe). I was VERY passionate about my job, but also very polite and I was trying to get all the band and guard members into the school without damaging anything or anyone. Carrying my “ladder” (it was a platform I conducted from which was more than twice my size and a workout all its own), I was announcing our departure when a group of our school’s football players came up from behind me and yelled “No one gives a shit about you band faggots.” And I do not think there has been a single moment in the history of who I am that I contemplated murder more seriously. I think I could have wafted my ladder at him (and yes, I know exactly who he was) and it would havebeen a blood bath. Thankfully my director saw and heard what had happened and talked me down. If I recall, I had to stay after the game because he was telling me about how some football player wasn’t worth my future. I fumed about it for days.  And when the football player came down to the band room to apologize to the director (but not the rest of us), I saw red once more. If it had been a band member, we would have been crucified! How dare he just get off with some shitty apology! Make him pay, dammit!

  

But this story doesn’t end there. Fast forward to the last day of the year 2015 (so today-6 years later), that same football player and one of his cohorts is playing Call of Duty with my husband. They know who he is, but none of them know who I am, other than his wife. So my husband (who was in the band as well) asked if they remembered that incident, as well as a couple others. And they did. I held no hopes that they might have changed, fully expecting them to make more slurs and laugh about it. My opinion was so low, even after over half a decade of separation that I expected them to be the same low-life people they had been before. And after six years of holding that grudge, I got my apology. 

  

So, there was enough time in 2015 to see to it that I learned one more lesson. I spent a good chunk of time today thinking about the implications of the entire event. How is it that I try so hard to hide the mistakes I made in high school from the me I am now, so that people judge me (and you know they will) based on the person they see before them and not the one from before-but would not extend the same courtesy to someone I barely knew? Why did I expect him and his friends to not change what-so-ever, but to have seen nothing short of a revolution in myself? What did that say about me?

And as I look at the clock, watching time pass by, I have a smile on my face. I cannot condone his actions, but my own are no different. I had originally started this post as a declaration of how we are all pressured into being unique but also conforming. And what I learned was that those are the struggles which have defined my past. I’m going into 2016 with a keen awareness that maybe I need to do more to be a kinder person, to keep less stereotypes, to open my heart to forgiveness and the pursuit of happiness. Because one of the only things that is more liberating than”I love” is “I forgive”.

  

Time may change me, but I can’t change time.