Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

From a Different Angle

Martha (not her real name, even though there’s certainly nothing wrong with her real name) came into my band room, which looked suspiciously like a school auditorium, looking not too different from any of the other potential new high school band freshmen.

There was an intriguing cadence to her speech, but not outside my experience. Once I worked with a little kid who sported a slight Scots brogue all the time, and was assuredly not from Scotland, and he was a very promising musical person, not to mention wicked smaht. And still is (although he doesn’t use the accent anymore).

There was something that set her apart from her peers. She was pretty good with her clarinet; her questions were sometimes coming at me from unexpected angles; and every so often she’d raise her hand to make a point that turned out to be at least a little off-topic. But honestly, those descriptions could have applied to a lot of high school band kids throughout history. As a friend and colleague of mine said to me once, “We’re in band. We’re all odd ducks.”

Every so often, Martha would get really stressed out about something, and one of my eleventh-grade students would tiptoe around from the back of the band and walk with her out into the auditorium lobby. After a few moments, they’d come back to the stage, take their places, and it was as if nothing had happened.

Rita (not her real name either), my piano-playing junior, knew something that I didn’t at the time. In fact, I only found out the truth about clarinetist Martha about halfway through that year. We were playing some tunes during our town’s annual celebration of the start of December holiday shopping season; and during a break, I got to chat with a nice lady who until that school year had been a special education teacher at the high school.

“I see Martha is with you!” Yes, I said. She’s a sweetie.

“It’s so good that she’s still playing her clarinet. We weren’t sure she would keep on with it.” Y’know, I said, she’s hangin’ in there, just as well as any new freshman member of a group with a pretty extensive, established set of basketball-pep-band repertoire to learn real fast … and with a pretty ingrained set of in-jokes.

“You do know she’s got Aspergers, don’t you?”

Ah. That explained a few things, I said.

The high school band at the school where I was teaching was an entirely extra-curricular affair, thanks to a four-period rotating block schedule in which student took four different classes per semester, and which therefore thwarted the ability of a school to field a complete band for a whole school year during school hours. What that meant was: every Wednesday after school for an hour, we rehearsed furiously because we didn’t have any other opportunity.

What it also meant was: I didn’t get any paperwork from the special education or guidance offices about who in my band was dealing with what.

So I had begun my experience with Martha completely oblivious to the presence of Asperger Syndrome. It was by utterly blind luck that I had benefited from the experience of Rita’s experience with Martha. Rita had helped to teach a karate class in which Martha had been a student. Rita knew what to do when things got too much for Martha to deal with. In short, and in retrospect, I felt like the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

One great thing about the other kids who were freshmen, that first year of Martha’s high school band experience, was that they knew Martha, they liked her well enough, and when her questions or statements ran long and veered into topics that were important to her but not really related to the clarinet part she was playing, they closed their eyes or looked off toward the back of the auditorium, and smiled. They never made fun of her. They always tried to include her in whatever they were doing. The other members of the clarinet section would help her figure out where in the music we were, or help her adjust her reed, or whatever else needed to happen. They never ever held her Asperger Syndrome against her. Ever.

Occasionally you could see that they would occasionally get a little fatigued with the effort it often took to help her out … but they still never were mean to her.

Any time someone comes up with a special time of recognition for a disease or condition or group of people or activity, it can seem like a case of “let’s think about this really hard today, and then we might not think about it much for the rest of the year.” National Poetry Month. Music in Our Schools Month. Whatever. Yay for now, but what about the other eleven months during which we operate?

So today is World Autism Awareness Day. As an educator, I have been all too aware of autism for more than just every April 2nd. There are folks out there who perceive the world differently, who learn differently. If there are any people on earth who recognize this – who have to recognize it in order to do their job as well as possible – they are teachers. Everyone has different learning styles, is what’s drummed into us throughout our time in education training programs and throughout our careers – and we have to make sure we don’t teach in just one way. And this means students who aren’t on the autism spectrum anywhere. Now let’s add in the kids who do deal with autism, in all of its forms and intensities, and the challenge is that much more significant.

In the world of middle- and high-school kids, autism can represent a huge opportunity for teasing, and bullying, and ostracizing. I’m thankful that in the culture of that high school in which I was the band director, it was not cool to treat the “special ed kids” poorly. Whoever was responsible for building that culture probably gets my greatest admiration, of all the fine educators in that district, and there were some genuinely great ones.

I’m thankful particularly on behalf of Martha. She did band for four years. During our joint time with that high school band, Martha taught me a ton about the Japanese language – one of those subjects that her mind latched onto and was comprehensively knowledgeable about. Her grandfather, who took care of her regularly, came to all her concerts – more than I could say for a lot of my other music parents, certainly – and was very supportive of our school’s musical efforts.

I have no idea what she’s doing now, or where she is, or whether she’s still playing her clarinet. I have no idea whether the people around her understand her particular way of interacting with the world. I can only hope that they understand as well as the people who helped her during high school.

Because those people understood that Martha was a human being who happened to be coming at things from a slightly different angle.

A worthwhile human being.


April 2, 2014 - Posted by | band, current events, education, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. article is quite interesting and hopefully true happiness rays began to warm the hearts of us all, when we can share it with sincerity. Greetings from Gede Prama 🙂

    Comment by Gede Prama | April 3, 2014 | Reply

  2. […] never mind, it must have been someone flailing for quick and easy answers. As I’ve documented hereabouts, I’ve taught students with Asperger syndrome. It’s difficult to say “no one with […]

    Pingback by Isla Vista « Editorial License | May 28, 2014 | Reply

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