Al and Sophia
In fifth grade, I rode my new bicycle into the street in front of my house. The driver of a car coming around the corner did not see me. We crashed into each other. The accident was not my fault. That car broke my right arm and leg. My head hit the concrete. I was knocked out.
When the ambulance got there, I came to. Two men in white suits put me on a stretcher, slid me through the back doors, and took me to the hospital. My parents said I was never the same. My body reacted differently. I limped every day. I saw the twisted bicycle wheels and never wanted to ride it again. That thrill was gone. Some people said I was lucky to survive. I moped around a lot. I felt “blue.” I was in a daze for three years.
Since the injury to my head, I never go anywhere. I don’t do much. There are so many things that I do not know. I can’t do what other kids do in school. I am not good at many things. Life leaves us quickly, if we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it hurts.
My high school English teacher asked me to write this journal. This is page 1. He said it would help me remember words and think better. Maybe, it would help me talk better, too. Every night before I fall asleep, I place my thoughts, questions, and feelings of the day on these pages. I hope this journal helps me come up with more ideas to mention in class. I want to do better in school.
For a few years, Al’s parents carefully watched him and saw that he was attracted to musical entertainment shows on television. They noticed that he wrote in his journal after listening to songs. One night, Al’s mother said to his father, “I wonder if he could play an instrument at school. I’m going to call the band director and make an appointment.”
A few days later, when the band director invited the three of them into his classroom, he let Al touch the instruments. The director played ten different ones and gave the family a five minute concert, so Al could imagine playing them himself. When the demonstration was finished, Al picked them up one at a time and held each one for a while, but he felt pulled to the saxophone. When he touched its keys, there was electricity in his fingers. Something in his heart said, “You can make that wonderful noise, Al. Try this one.”
I don’t talk to people much. I just want to be Al. When I play the sax, it is my meditation. When I write in my journal, sometimes, I forget my medication. I can live a lifetime in 60 bars, the length of time it takes to play one of my favorite tunes. That makes me happy. My musical notes are a lot like my words in this journal.
I heard a movie character say, “There are no mistakes in the tango. If you make a mistake, just tango on.” That should apply to life, right? Whatever happens just happens. The important thing is to keep dancing. A slip-up is life trying to get my attention.
When I make an error, I shut my eyes and imagine that I am home in my room playing a melody I love. I close my eyes to see. I open my heart to feel. I play music to speak.
The bicycle accident might limit my future, because I do not act like other kids. I am not as clear about some things as other students are. I do not care. Textbooks do not move me. Music haunts me. The director let me take the saxophone home to give it a “trial run.” I am going to focus on what I like. In some ways, I feel more adult than my friends. I do what shakes me. I leave the rest alone. Now, for the first time, I have a direction.
Before I met the band director, not much made sense to me. I was not connected to many things. That night, when I took the sax home, I made a lot of noise. The sound raised my spirits. It made me relax. I did not want to stop. Several weeks went by before the noise disappeared. After much practice, my rookie attempts left the house, and the sax’s rich, personal tone entered my room to stay. Now, when I play, I no longer feel alone.
“Go to sleep, Al. I am already in bed. It’s 11 p.m. I have to get up at 5 in the morning and get ready for work. My boss said I can’t be late. You can play that thing, tomorrow.”
“OK, Dad. Thanks for letting me bring ‘that thing’ home. Will you drop me off at school at 6 on your way to work? I have some stuff to make up.”
“That’s my boy.”
“This is the first time he ever wanted to go to school early and get work done. Heck, this is the first time he ever wanted to do homework. Henry, did something just happen to our little boy?”
“Shhhh. Go to sleep, Anita.”
In Al’s room, the saxophone sat on the chair by his bed.
Al thought to himself, “Thanks for coming home with us. See you in the morning.”
The hallway light fell on the lower half of the saxophone. Al thought he saw it smile.
Some musicians name their instruments. This gives them a personal relationship with their muse. B.B. King called his guitar “Lucille.” I call my tenor saxophone “Sophia.” We developed a thing. I don’t know what else to call it. I keep her shiny. When I make sure she has new reeds and the best key pads, she makes my notes clear and full.
She helps me talk. She helps me unlock mysteries about myself. All I have to do is play. I hear rhythms that are not written down. I don’t know where they come from. When people speak, their words have a cadence, a tone, and wind up in my head as notes. Where do the words in this journal come from? How can I place what I think in my head on these pages? Life is full of mysteries.
One day, my English teacher was talking in class. All I saw were colors. When people talk, there is a rhythm to what they say. When they are passionate about their topics, the colors I see are bright ones. When I talk about family or my pet dog, the emotions I feel hit me as colors, not notes. Some people have called me “not so bright” because of this. A school psychologist said I was “advanced” in some ways. Synesthesia and Sophia help me see things I never saw before. Now, I “hear” colors. They guide me to the notes I play in the music.
A week later when the band director got to school, he was surprised to see Al sitting on the floor outside the classroom door.
“My dad drops me off on his way to work in the morning,” Al said.
“Goodness, you have an inner fire,” the director said.
“Is music a language?”
“Yes, Beethoven said so, why?”
“I don’t do well with words. Could I do better with a language beyond words?”
The director laughed, “That will take time and a lot of practice. Will you be here every morning?
“I will bring Sophia, and we can play music before school starts. OK?”
“That’s great. You named your saxophone. Why that name?”
“I just like it. Does it matter?”
“It’s a powerful handle for any woman, let alone a saxophone.”
I read that Picasso painted every day. He told a reporter to look at his walls to read his journal. I could say, “Listen to my music. This is how I write. Let me play you an essay.”
Life is a game of second chances. Every performance is another opportunity for me to improve. I am not the music. I am a vessel. I am me. I do not want to be anyone else. If I try too hard to improve the music, I mess up. My secret is to stay me and not get in the way of the notes. I go with the flow.
I do not get excited about life. I keep things simple. I like going my own way. I don’t waste time. The more I play, the more freedom I feel. Remember the Doors? If they had a sax in that group, those songs would have climbed even higher, right? Talk about perception.
I am not like other students. My view of things is different. I won’t spend my life searching for paradise. Some people live on beaches looking for Nirvana. They want to find a microwave to cook instant happiness. They sacrifice their lives for easy answers. They do whatever it takes to avoid hard times. That becomes an empty life. I want understanding. I will work for it. I know how to live through hard times.
That is what “home” means, a place to grow, sweat, and carry on. Paradise is not a place to find. It is a feeling. Once I feel that moment, it might last forever. This could be my paradise, playing Sophia. I may have already found my Heaven on Earth.
When I play those melodies in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons, something comes over me. My soul expands. I am at the center of my universe. This is where I am supposed to be. I stop thinking. There is no fear. I dream the real me. This is all I want. Did John Coltrane experience this?
Other students think I am slower than they are. Well, I will spend my free time talking to Sophia. She knows me better. I play the notes that she puts into my head. My “job” is to listen to her. She teaches me to do what I love every day. I will never have to “work” a day in my life. Each night, I imagine falling asleep, listening to the Marshall Tucker Band playing “Can’t You See” with a heavy saxophone solo at the end.
Al could not open his textbook and find the same page the teacher was on. He was worried about failing this class, having students laugh at him, and not keeping up. It was obvious he was trying hard to do well. He failed this course in another teacher’s room last year and did not want the same thing to happen again.
He left his seat and went to the teacher’s desk. “I brought my sax to class. It calms me down. If I play it while everyone in class is writing, I might write better when I finish. It might be good for the others to write with music in the background. I won’t be loud, OK?”
The teacher could tell Al was scared of his reaction to this request and tell him to go back to his seat. Instead, the teacher agreed he could play his saxophone in front of the eleventh grade class and told the students that many writers compose creatively while listening to music. He leaned closer to Al so no one else could hear, “Come in after school, today, and you can make up the work we are doing. OK? It will be quiet, and I will help you do the class assignment.”
As Al picked up Sophia, there seemed to be no self-confidence anywhere in his body. He walked to the front of the class. Al smiled and took a deep breath. His teeth sparkled, his leg muscles straightened, his back arched, his shoulders squared, and his classmates, who assumed they were better than he was in every way, looked surprised.
As he put the strap around his neck, he began to talk. He looked straight at the other students. The more he talked about the music he was going to play, the more confident he sounded. His introduction was brief and to the point. The students were mesmerized by his fluid explanation. The musical rhythm came through the soles of his feet, up his legs to his shoulders, and into his mouth where he blew notes into the afternoon air. His fingers caressed the keys, and the tune blossomed into existence. His eyes closed, but he was relaxed and hit every note without strain.
When Al finished, the students applauded. The teacher in the next room came into the hall, looked into our class, went back to her room, and shut her door. The amazed students begged Al to play another song. From that day on, he was a changed young man. He walked with a limp, but now, his back was straight, and he held his head up.
I wanted to enter our school’s “Talent Show” and play Sophia for my friends. When I told them this, I could see the surprise on their faces. I never volunteered to do anything in class. I was always the last person to turn in my work, if I ever did any work. They were polite, but I could tell they thought I would not show up for practice and make excuses at the last minute for not performing. No one knew that I told the band director, three months ago, of my intentions to play with the other students.
“Al, that is great. I am glad to have you help us,” the band director said. “I can see that you mean it, and I can’t believe how much you have improved playing, since you first came to me in eighth grade with your parents. I have something you should wear just for this occasion, but don’t tell anyone. OK? Few people in school know that you have been coming into the band room before school to practice.”
“Having the discipline to practice every day is as important as having the musical talent. Let’s send a strong message to the audience when you perform. We want to show them the spirit you have released. They must know the purpose in your musical message, and this will blow their socks off.”
At the talent show, Al captured his big moment in a white suit that the band director let him wear for the evening, and even if it was a size too large, his dark skin accentuated the garment’s electricity. He always wanted to wear a white suit when he played, because the men who got out of the ambulance to pick him up and take him to the hospital wore white, and they saved his life. His dark shirt, white tie, and sunglasses made him a powerful presence, like he just stepped off a major blues album cover. As he appeared from behind the curtain with his Afro haircut, he looked like a celebrity and slowly walked across the stage.
When he stepped into the solitary spotlight, front and center, the audience was not sure who they were looking at, but when Al took off his sunglasses and smiled, the students in the auditorium gasped, fell silent for a few seconds, and then erupted in applause.
“Can you believe that? It’s Al!”
With an unexpected assurance, he grinned so widely the people in the front row could see the gaps in his teeth. He put his sunglasses back on and stepped closer to the microphone. He looked directly up at the solitary spotlight and pointed. As he had done this many times before, he looked at the crowd, inhaled deeply, and swung the strap holding Sophia around to the back of his shoulder. When he exhaled, more than 1,000 adults and students in the audience leaned forward to hear every word he said.
“I want to dedicate this tune to my English teacher. Every day, he wonders if I pay attention in class. He tries not to show disappointment when I can’t turn in my assignments. Teach. I heard what you said about essays. They have introductions, bodies, and conclusions. I can’t use words good to express myself. Tonight, I hope you hear my thesis. My purpose for writing this tune is to say ‘Thanks.’ ”
“You make our class a family. You helped me improve in a lot of ways. Music is everywhere. Blank pages are filled with hope. When I write songs, I fall onto the pages and wiggle between the notes. This is how I say what I feel. You let me play my music in class, and I found harmony there. Thank you for giving me so many second chances. Every creation matters. Doesn’t it?”
He stepped back from the microphone, pulled Sophia around in front of him, and she came alive. At first, she was soft and gentle. Her beginning was open ended and slowly moved to the main point. Soon the body of the piece wailed and then screamed. When she cried, some in the auditorium did, too. Three times, the good listeners heard her say, “I know this is true?”
Al’s performance made everyone stand up and cheer for what seemed like five minutes. In the back of the auditorium, sitting by himself, Al’s teacher applauded, and his eyes filled with tears. The essay Al played that night was the only one his teacher ever wanted to sing. Al, even with all of his personal and physical issues, had become a rare musical talent.
The band director walked up to the microphone and told the crowd that he had never seen another student musician like him. He shook Al’s hand and asked, “Where did you get the inspiration to write this music?”
Al held Sophia tightly. “I learned early in life that our days are limited. I want to make the most of every one.”
“What do you mean?” the director said.
“There are many ways to tell the truth. Why settle for just one? Tonight, Sophia and I decided to tell you what that means in our music.”
He looked up at the ceiling. “Like that spotlight, I know there is a light inside each of us. I do not know what mine is for, precisely, but one way I can reach it is to play Sophia. Like people falling in love, we were strangers one moment and inseparable the next. It’s crazy, right?”
In English class the next day, Al said to his teacher, “Last night’s Road Show is what you meant the other day when you used that ‘E” word!”
“Epiphany?” the teacher smiled.
“Yeah, that’s it. Thanks for listening to me. Most teachers are too busy. They ‘see’ me, but they don’t ‘hear’ me. They don’t take the time. I’m just a kid. Who cares what I have to say? Do I matter? Does anyone matter? I look up at the night stars and wonder, ‘Why this planet?’ ”
I got a tape machine for my birthday last year. I recorded one of my songs on it. Man, when I played the tape back, I was happy. I heard myself. Those notes would not have been in the air, if I did not play them. At that time, I mattered, just a bit. I existed.
When I played my music again, I mattered more in this world. My heart opened wide. I heard a new message come out of those notes. That idea shook me. How much do I matter?
Could I find more messages? Is there a purpose in being alive? Was I born for a reason? Will my music tell me the answers to these questions?
I forgive myself when I make a mistake, but I want to live for something. Passion matters. Together, Sophia and I will find out what that means.