©Brian G. Angevine, June 17, 2002
The Price of Prunes
Brian G. Angevine, Ph. D.
I’m a nice guy. Seems kind of strange to have to say it, but I am a nice guy. And you know where nice guys finish. But I also have ambition--and I suppose that is when I becomea not so nice guy. When I decide I am going to accomplish something.
I guess it all started when I was in kindergarten--that is when I had my first fight. I don’t remember how it started or even who I fought, but I remember some of the details.
“You’re a big sissy!
I puffed up all big, I mean how big can a five year old get? “I am not!”
“Ya’re too, you sissy! And Emmy Lou Randall likes me better than you!”
EmmyLou Randall was my first kiss, etc. For some reason she and I used to walk home after school and wound up playing around in unusual places. We kinda did some inspection of private stuff on each other. She didn’t seem to mind at all.
That did it! I smacked the kid right in the nose. He kinda let out a little yelp and I saw some blood. Then I turned around and ran--I ain’t no sissy.
Well I ran like hell, but he caught me and ripped the pocket off my shirt trying to get me to stop. Then he whacked me in the nose. I roared in a kind of five-year-old-bull fashion, which probably sounded more like a mouse squeak, and he turned tail and ran. I had blood on my face and my hands and I was mad! I chased him all around the outside of the fence at Washington Park Elementary in Denver, Colorado. Finally he wore down a little, probably from loss of blood, and I caught up with him--I wasn’t exactly born to run, ‘ya know? I grabbed his hair from behind and brought him up short. He turned around just enough for me to poke his nose again. Then I ran again.
I’ve seen professional fighters, and I see a lot of poking and running and hugging. I have seldom witnessed a really good professional fight. Those guys practice and all that, and this guy and I already had their moves down pat.
As I remember it, my first fight consisted of four blows. Two by me and two by him. We were both hot and sweaty and dirty, with a little blood messing up the generally disheveled look we had going. I don’t remember much more, but I do remember he and I became best friends after the fight. Emmy Lou Randall remains in my memory, but not vividly. I am not good with names but I remember hers.
But remember, I’m a nice guy.
I was in a boy’s band. I remember going to the first meeting where the director interviewed all the boys and their parents. He asked me what I wanted to play and I told him, “Baritone.” Why, I don’t really know. I just liked the sound of the instrument and my cousin was going to play trombone. He was older and in a way the baritone is a cousin of the trombone. The director looked at my teeth and decided I could play baritone. I’ve heard tell that horse traders always look at the teeth--but I couldn’t run like a horse, and I sure couldn’t carry a man.
My musical life didn’t start with the boy’s band. It started before birth. Dad was an excellent singer and mom played piano, organ and violin. I was always surrounded by music. I recall sitting in the middle of the living room floor listening to one of those old, big radios. It was a piece of furniture with a rounded top and a cloth behind the wooden grillwork. I didn’t think of it as an antique because we used it. But now it would probably fetch a few bucks for someone into that kind of thing. Anyway, the radio kept playing love songs and I would just sit and listen to them in rapt attention.
Finally I asked mom, “Why do they play so many love songs?
Mom said, “Because love makes the world go around.”
I was a curious kid, but I didn’t ask many questions. I just sat and contemplated how love could make the world go around. I’ve always been a philosopher like that. I clearly heard the minister say in church that God created the Earth out of void. I used to try to visualize God standing in nothing--void--and creating the earth. Oral Roberts had the same kind of literal thinking. My sister went to his University--guess what it was named! When I visited they had us go to this orientation room. The curtains opened and these huge plastic hands came out and formed the earth out of nothing! Talk about literal thinkers!
But I digress. There was a point I was going to make about being a nice guy in the boy’s band. Then I was going to tell you about my first piano recital and my first vocal solo, and all that. But all that is beside the point. Whatever is beside the point must be dull, because the definition of a point is that it is sharp--so whatever is beside it is probably null and void. Whoops, there I go again.
Anyway, this boy’s band used to rehearse in the basement of South Broadway Christian church. The church was about five miles or so from our house near Washington Park. I was playing the baritone, which my parents had so lovingly bought me, and it was a big, heavy sucker (or blower if you prefer). I was a little guy and I had to lug that heavy case all over the place. I barely had enough height on me to make it clear the ground when I heaved on it.
I practiced a lot and got pretty good at playing the baritone. But I was still real young and the band was divided roughly into age groups. As you got older and better you were passed on to the next higher group. This Saturday rehearsal had been a long and tough one and I was tired. I stood out in front of the church waiting for my mom to pick me up. I waited for a long time.
I am not a particularly patient person by nature, but I am a nice guy. I don’t like waiting. I figure there are a lot of demands on my time and I need to get on with the business of doing whatever it is that I do. Everyone else was gone and they locked up the church. I was still waiting. Then I started walking home, hefting that baritone first by one arm, and then the other.
It was an exercise in focus. Since I couldn’t carry it very far in one stretch I started setting goals for myself. Like I would carry it with one arm for a certain number of steps before I would sit it down and switch arms. The balance was kind of strange because the bell stuck out on one side and made a big bulge in that side of the case. When I carried it in my right hand, the bell was to the front and pointing away from my body, which made the smooth side of the case rub against my right leg. When I switched sides, there was no way to carry it bell-front because the bulge would rub against my left leg and practically break it. So I had to carry it ass first, so to speak. The handle on the case was set up to carry it bell first and angled that way. So when it was in my left hand my wrist had to be wrenched back in an awkward way and the balance of the whole thing was thrown off.
I carried that honker all the way from South Broadway Christian Church to the north entrance of Washington Park. I was only about a mile and a half from home on the other side of Washington Park when a cop car pulled up beside me. The kindly gentleman called me by name and asked if I needed a ride home. I guess my face was kinda red and my hands and feet all blistered from all that effort, so I allowed as how I could probably use a sit down. I was kind of curious how he knew my name until he got on the radio and called in to headquarters that he had found me. Turns out mom had forgotten me, or had thought that someone else was going to pick me up. When she finally went looking for me I was nowhere to be found at the church.
Funny how I still remember that so clearly. I don’t think I was a very nice guy about that. I kinda felt like a loser and that nobody loved me.
Community music groups are a good thing. I wrote my dissertation about Edgar B. Gordon, “Pops” to his legion of followers. He advocated community music groups as a way to constructively use all the free time we would all have on our hands with the advent of labor saving devices. He was talking about the electric washing machine, the vacuum cleaner, the telephone, and so forth. He lived a long time ago.
Gordon started out in Winfield, Kansas as a band, orchestra, choir director in the public schools. At that time “Chatauquas” were all the rage. Semi-professional people would travel around and perform in public parks and in school auditoriums (that probably should be auditoria, but who knows?). Local folks would join in with their groups and for a week or so in the summertime the towns would be awash in music and drama--everyone got in on the act. At the height of Gordon’s reign in Winfield it was named the best town in America for raising children. Some of the criteria were a lack of tobacco and liquor sales--which is still nearly a hallmark of life in Winfield, Kansas. Funny though, when I was doing research on Gordon’s life, I found an old Winfield telephone book. I was looking for Gordon’s address and found it. But some of the names had a “C” next to them. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what that meant.
Edgar Gordon took his show on the road to Wisconsin. The University of Wisconsin hired him to teach music. Gordon soon noticed that rural Wisconsonites were kind of mired in snowdrifts most of the winter. Seeing that it was more than a little difficult for folks to get around, he decided to take his music education to them, in a unique way. He started broadcasting lessons on the radio!
That was how I came across his name. I got interested in the way music was used on Sesame Street and The Electric Company to teach other things to children--like the alphabet. I was more or less discontent with being a high school band director, which really translated to grade school, junior high and high school in small towns in Colorado. And band also meant choir. Small town Colorado is not exactly the place to make a name for yourself as a musician. My marching bands of 25 or 30 kids didn’t make much of a dent in the football fields and even less of a wave in the atmosphere. Being educated in Oklahoma made me realize that small town Colorado has no idea what a real marching band looks and sounds like. Texas and Oklahoma take those things just as seriously as they do their football!
Anyway, I had finished my master’s degree, got tired of teaching small school music, and started selling insurance, an occupation I was SURE I would never pursue. Music was still in me and I was fascinated watching my own boys learning all kinds of stuff with music as a delivery vehicle. My fertile mind started working on a way to profit from television and music. The answer seemed to be to get a doctorate and write a television series using music to teach music. So off I went to study and learn.
I started out reading about the history of television (did you know that a Russian, Vladimir Zworykin, was the first to successfully create a television picture--in 1917 no less). That reading led inevitably to the history of radio (Marconi was the first to successfully transmit radio signals in 1895), and all the time I was looking for the first educational uses of radio and television. I kept coming across the name Edgar B. Gordon of the University of Wisconsin and how he taught music to rural people using the radio. Each spring he would have all his students come to the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison where they would have a huge music festival. While continuing to learn about all the breakthroughs in technology in radio and television development, I became fascinated with the name Edgar B. Gordon.
While Gordon may not have been the first to use radio or television to teach music, he certainly was the most successful in distance learning in the 1920’s. I still believe he was the first to use the technology for distance learning. I could not write his biography using a strict chronology. Gordon was involved in far too many things that overlapped. How could one start talking about his involvement in Chataquas when he was also involved with Hull House in Chicago? How could one focus on his musical achievements when he was also heavily involved in Social Services? Should one ignore his leadership in national music education organizations? His biography started out as a chronology, then became chapters devoted to each of his activities, which were many and varied.
Searching for original sources I communicated with his son and a former colleague at the University of Wisconsin. I prepared ground work a year in advance of my visit to Madison. Letters to his son and a colleague were sent well in advance so that they would be prepared for my questions. A week before my planned visit I called his son. A woman answered and I asked to speak to the man with whom I had communicated. Silence was her reply, finally broken by the news that he had died several months before. I was shocked and disappointed to lose such a valuable source. But I went ahead with my visit to Gordon’s colleague at his home in Madison.
After some small talk I got out my tape recorder and asked a question. The man seemed reluctant to give me much information at first causing some confusion on my part. After all I had written in advance and talked to him on the phone. Why was he not forthcoming now? The essence of my next few questions gave him some pause. After awhile he said, “You’ve really done your homework, haven’t you?”
It seems he was accustomed to people picking his brain instead of doing research themselves. After it became clear to him that I really had read everything available on Edgar’s life, he opened up a treasure trove of information. He found photographs of many aspects of Gordon’s life, especially his activities on education by radio. We spent two great days delving into the life of a great and fascinating man, and I came back with priceless material to put in my dissertation.
You might wonder at this point why I am writing this in this way. What point am I trying to make with all this rambling? In my doctoral studies an educational historian whom I greatly admire required us to read many books detailing the history of education. One really stuck in my mind. But my mind being the boiling caldron of information and ideas that it is, does not do a good job of keeping track of names and titles. Details about all kinds of information, yes. Names and titles of books and music, no. In fact I flunked my doctoral orals the first time because I could not name the directors of major symphonies, nor the first violinists, nor the names of great pieces of music, nor the composers of great pieces of music I was expected to know. I still can’t do that, but I’m a nice guy. I’ll tell you more about that aspect of my mind later--if you’re still interested.
Anyway, this writer used a unique device to make his points about education. He would write a vignette about his life in italics. He never said it was his life, but one could not have those kind of details nor the mental effect if one had not lived the vignettes. His father had some disease, tuberculosis, I believe, which kept him bedridden all the time. His father was a perfectionist and seldom saw anything except the work that needed to be done (much like me). Frustrated at his impotence and inability to actually do the work which obviously (to him) needed to be done, he forced his poor son to do all the detail laden work. For instance, the boy asked to go with his friends to play ball. Father said, “Of course. As soon as you cut the lawn.”
Eagerly the boy obeyed the command. After all, one should work to earn leisure, right? Son of a gun, there was no lawn mower, or it didn’t work, or something. Dad supplied a straight razor and had the boy down on his hands and knees cutting the grass with a straight razor! After many days of such back-breaking labor, the boy felt that the job had been accomplished and asked again if he could play ball. Needless to say, the job was not perfect. Father in all his wisdom could point out blade after blade of grass that was slightly higher than its neighbors. The work went on all summer.
While I don’t remember all the details of the book, nor how the vignettes supported subsequent discussion of educational merit, I certainly remember the device. I thought I would try a version of it.
Why have I chosen to write this particular tome? Because I’m a nice guy. I have made a lot of mistakes in my life and I thought that pointing out some of them might help readers to avoid doing the same things. Now, how many times have I said "I am a nice guy?" Too many. Am I trying to convince you or myself?
Was Emmy Lou Randall a mistake? I don’t know, but it led to a lifetime of obsession about the female body. I am not a dirty old man but I have struggled with a streak of voyeurism all my life. It would not do for a respected teacher to be caught as a peeping tom. So I peep in my mind rather than in reality. I don’t think there is anything particularly strange about that in the male of the species, but many have tried to convince me that people like me will go to Hell. Lust, you know, is a cardinal sin.
Fighting is not something to be particularly ashamed of. Matter of fact, the ones who don’t fight tend to be looked down upon in our society far more than those who have an occasional scuffle. I have had only three fistfights in my life. The kindergarten incident (unlike some people, I did not learn all I needed to know in kindergarten), one in junior high school and one in college.
What I have learned from those incidents is that I am a nice guy up to a point. Then, when my anger asserts itself, I am one dangerous son-of-a-gun.
Merrill Junior High, Denver, Colorado. Ray Carey is the best looking guy in school. I am a total nerd. Ray has wavy black hair and is fantastically handsome. He and I are both talented, but I am a total nerd. He plays oboe in band and I still play baritone. Adolescents burst with energy and weird ideas and weird hormones. My aggressive tendencies came out on the basketbrawl court. After a quick lunch a herd of guys would hit the asphalt basketball court on the playground. I had NO TALENT in basketball, and there were way too many of us on the court anyway. So, no harm, no foul. Anything goes. Whomever had the ball would get mobbed! Once in awhile a shot would go up and bodies would fly all over--and ravers think they invented the mosh pit!! Slam dancing? This was just slam! I was okay at that and frequently went home with my clothes torn up.
The nerdy thing I did was cartooning. A couple of guys had a real knack for drawing cartoons. Dan W and Ken N--I think. Dan had a sunken chest from polio, I guess, and Ken had curly red hair and freckles. Not exactly the popular look for junior high kids. I combed my hair in a wave and was skinny and wore glasses. I also had to wear a patch on my right eye a good part of my formative years trying to make my lazy left eye respond. It never did work, but it sure destroyed any sense of self esteem I might have developed.
Dan, Ken and I developed “bions.” They were round figures with stick arms and legs that would do all kinds of outrageous things. We would draw elaborate cartoons with great story lines in all our notebooks, and even in the dirt on the playground. Can you imagine cool Ray watching us in our fantasy world drawing bions? I probably hit him during basketbrawl in a way he didn’t appreciate. He decided to make an example of me.
I was innocently drawing bions when Ray challenged me to a fight. A huge crowd instantly surrounded us with all the cute girls looking on with interest--front row seats even. My dad had taught me how to box, so I assumed the pugilistic stance with good defensive arm position and footwork. I had no real desire to fight, so Ray started punching me on the left shoulder--the only opening he had. He punched me, and punched me, and danced around taunting me, and punched me. All the time I just stood there with my stance all correct and everything. After a while someone hauled us into the office and we both got in trouble. I never threw a punch and came out of it with a swollen shoulder and punishment from the school. Strange, after that Ray and I were pretty good friends, but I still wasn’t popular. Why didn’t I hit him? Because I am a nice guy.
Nowadays they talk in educational circles about the problem of bullying. Kids shoot other kids in school because they were bullied. Bullying is a big problem. Always has been, always will be. All animals have a pecking order and that is especially so in humans. Is bullying limited to weak boys and strong boys? NO! Its effects can be seen in every aspect of life. Bosses bully underlings who then bully those who have less status. Maybe it is not as overt as being picked on by the popular kid in a fistfight. But bullying exists everywhere.
Since I was a victim of bullying most of my life, it has had a definite effect on me. I am very opinionated and loaded with ideas. Creativity is often viewed as producing something original. But experts on creativity--of which I am one--see other aspects that are just as valuable as originality. Fluency, flexibility and elaboration are equally as creative as the person who comes up with an original idea. Someone has to be around to take that idea and transform it into something practical or saleable (elaboration). Some people come up with a plethora of ideas, many ways to solve a problem (fluency). Others might find a completely unusual or different use for an existing product (flexibility).
I abound in fluency and flexibility. Sometimes I am even original, but more often I see a need and adapt an activity to fill the need. In my various careers I have had a few bosses who have recognized my abilities and used my talents. I have worked extremely hard and enjoyed every minute of my effort with those people. One bit the hand that fed her by taking my work with her to another school district and publishing it in her name. But at least she let me do my thing while she was my boss.
My current circumstance is less than enjoyable and I am counting the days to retirement. Many people in power seem to feel threatened by creative people. All the people in administration who nurtured my creativity have now gone on to other places, and those who are left don’t recognize the many activities I developed to meet specific needs. How do I feel about that? Extremely disappointed, underutilized, stagnant, underappreciated, and on and on.
My current principal claims to be a consummate team builder and recognizes all the “multiple intelligences” people have. He acts as if he invented the term “multiple intelligences” and is on the leading edge of something new. Shucks, I have been teaching my students about that theory for about 15 years. But I don’t treat anything as the absolute gospel and cure-all for what ails education. This zealot does. When I offered a dissenting opinion for his perusal (not my opinion, but an article by a respected college researcher), I suddenly became the black sheep on his faculty. I now have a big sign on my computer, “NO OPINIONS.” E-mail is a great thing sometimes, but offering opinions to your superiors is not a good use for it.
The point I am making about bullying cuts at least two ways, maybe more. Since I was bullied in my younger years I reacted by doing some myself. I finally gained some weight and my efforts at producing muscles finally showed. A big, fat, smelly nerd lived in my dorm. A few of us decided to “give him a bath.” We bought squirt guns and ran by his room all evening squirting. That was great fun until I was running up the stairs not looking where I was going. He was standing at the top of the stairs and punched me in the face as I ran. The result was a gash under my eye that bled profusely as head wounds do. My anger rushed in where reason fears to tread, I mounted his back and proceeded to choke him, nearly to death. Several people pulled me off, and my life of battling my anger began.
Many times since then I have lost control of my anger. Usually it results from someone trying to belittle me--or at least that is how I interpret it. I feel I am right and they are wrong and anger takes over. When I finally realized I needed help I had my fist cocked ready to slug a large cop, until I noticed the moonlight glinting off his badge and the gun at his hip. I held the punch and avoided jail. But the inner battle continues. Most of the time when I boil over it comes out in vitriolic print. I share my opinions of an event or an administrative missive far and wide. Gee! I wonder why I have never gotten that promotion I so deserve? I have a great work ethic, I am extremely knowledgeable on MANY subjects, I have a keen mind, inordinately creative, why don’t my superiors recognize my great ability and promote me? I am a nice guy. But I am NOT a team player--I would rather do the work myself and get it done quickly and right, than to let people mess around with my ideas. And when I don’t feel that my ability and hard work have been recognized--WATCH OUT.
So, do nice guys finish last? Well, I am at last finished. I have tried to make some points about bullying and following your dreams. I have tried to encourage creativity backed up by preliminary and good research. And I have tried to point out some things that don’t work in my personality that have cost me a lot.
Perhaps you can learn something from that. If so, you have learned the price of prunes. No one really cares about prunes!
Brian G. Angevine, Ph. D.
Cuba, KS 66940