To an audience, the conductor's technique & art are the most mysterious of all the orchestra. Whether it be a world-class philharmonic orchestra, or a youth orchestra of yet-blossoming talent, only a small part of the conductor's work is visible on-stage, glimpses seen perhaps now, as a wave of the hand or baton & maybe then, as a wild dance atop the podium. And the conductor must always perform turned away from the audience, appearing to the outside world as if his or her face were hidden behind a mask…
"Dad, how do I look?" my son's voice came from behind me. I turned around from my desk to see my two teen-aged daughters and a third girl between them, holding their hands. They were all wearing the uniform of St. Hildegard von Bingen's Academy for Girls, with the distinctive blazers and plaid skirts.
"Son?" I asked. "What are you doing dressed like that?" All three were giggling wildly at my expression. I didn't know that David could giggle like that.
"Dad, I'm just being myself, I think," my youngest "daughter" answered me. "At least I hope I am and I hope you're not upset about it, but I want to go to school at St. Hildegard's with my sisters this year."
"But that's a girl's school," I objected. "Would they even let you in there?"
"Boys have quietly enrolled at St. Hildegard's from time to time," my eldest daughter, Cecilia, informed me. "It's unusual, of course, but I've been told it's worked out well for the guys who've done it."
In truth, I couldn't imagine David ever enrolling quietly in anything.
"Of course, he'll have to keep to the same dress code as everyone else," her sister, Elizabeth, followed up giggling. "But then, that's the fun of it!"
Next, in a move that still puzzles me, David quickly stuck his tongue out at Elizabeth as he curtseyed to her and Cecilia, then both sisters whirled around, and joining arm-in-arm-in-arm with him, they all skipped off through the wide threshold into the parlor, singing and dancing.
"Mom!" Cecilia sang out. Then she chanted, "Daddy needs to talk to you!"
I was worried. First of all, David looked cute, in every way as cute as his sisters. Definitely, he'd been practicing. How long had they been dressing him up, anyway? That little vaudeville act that they just did had been rehearsed as well. So this was not new—I was only finding out now.
So grinning to myself, I just shook my head and resumed studying the score on my desk when my wife, Sabrina, came into my study.
"Honey? Did you want something?" she asked me.
Sabrina sat down in the chair beside my desk.
"David enrolling in St. Hildegard's?" I mused aloud, raising an eyebrow. "I suddenly discovered a third, younger 'daughter' here. What's going on?"
"I'm not certain," Sabrina admitted. "But they asked me to help them out just a few days ago."
"Help them out how?" I asked. "This was their idea?"
"At first, I thought that they were just playing dress up, kinda like we did a few times," my wife recalled, flirting at me with a smile. "But yesterday, they all came to me and asked if we would let David go to school with them. So first, I decided to call St. Hildegard's, to see if it were even permissible. I didn't want to worry you over it, if it weren't even a possibility. But I called the school this morning and the principal said that they had on rare occasions allowed boys to enroll at St. Hildegard's Academy for Girls when there had been good reasons for doing so."
"And are there good reasons for David to go to a girl's school?" I asked her. "Would he have to dress like a girl, if he did? But unless I miss my guess, he's counting on that, isn't he?"
Sabrina grinned at me. "Yes, he wants to dress like a girl, now. Finding out I might have a third 'daughter' was a little shocking for me, too! But I do like the idea of him joining us for our mother-daughter shopping trips."
"But seriously, why does he want to?" I persisted. "Did he tell you?"
"Yes," my wife answered. "In short, David sounds as if he may be transgendered. He told me how he feels and I think he could be. He says that he feels more like a girl than a boy much of the time. I promise to tell you more if necessary, but I told him that he needs to explain how he feels to you, himself. If he is transgendered, I think it's even more important that he be able to talk to us both about it, and I think especially with you. Are you okay with that?"
"Well, no, I can't say I'm okay with him being transgendered. It's not something that I really know about," I admitted. "But you're right, though. He's gotta be able to talk about it with us. And we all need to discuss it with him as a family."
"How do you feel about it, then, if he is transgendered?" my wife asked me, but I didn't know how to answer her. This was all very sudden. Sabrina had convinced me to dress up as a girl a few times when we were kids, and it had been fun for us both, but somehow David's situation might be different from merely playing dress up with his sisters.
I had never even considered going to school in drag, although, if Sabrina had asked me to do it, I was so lovestruck that I very likely would have. But to me, David seemed to be doing more than just cross-dressing. There was this look in his eyes. I hadn't seen it until now, looking as if sadness were about to be overcome by some yet suppressed hope.
And I seemed likely to have missed other things about him, too. Moreover, even Sabrina seemed to have been taken by surprise as well. Normally she sees and hears all our children's subtler, hidden signals that I miss routinely. Only Elizabeth and Cecilia really understood, apparently, what their brother was thinking.
"Sweetheart, I really don't know how I feel, nor even what to think about it," I said. "I'm certainly not comfortable with it. This isn't simply like you dressing me up for fun when we were kids, is it?"
Sabrina smiled at me, blushing a little herself. "No, honey," she concurred with me, "it's much more serious than that. But I think that if David wants to explore being a girl, I can't think of a better or safer place for him than St. Hildegard's. We were thinking about a private school for him anyway."
"Yes, we were," I acknowledged. "And as silly as it seems, it might be a good solution to solving our longer term academic arrangements. But what if it doesn't work out for him there?"
"I don't know. I haven't really had enough time to think all this through just yet," my wife admitted. "Remember, this is new to me, too. But I'd say give it a try. You know how much Cecilia's and Elizabeth's grades have improved and they thoroughly like going to school and enjoy learning now."
"Hmm? Bree, let's take one more look at that information St. George's Academy sent us," I suggested. "I'd like to compare it with what we know about St. Hildegard's."
"You're seriously considering it, aren't you?" Sabrina asked incredulously. "I really thought you'd consider it too crazy."
"Well, I do consider it crazy," I agreed. "But David did ask me, along with Cecilia and Elizabeth. When we estimated the cost of sending him to a private school, we assumed St. Hildegard's tuition rates, so we know that we can afford it. And since the principal told you that they have allowed it, the idea may be practicable even if it is silly."
"You think it's silly?"
"Yes—but girl-silly, not boy-silly. Your distinction."
My wife smiled back at me. We hadn't mentioned that dichotomy in years. When we were in our pre-teens, she had told me that silly meant different things to girls and boys. She had wanted to polish my toenails. We agreed that it was silly, but not the same silly. During our debate, she made that point that among girls, silly is a good thing, implying whimsy, fun, giggling and many opportunities for enjoyment and even relaxation, whereas among boys, silly connotes stupid, in the sense of inappropriate or even irresponsible, behavior, hence a bad thing.
No, I did not let Sabrina paint my toenails.
"How much do you know about transgendered kids?" asked my wife.
"Not too much," I conceded. "It was one of the newer topics in our more recent diversity refresher course." I mused over it for a moment. "Y'know, I still need to get credit in continuing education for the coming school year. There's a weekend course entitled Understanding Transgendered Students that I could enroll in to meet the current training requirement."
"Could I take it with you?"
"I don't know why you couldn't," I answered her. "I get paid to take it and the Tri-State Youth Orchestra will cover my tuition and fees for it, although not yours. But still, certainly it would be important enough for us to budget for it. Now that I think about it, though, some of the course material might not be so interesting or useful for you to the extent it involves teaching specifically."
"Oh, I didn't think about that," she admitted, somewhat disappointed.
"But I do like the idea of us taking a course together. So, we need to look for courses that would more suitable for you, too. Civic groups often offer courses in diversity issues at the public library. We can check on the schedule there. And the university frequently offers courses and workshops for continuing education credit in all kinds of things. We should check their catalogue for offerings. Most employers offer diversity training of some kind. How 'bout at your own job?"
"I'll check on it tomorrow," she promised. Sabrina took her agenda out of her purse and opened it to a page and made a note of it.
"I'm just hoping we can figure out the right thing to do," I said.
"Honey, I'm confident we will. First, we don't need to decide it all tonight. There's still time to think about it. St. Hildegard's is holding a seat for David until I can call them back Monday. We'll have done our research and thought it through by Sunday. We can have a family conference and decide then."
"It's a plan, then."
That had happened barely a month ago, before the school year began. I pondered the situations that I faced at home and here, leaning back in an ergonomic chair, tapping my baton on the desk.
David had been quite happy living as a girl since enrolling in St. Hildegard's. He and the girls were getting along better than they ever had now that they studied together. Certainly the friction that had pitted brother against sisters was gone. How much of sibling rivalry is really battles over gender, anyway? I thought back to how I had gotten along with my own sisters. Sabrina had dressed me up a few times, but now I wondered if we should have let my sisters in on the fun as well?
Next I thought about Tony Schmidt. How was his—her?—situation different from David's? How were they alike? These were no longer mere abstractions or hypothetical musings anymore. One was my son—or daughter?—and the other a student with a promising musical gift.
I heard the students beginning to gather in the orchestra room for rehearsal. Then, there was a knock on my door.
"Come in!" I answered. The door opened. It was Paul, my principal 'cellist, wearing his instrument in a heavy, brown canvas bag, like a backpack.
"Maestro Thomasson, I got a message that you wanted to see me before rehearsal tonight?"
"Yes, I do. Please, take a seat." The boy slipped his 'cello bag off his back and put it down next to the chair and sat down.
"Paul, you're a wonderful 'cellist and I'm glad to have you as our principal this year," I acknowledged, hoping to soften the blow to come. Worried about his attitude toward our bassoonists, I had sent Paul a note via his school office that I needed to discuss an important matter with him. Sometimes a conductor needs to referee personal differences between musicians and Toni and Tori had complained after Paul's nasty looks persisted into the next rehearsal.
"But you may not be aware that your behavior at rehearsals since the school year began has disturbed other students and it's disturbed me," I informed him. "I noticed it the first week and then two other students complained after rehearsal Monday."
"But what did I do?"
"The students in question gave me permission to use their names," I prefaced my question. "So Paul, you've been staring at Toni like you wanna kill her. Sometimes at her friend Tori, too, but mostly at Toni. Why?"
"I—I'm sorry, I didn't know—I won't do it again."
"Paul, I'm not sure that will be enough," I told him. Moreover, I needed to find out what was wrong. "And you didn't answer my question. Why? Besides, I don't believe you don't know."
"I'm mad at Tony."
"Why? What do you have against her? What did she do?"
"Because I knew—knew about him when I was in middle school. That's right! I knew about him!" Paul sighed with exasperation. "Now, he's dressing and living like a girl, giggles and squeals in classes, and get's away with it. It's not fair!"
I noticed that tears were welling up in Paul's eyes.
"Well, I know about that. I've talked with Toni—with her. Please refer to her in the feminine, by the way. You wouldn't want her referring to you as a girl, would you?"
Tears were falling down his cheeks, now.
"Why not? Everyone calls me that, anyway. Or they call me gay or queer."
"I'm sorry about that," I tried to console him. "Has anyone in orchestra called you anything unwelcome?"
"Then, it's not everyone," I said. "And a moment ago you mentioned that something is not fair. What's not fair?"
"Tony went to see a doctor and then another doctor and then they gave him a letter saying that he can go to school dressed like a girl when he wants to and he gets to take pills that make him look even more like a girl."
"And why's that not fair?"
"Because Tony gets to do it, but I don't."
I know that I stared wide-eyed at Paul. He was now sobbing and sniffling. I opened a desk drawer and found a new box of facial tissue, popped it open and set it down on the desk across from me.
"Thanks," he squeaked. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. Never apologize for how you feel. Besides, your tears seem perfectly real to me."
Another transgendered kid? Not at all expected. Paul didn't look to me like he'd have been mistaken for a girl. Not like Tony did two years ago. Not like David had since he was born. But to me, at least, Paul looked like a typical teen-aged boy. Who knew? Did anyone?
"Have you told anyone else?"
"No," the boy whispered. "I'm afraid to tell anyone at all. I don't even know why I told you."
"Maybe it's because you needed to?" I suggested. "It's gotta be tough carrying feelings like that inside you without letting on."
"It is." His eyes now looked at me, begging for me to offer him some kind of answer.
Not being a psychologist, I wasn't sure what to say next. Still, as an educator, students often sought advice on various matters from me. But somehow, I didn't think that he meant to tell me this. I had put him under stress by insisting that he explain his behavior and he had blurted his deepest, darkest secret right out as a response. A tenebrous secret.
Although I wasn't a psychologist, I was a musician and feelings were still a part of the job.
"Paul, at the beginning of the second movement of the Brahms, is that what you're feeling?"
He nodded. "Yes," the boy answered, still whispering, still desolate.
"Are you up to playing this afternoon?"
"I—I think so."
"All right. It's almost time to start rehearsal and we both need to get ready. But I want you to promise me two things right now."
"First, that you'll apologize to Toni and Tori today for staring at them."
"Okay. I can do that. What else?"
"Promise me that you won't leave today until we've had a chance to talk again."
Paul looked down at the desk and grabbed a few more tissues. "I can do that, too."
"Then, let's get going out there!"
We spent about half an hour going through the opening movement of Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D Major, working through some of the trickier details. In truth, Brahms' symphonies were not all that difficult technically, but the problems of interpretation could be considerably vexing, not only for myself as a conductor, but also for the orchestra. The range of expression required for Brahms spans the whole spectrum of human emotion. That was why I liked Brahms' symphonies. My students could handle most of the technical challenges without too much effort, but they really had to explore putting their own thoughts and feelings into their music, both as individual musicians and as an orchestra.
Fortunately for what was shaping up, Paul, as principal 'cellist, was sitting immediately at my right hand, since we used the standard seating for the modern orchestra, with the first violins to my left, with second violins, violas, and 'cellos, respectively, arranged clockwise.
We played through the beginning of the second movement. This time, Paul imbued more passion into it than I'd ever seen, heard, or felt anyone do before. He poured more of himself into it than maybe was wise. He was sobbing. Cheryl, his deskmate and assistant principal 'cellist was hugging him and I knew that it was time to break for a few minutes.
"Take five, everyone!" I announced. "Paul, Cheryl, we need to talk, now please…"
I left the podium, baton in hand, and the two 'cellists followed me into my office. Cheryl hugged Paul tightly before he fell into the chair across from me again. His deskmate remained standing. I closed the door for privacy.
"Let's make this simple," I said. "Paul, I don't think you can quite cope right now, so I'll be sending you home in a minute. Cheryl, you'll need to take over as principal for today and until Paul's ready. Go now, and tell the other 'cellists. They need to know."
"Yes, Maestro," the girl answered. She smiled at Paul and hugged him before leaving the office.
"Paul, did you have a chance to apologie to Toni and Tori, yet?"
"No, not yet," he admitted. "I had hoped to talk with them at break."
"Well, all things considered, I'll let you off the hook for it today," I told him. "I haven't handled this as well as I should've."
"No, it's not your fault, not at all," the teenager replied. "I need to talk with them today or I'll have to go through all this again when I do. I'm already upset and I really need to tell Tony why I'm jealous of him."
"Isn't that risky, Paul?"
"No more than anything else. I've got to tell them and a few other people, too. But they deserve to know now."
"Are you sure?"
Paul nodded to me as he tore some facial tissue from the box on my desk. I opened the office door and pointed my baton at Toni and Tori, beckoning them to the office with my free hand. Seeing the stern look on my face, they came into the office immediately and shut the door behind us.
"All right, everyone," I announced to command their attention. "What's about to be said in here doesn't leave this room. You all got that?"
They all nodded, first staring somewhat wide-eyed at one another and then at me. I pulled a couple of chairs over next to my desk and gestured for Paul to turn his to face them as Toni and Tori sat down.
"Paul, again, you don't have to do this today, but you've expressed a need to talk about it now. Do you still want to?"
"Yes, Maestro. I need to get through this now," he answered me. Then he turned to address Toni and Tori. "I'm sorry for staring you down. I know it made you both uncomfortable and I'm sorry for doing it."
"Why did you do it?" Toni asked him. "What did we ever do to you?"
Paul started crying again. "I knew all about you, Anthony Schmidt. I knew who you were back in middle school. I heard all the rumors about you and—and—I'm jealous!—I'm jealous because you got what I want to have—what I need. You see, Tony, I'm like you are—I—I think that inside, I'm a girl, too!"
An uneasy silence pervaded the room for a moment. Then Toni and Tori stood up and hugged Paul, still in his chair.
"All's forgiven!" Toni comforted Paul. "Why didn't you tell us sooner?"
"No wonder you looked so lonely all the time!" Tori added.
"You can be our sister now?" continued Toni. "What's your girl's name?"
"I don't have one," answered Paul.
"So, you really are new at this, huh?" Tori asked to confirm.
"Maestro is the only one I've told before you."
"You need to see someone professional about it," Toni advised Paul. "There's so much involved, but you've already taken your first step telling us and Maestro Thomasson. You need to talk to your counselor, the school psychologist, or the school nurse."
"Okay, everyone," I said. "I know this is big news for all of us, but we gotta get back to rehearsal, and I still need to say something else to Paul before he goes home. Toni, Tori, get back to your desks and I'll be starting up again in another minute or so."
"Yes, Maestro," they answered in near unison. I closed the door again and turned again to talk to Paul.
"You've been through a lot this afternoon," I said. "I want you to go home and rest up. Toni's right, though. If you think that you're really a girl, you need to talk with someone who can get the ball rolling for you. Make an appointment with the school nurse, psychologist, or your counselor."
"I'm just afraid of telling any of them about—about how I feel inside."
"Well, you told me. Now you've told Toni and Tori. Think about who you want to tell next."
"I'm still worried about telling anyone else."
"Paul, you really need to tell someone who's in a position to help you do something abou this. Now, if you need me to, I'll go with you to talk about it to anyone in your school that you want," I offered, looking him square in the eye. "Would that help?"
He seemed to drift off into space for a moment. "Promise?" he asked.
"Absolutely promise," I assured him, placing my hand on his shoulder. "You won't have to go alone."
Paul sighed and leaned back in his chair. His eyes were red, his face chapped from crying, and his shirt was dripping with perspiration. But he was also now relaxed. I'd never seen such a look of relief on a student's face before. He'd been carrying this burden inside himself for such a long time. Too long.
"Go pack up your 'cello for today," I told him quietly, with a smile. "Rest up for tomorrow. We'll need you back in full form as soon as you're ready."
Paul stood up and stepped to the door.
"Oh, Paul," I said as he was about to leave. "Remember, my cell phone and email address are on the syllabus for Orchestra. Call, text, or email if you need to talk. You don't need to go through this alone, anymore."
He nodded and smiled to me as he stepped out and closed the door behind him. Leaning back in the ergonomic chair, I tapped my baton on the desk.
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