I have been planning to make this post for weeks now, but it something has always popped up to take its place. Well, finally the day has come. I want to talk about Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “The Kid Nobody Could Handle.”
First off, let me just say that I LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVE Vonnegut. This is some serious, Beethoven-style love here. So I might be a little biased when I say that “The Kid Nobody Could Handle” takes the pure, undiluted form of the ideal music teacher and exposes what all the good ones really feel deep at the core. Helmholtz, the school band director, believes that music truly can save the world, and give a troubled boy’s life meaning. Read:
“Like listening to music?” said Helmholtz to Jim brightly, as they rode to school in Helmholtz’s car.
Jim said nothing. He was stroking his mustache and sideburns, which he had not shaved off.
“Ever drum with the fingers or keep time with your feet?”said Helmholtz. He had noticed that Jim’s boots were decorated with chains that had no function but to jingle as he walked.
Jim signed with ennui.
“Or whistle?” said Helmholtz. “If you do any of those things, it’s just like picking up the keys to a whole new world – a world as beautiful as world can be.”
Jim gave a soft Bronx cheer.
“There!” said Helmholtz. “You’ve illustrated the basic principle of the family of brass wind instruments. The glorious voice of every one of them starts with a buzz on the lips.”
The seat springs of Helmholtz’s old car creaked under Jim, as Jim shifted his weight. Helmholtz took this as a sign of interest, and he turned to smile in comradely fashion. But Jim had shifted his weight in order to get a cigarette from his tight leather jacket.
Helmholtz was too upset to comment at once. It was only at the end of the ride, as he turned into the teacher’s parking lot, that he thought of something to say.
“Sometimes,” said Helmholtz, “I get so lonely and disgusted, I don’t see how I can stand it. I feel like doing all kinds of crazy things, just for the heck of it – things that might even be bad for me.”
Jim blew a smoke ring expertly.
“And then!” said Helmholtz. He snapped his fingers and honked his horn. “And then, Jim, I remember I’ve got at least one tiny corner of the universe I can make just the way I want it! I can go to it and gloat over it until I’m brand-new and happy again.”
“Aren’t you the lucky one,” said Jim. He yawned.
“I am, in fact,” said Helmholtz. “My corner of the universe happens to be the air around my band. I can fill it with music.”
You can glean plenty about the plot from that snippet; I don’t want to tell you any more because it’s a short story, and if I started handing out more info I might as well just transcribe the whole bloody thing. But if you love music, you need to read this story now. It’s in Vonnegut’s short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House and I doubt it’ll take you more than half an hour to get through, and only that long if you’re a supremely slow reader. Duck into a bookstore, read that story, and put it back. I won’t tell. But I’d buy it if I were you. Vonnegut is awesome.