The Very Worst Student: Part 1

A Candid Look at My Educational History

Most folks who are trying to establish a professional presence online would start by highlighting their professional accomplishments. 

Not me. Why?

Frankly, the volume and breadth of my professional achievements is laughable. Oh, there have been a few honorable mentions for sure, but hardly enough to fill a CV, let alone impress you with my occupational prowess.

In fact, if there was a lifetime achievement award for The Very Worst Employee, I might finally have a chance at success!

This hasn't been for a lack of effort. On the contrary, I have made multiple attempts at establishing a successful career... or at least sustained employment. Each one has failed - some comically, some painfully - but gosh darn it, I tried. Having undiagnosed neurodiversity for most of my life did not help my situation.

In fact, my career history is so meandering that in order to keep you from being overwhelmed with the massive scale of my underwhelmingness, I need to spread this history across multiple posts.

I would be remiss to discuss my career history without first exploring my educational history as The Very Worst Student, also spanning multiple posts.

Yes, it's that bad. I have screwed up that many times. Yet somehow it all makes sense in my head.

Let's see if it makes sense to you.

Educational History

I happen to be one of the most highly-educated unemployed people I know. If I were writing a CV, it would include these educational accomplishments:

  • Bachelor of Music, 1992, Morehead State University
  • Master of Arts, 2012, Liberty University
  • Graduate Certificate, 2013, University of Cincinnati

That doesn't look so bad, right? Indeed, I worked hard and am proud to have attained these degrees. Yet there is a lot of missing subtext in this list. Allow me to fill in the blanks for my first major educational misadventure:

Bachelor of Music, Trombone Performance

You might be thinking, "Okay, this one is a bit obscure, but what's wrong with wanting to be a professional trombonist?" Absolutely nothing, if (1) you actually want to be a professional trombonist, and (2) you are actually great at playing the trombone. Neither was true for me.

My dream was to major in vocal and guitar performance and become a Contemporary Christian singer/songwriter. My mom's dream was for me to forego college altogether and become a secretary.

They make good money! she said. 

Why would I want to spend my life sitting at a desk typing all day? I thought.

(Yet here I sit typing this story as I aspire to write a memoir.)

Mom and I agreed on a compromise: I would get a degree in music education and become a teacher. I couldn't decide whether I wanted to be a band director or choir director, so I started out majoring in both instrumental and vocal music education.

Adventures in Voice Lessons

My first-year vocal instructor told me every week that my somewhat raspy voice sounded "sick" (in the 1980s that wasn't a compliment) and said:

You need to stop singing that awful Christian pop music! It's ruining your voice!

In my second year I switched to a new vocal instructor who was much more encouraging, but I quickly discovered that vocal music education was not my thing. 

If you're not familiar with classical voice instruction, students are required to sing in multiple languages. I sang Italian with a Spanish accent, and pretty much butchered French. It just wasn't my thing. I came to the conclusion that I preferred "that awful Christian pop music" to Italian arias and dropped my vocal studies.

Adventures in Classroom Teaching

I thought I wanted to become a high school band director someday because I enjoyed being in band. What I discovered was that I did not enjoy being in front of a band, or a classroom.

I got a C in conducting class. 

I just didn't have the coordination to flail my arms in a meaningful and graceful way. I also made a socially fatal error during class one day: I identified a piece of music that my professor had previously labeled "junk" as a "great piece of music."

Apparently I preferred awful Christian pop music and instrumental junk.

Classroom management was not my thing.

Children are monsters. Okay no, they're not, but... 

I had a dreadful experience as a music teacher's aide at a summer day camp. They were angels when the teacher was in the classroom, but turned into rabid squirrel monkeys when I was left alone and in charge.

Young adults can be monsters too.

I once arranged a piece of music for a college marching band show. One of the euphonium players was unhappy that I did not award him the euphonium solo I had written into the piece. He also disliked a part of my arrangement. In hindsight I had indeed made a poor arranging choice, but I was unwilling to change it at the time. He instructed his fellow players to blare that particular section as obnoxiously loud as possible in protest, every time I was called upon to conduct the band. 

Not only could I not manage a classroom full of small children; I couldn't even get a group of my peers to cooperate with me for one song. He was possibly being more playful than malicious, but I took it to heart.

A Major Change in My Major?

At some point I allowed anxiety to get the best of me and dropped the "education" portion of my major. The path of least resistance was to choose trombone performance.

My band director called me into his office out of genuine concern and said, "Kim, you are pursuing a worthless degree." He was right. For over 30 years I have joked:

I have a Bachelor of Music in Trombone Performance. That's a BM in TP, which accurately describes what my degree is worth in the job market!

All joking aside, he encouraged me that I could succeed at any major that I chose. He simply encouraged me to choose something that I was actually good at, wanted to do, and could make money doing.

Starting all over again just seemed too daunting at the time for many reasons, not limited to:

  • I was attending college on an instrumental music scholarship. I couldn't afford to simply start over.
  • Along the way I had obtained an MRS degree: I got married! My decisions no longer affected only me.

My professors quite possibly considered me to be one of the greatest underachievers among the music student body. What no one knew at the time - including myself - was that I had severe, undiagnosed and untreated OCD, ADHD, and emerging clinical depression.

  • I couldn't fall asleep at night, then would oversleep in the morning and be late for classes.
  • I had OCD rituals I needed to perform before leaving for class, which would make me even later.
  • When I finally arrived at class I would often be disheveled, disorganized, and struggling to pay attention.
  • Sometimes I was so exhausted that I would fall asleep while standing up and singing in choir class!

My Music Theory IV professor was adamant that no one be late for his class. To avoid humiliation, I would usually sit outside the classroom door and take notes rather than entering late. He must have been mystified at how I could pass his exams when he rarely saw me attend class. When he graded and returned my final research paper, he gave me a B and wrote, "Congratulations! You have risen to the occasion!"

Yes, I rose to the occasion. And flopped on other subsequent occasions. But doggone it, I finished that "worthless degree" and made a part-time career out of music. 

Over the past 31 years (off and on) I have:

  • Worked as a church music director/worship leader
  • Taught individual music lessons to dozens of students
  • Written and published several "awful Christian pop" songs. Never got rich and famous, but it was fun.

Although I no longer work in music, I now have an incredibly talented teenage son who is involved in the band program at his school. I'm not taking credit for his talent, but if it wasn't for the positive experiences I had participating in high school and college band, I might not have ever encouraged him to try it himself. He is Autistic, and struggled to make lasting friendships until he joined band. He has truly found his tribe.

In fact, if I hadn't gone to Morehead State and majored in music, I would have never met my husband, and our son would not exist. Whoa... mind blown.

In many ways my BM in TP was an epic failure. Am I sorry I did it? 

Not even a little.