Some songs take you down life's journey of seemingly insignificant moments and memories that grow all the more special and significant as time goes on. I often attribute songs to individual people who have influenced my life or exposed me to those specific creative tracks in the first place. Occasionally the same song can serve two roles; one role for an individual person and another to represent a period of time in my life. I'll never forget one such special timeframe, and the individual who made it matter.
Music spreads across many cultural, generational, political, religious, racial, and ethnic divides. It is both a land bridge and a gateway, yet it still ebbs and flows like the ocean itself. The Red Hot Chili Peppers' lyrics from their track "Can't Stop" summarizes this viewpoint perfectly: "Music the great communicator Use two sticks to make it in the nature."
I have a deep fondness and appreciation for the Red Hot Chili Peppers' music. I don't ever change the radio station when any of their songs are playing, and I often listen to the majority of their songs during yoga or meditation. They are always on my summer vacation playlist and all of my additional "feel good" playlists.
When I sat down for my first 20th-21st Century History class my junior year of high school, I wasn't initially thinking much about the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I was a history geek and this class seemed promising with a fresh new teacher, and more applicable studies than prior history classes my high school offered.
I had heard rumors that we were getting a new student, which was big news in the small county I came from. It turned out that this "new" student wasn't so new after all. He had transferred to our county before and often went back and forth between his former school and ours. Other students had known him from those few occasions, but I hadn't had much interaction with him previously. What I did know that day was that he had a distinctive charm and charisma that immediately attracted me to him.
He sat by one of my distant cousins at the center of the room, and made himself easily at home in conversation, as if he hadn't been gone for a year or more. The relaxed energy and vibe he embodied was stellar and wow-worthy in my awkward teenage mind. The band T-shirt he was wearing with his dark washed jeans proudly held the Red Hot Chili Peppers logo on the front. I gaped in awe that he had the audacity to bring his acoustic guitar with him to all of his classes, which was ordinarily against the rules. He didn't care, and his attitude and presence showed it as he stretched out of his desk chair in a way most teachers were annoyed by. As for me, I thought he was wicked cool.
While our history teacher often corrected his choice of posture, she thankfully did not punish him for his guitar's presence so long as he adhered to certain courtesy rules. As long as no one minded, Ben was allowed to play his guitar after our lesson's lecture was over and assignments were handed out. If he fell behind in class for any reason, he would no longer be allowed to keep his instrument with him in our class period. Ben deemed that fair, and adhered. Other classes and teachers did not have that same opinion, so it later became a rare treat for our class to hear him play his guitar.
When I met up with my two best friends after that class, one of them asked me about the new student rumors. She was the type that always needed to know, and the one who had filled me in on the rumor previously. "We heard he was in your class. What is he like?" When I told her his name after the interrogation, she was disappointed and disgusted. "He's not new. He's that same troublemaker from freshman year that I had class with. He's incredibly rude."
"He didn't seem rude to me. He seemed super cool." I rebutted, likely with a dreamy, enamored expression on my face.
"He's the same gross long-haired boy who transferred here two years ago. He just changed his haircut. That's the only difference. He argues with teachers and staff all the time, and is always in ISS (In School Suspension). You'll see." she countered.
Our other friend was seemingly disinterested in what the two of us idiots were discussing as we made our way into the lunchroom. I caught a glimpse of Ben sitting with my cousin's crowd of friends. It was no secret that my cousin had his issues, and he would eventually go to jail for some of them a few years after graduation. As comfortable as Ben seemed to be within that group of friends, his aura still stood out to me as different. Not all of my cousin's friends were troublesome, and Ben seemed harmless. He was witty, funny, intelligent, and nonchalant, and maybe that was what charmed me about him. For my best friend though, this lunchroom seating arrangement only proved her point.
A few weeks passed and soon politics became a focal point of our history class's discussion. Despite being a socially awkward individual, I conveyed my beliefs with passion and logic. Ben shared the same enthusiasm. We had been raised with ideologies on different sides of the aisle, which led us to frequent debates within the classroom. I loved debating with him. When each of us was outmatched by the other, we gave each other public credit. Gaining new insight and knowledge helped us discover gaps in our former beliefs and establish improved, sounder ones. We were helping each other grow and develop our own individual foundations and views, and it was thrilling.
At times, we would find that we were on the same side. There were many times that he would say something that absolutely blew my mind. I often recall his claim "insurance is a scam", and despite "responsibly" possessing it as an adult, I can't help but agree. He generally had valid points and arguments that I always respected, and he likewise respected mine. I was often surprised that our teacher allowed us so much speaking time in class, but she told us she enjoyed our enthusiasm and thought that open forum learning was best. She felt as though she was giving us the opportunity to learn for ourselves, and we did.
Despite being in a classroom, I often felt like Ben and I were the only two individuals in the room. Our classmates seemed to disappear other than the rare chiming in on one subject or another. Many of them just seemed to select a side to support and didn't venture any further. We had apparently taken over the classroom, and I personally worried about it a bit. I apologized to two of our classmates about it, but received encouragement from them instead. Albeit, it wasn't exactly the encouragement I wanted but it was matter-of-fact enough to ease my conscience.
"The more you two talk and debate, the less input we have to give which works out perfectly for us since we don't want to talk anyway. History is usually a boring topic, but at least this is somewhat entertaining. Please continue."
It seemed the majority of our class didn't really care one way or another about the things Ben and I were hyped up about, but at least we had fun. I thoroughly enjoyed that semester, and it makes me smile every time I think about it. In the middle of that semester, school clubs had started. Ben asked me if I would sign up as a member of his music listening club, and I excitedly said yes and asked my two friends to join too. They had interests elsewhere, and swiftly declined. My one friend declined on the sheer fact that he was the president, and sharply warned me to stay away from him again. Obviously, I didn't listen. They joined a different club together, and I attended music listening club, a club that was also authorized by our history teacher.
"I noticed you have good taste in music by the band T-shirts that you wear, so I thought I would introduce you to some of my favorites." Ben said, handing me a large pack of CDs to burn copies of for myself.
I swooned. My heart skipped beats. He had noticed me. Beyond all of our endless debates, he had noticed that we shared a love for music.
He asked me to get those CDs back to him within a few days as those were the only copies he had, and one of the few possessions he carried with him between his mom's and his dad's separate homes. I burned them all that night, and listened to as many as I could before the next day. I was thrilled. The next day, my friends asked me why I was carrying around those CDs. I informed them I was keeping them safe, and needed to get them back to Ben because they were his.
My beyond annoyed friend says at this point, "He gave you his CDs?!"
Being over the moon and glowing at this point, I brag, "Yes, and he said he noticed that I have great taste in music."
She immediately rains on my parade, "Fine, but you can't date him. You two look like brother and sister instead of boyfriend and girlfriend. You need someone who has a different hair and eye color from yourself. I mean come on, you're both blonde. Besides, you're not his type anyway and you can do much better."
"Do you think I'd actually think he was even interested in me in that way? I'm just glad he noticed that we liked the same music, and shared his favorite albums with me. I don't need anything to change. I like how things are." I retorted.
I was beyond sore at my best friend for saying those hurtful things to me. I was angry that she seemed to get hung up on superficial judgments that didn't matter. To make matters worse, Ben didn't come to school that day. I carried his music around with me for nothing, and both disappointments ached. While I wallowed in self-pity, I listened to as much of his music as I could. I fell in love with his Sublime album, which I had surprisingly not heard before. I listened to "What I Got", and felt so much better. The song reminded me of Ben, and his hopefulness despite the ongoing conflict in his life. He was so cool.
I wondered if Ben noticing me made me cool too. Despite the conflict I was having with my two best friends now, I felt cooler than I had ever been. He seemed to see more of the real me than they did, and he at least gave me credit and valued my opinions. It was nice to be thought of, and the extra generosity he demonstrated in sharing his prized possession with me made me feel special, significant, and included. I couldn't think of Ben as just a troublemaker, he was more than that.
In history class the next day, Ben was present but not speaking much. I started to give him his CDs, but the timing seemed wrong. He left class early that day, and then I saw him through the ISS window for the three school days after that weekend. He waved at me when our eyes met once. I caught flak from my best friend and heard details regarding what he had said to a teacher in another class that landed him there. I didn't necessarily think Ben was unjustified, and my best friend finally gave up on me. The next week, he seemed to be back to normal. I handed him his CDs, and apologized for giving them back so late.
He smiled at me and said, "Hey, it was my fault. I was sick the two days after I gave them to you and in ISS the three school days after. You probably carried them around with you for a week just waiting to give them back to me, so I'm sorry."
Things immediately went back to normal with us. He walked by my desk in the music listening lab and overheard ACDC's "Dirty Deeds."
"Tsk, tsk, I expected better from you, Erica! After all that music I gave you. Shame, Shame." he chided with a wink.
I informed him that it was not me, but the girl next to me. I caught her attention, and he asked if he could have her earbud. He held it distantly from his ear. Sure enough, she was listening to ACDC. He gave me a swift apology and remarked, "See, I knew I was right to expect better of you." He made the wink obvious at the end.
As I fawned over this interaction with him, I also thanked my lucky stars that he didn't actually ask me what I was listening to. Had he asked, I would have embarrassingly had to confess that I was listening to "Walking on Sunshine."
After all the grand music he gave me that I had listened to for over a week, I was celebrating his return with Katrina & The Waves. Why: Because that was how I was feeling, and I was celebrating that high. I think he would have laughed his @$$ off had he known, but I finished the song anyway. In that moment, I didn't care.
To this day, anytime I hear a Sublime song I think of Ben. I'm not sure that there is a song I sing more enthusiastically than "What I Got." When I hear it at concerts, I'm ecstatic. I'm transported back to high school debating with a boy I learned so much from. I reminisce about that same cool boy noticing me and sharing a piece of his life. I think of the times we listened to his and my music together, and how for a time we shared a piece of the same world. No matter how different our views, lives, and friendships, we had a place to belong together that semester and it was more than comfortable. It was an experience worth celebrating. I can say this was the only time I ever felt cool in high school, even though I wasn't. I was only cool in high school because of Ben and music, and I'll hold on to those memories.