The summer before my senior year of college, my parents moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota, changing my college residential status from “local” to “going-to-school-not-close-to-home-anymore.” Therefore, after a run of something like six years, I handed in my cornmeal-crusted uniform and free bagel privileges and searched for work on the university campus. Sigh.
I applied for exactly two jobs whose schedule would allow for flexibility around my classes and never-ending string of rehearsals and practicing. One was at the campus coffeehouse, where my expertise with frothy, caffeinated beverages was utilized crafting lattes and mochas well up to hours when caffeine is only a good idea if you’re a college student with an overloaded schedule.
The other job found me on the other extreme, rising out of bed a good bit earlier than any of my college peers, scarfing down cereal and coffee in my dorm room because breakfast at the cafeteria wasn’t worth the time or money, and remember–no more free bagels.
My morning gig began at 7:30 a.m. and involved shoving grand pianos across rooms and arranging chairs in the Conservatory (affectionately called “the Con” by those of us who spent something like 16 hours a day there) to set up for class nearly every day. Glamorous, right? From there I retreated to the Con office where I spent time photocopying, filing, sorting mail, and keeping tabs on the Most Sacred Book in the Conservatory: The Master Calendar and Room Reservation Binder (not its official name). I wouldn’t call that part of the job glamorous, either. What I loved about the job was the interaction with students and faculty as they requested keys, help, and an open recital date in Harper Hall (though when Bob or Ken walked into the office, you were bound to spend a fair amount of quality time at the copier). And I loved the atmosphere in that office.
My life was a rat race; I had crammed as much as I could into each day and was operating at a frantic pace. It was stressful, to say the least. But stepping into that office was a respite. I loved Monday mornings when Marge and Ellen would come in with stories of their weekend in the Real World, of the days they’d compare notes about well-received recipes, grandchildren, gardens, husbands and the like over coffee. I loved being in their world–in the peanut gallery as Marge called it.
Have you ever failed big? I mean, colossal? That next March, after
four ten years of striving toward what I perceived as the goal of validation (a performance major that would please myself and those who had pushed me hard, I thought), I failed my senior recital. And when you’re a term away from graduation and student teaching, well, that changes things a bit. I would still have the music education degree I was preparing for, but just how important was that performance degree? What was I proving? I was still being pushed to do it, to find a time… maybe pieces not quite so ambitious… student teaching would only be 8 am-3 pm… that’s plenty of time to practice, I heard…
So I did what every level-headed musician does: I decided to drop private lessons. I sat in the Con office, a bit unsure as to what to do without the obligatory shadow of hours of practicing over me, and Ellen told me, “I was at this thing this weekend, and there were these painted rocks… they were kind of cool. Maybe you should do that in your newly found free time.” (Not her exact words, but something to that effect.) What I heard: “There is more to life than this conservatory.” And for the first time in four years, I felt like I could breathe. As someone feeling swallowed whole by the Con, she seemed to see me in spite of the Con.
Now, I’m in no way condoning dropping lessons or practicing (as an instrumental music teacher, this is the last thing I want to hear, and I’m sure my teacher wasn’t thrilled at my decision, either). But what I’m saying is that I had lost sight of the fun. And when Ellen placed a rock and paints and brushes in front of me, she reminded me that it’s supposed to be fun. And though I’m more apt to pick up a pastry brush in my kitchen over a paint brush these days, I’m still reminded that it should be fun.
After many years of watching the rat race, Ellen is retiring this year. I’m so excited for her, to see what adventures she will embark upon. I’m sad for the Con, as she really is the one who keeps things together. She is their rock. And though I don’t think she wears anything larger than a size 8 or 9, whoever replaces her has some huge shoes to fill.
I’m praying they send her out with a bang. A Sousa march, even. Something, anything to show the immense appreciation for a woman who has seen much, met many, and means the world to a whole bunch, like me. The lady who told me to paint rocks is the lady who, in my book, just plain rocks.
From those of us in the peanut gallery: this is for you, Ellen. Thank you.
Peanut Butter Crispy Cereal Bars
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup light corn syrup
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 3/4 cup crunchy peanut butter
- 3 cups crispy rice cereal
- 1 bag (about 2 cups) vanilla baking chips
- 1/2 cup salted peanuts, coursely chopped
In medium microwave-safe bowl, combine sugar and corn syrup. Microwave on high for 1-1/2 minutes or until sugar is dissolved. Add vanilla and peanut butter and stir till combined. Add cereal and mix until thoroughly mixed. Press into buttered 8-inch square baking pan. Melt vanilla chips in small microwave bowl for 1 minute; stir. Continue to microwave at 15-second intervals or until chips are melted and smooth. Spread over mixture in pan; sprinkle with peanuts and press lightly to make sure peanuts stick.