Mark O’Neil went to school with me at St. Joesphs (The Worker) Grade school in Carteret NJ. His family lived right next to the school and I remember there seemed to alot of turmoil in their home. They were a pure Irish family, on the short side and Mark was rather nerdish perhaps even a little sloppy. He always seemed to be struggling to hold himself together. His shirt was always untucked, one of his collars would always be pointing towards the fluorescent lights of the classroom. He had a little pot belly and sometimes his zipper was halfway down or his belt was unbuckled. Besides all that, while most kids had bookbags back then, he carried one of his fathers old brief cases. When he opened it, it sort of popped and things flew out and sometimes papers blew into the aisle where Mark would grumpily stumble out of his desk to go bend over and pick it up. As a result of this slight physical feat, his belt would probably pop open, his shirt would untuck and Mark would always be mumbling under his breath and get red-faced. Mark was blessed with Irish fair skin that usually blushed very easily at the slightest discomfort before people. Usually trying to hide the blushed face just made things more embarrassing and the face would get even redder. As a result of all of this Mark O’Neil become easy to make fun of or laughed at. He wasn’t one to bully, though, because of his Irish spirit, he was one tough little fireplug. He had alot of pride, and stubborn determination.
Every year St Joseph (The Worker) of Carteret NJ had a “Talent Show” This was a big event that I think happened at night in front of the whole school and all the parents. The auditorium was transformed into a rather large social extravaganza, most people dressed up and there were decorations and a sort of special anticipation filled the air.
There was usually the same thing every year. Groups of classes lip-synching to a scratchy 45 on a school phonograph. Synchronized dancing. Small one act plays. If a child was brave enough or talented enough, he or she would do a solo either on a musical instrument or singing a popular song of the era. But the solo acts were very rare. One year a girl blew the lyrics to a song and panicked, the crowd kinda laughed, she ended up crying on stage and this became a legend for years. The nuns would be back stage running around setting up the next act or adjusting the clumsy costumes.
This one particular year was going to be special, though, it was seen on the scheduled agenda for this years talent show, that Mark O’Neil would playing the accordion……..SOLO. By himself. On his own. In front of every parent, teacher and child in the whole community of St Joseph (The Worker) Grade School. It was said that even the janitor had somehow booked front row tickets for this amazing event.
I will never forget the quiet that filled the auditorium when the curtain rose and Mark was sitting there on a stool. His white dress shirt slightly untucked his thick hair parted sloppily to the side and a HUGE accordion on his lap.
Now I heard his father playing sometimes when I passed his house so I knew there was some kind of musical thing happening in that household. But it never struck me that Mark was taking lessons from his father for a musical instrument that looked almost twice his size on his lap. A musical instrument that looked slightly more complicated algebra book I had seen in Terry McSherrys room one day. A musical instrument that had so many buttons it seemed to be part of an American lunar landing that was going on in the days this took place.
Mark never looked up. The awkward silence was broken by the sound of this strange carnival sounding thing. It was a song. Some sort of slow sad melody and then ….a broken note….. silence again. Mark started all over. Playing again while audience stared. Then several notes into the song….he messed up again. He started wiggling in discomfort never looking up at the huge crowd in front of him, some of whom started to open their mouths in disbelief. Halfway through the song, maybe, he blew it again and the mistake was loud and whiney. Now more long awkward silence. Mark started mumbling to himself. I think everyone in the audience was uncomfortable as his face started to turn bright red. In the silence, what to do? By now he was physically struggling, sweating and getting redder by the second. Mark gathered up enough courage to start the song again, for the forth time! To most people they were witnessing an epic failure live in person.
It seemed like forever to me, that Mark O’Neil was in front of the whole world stumbling, staggering and failing until finally a nun lowered the gold curtain. Maybe it was God that lowered the curtain because there was a huge sigh of relief that it was finally over. There was a small silence then applause and finally a buzz of talk in the auditorium until the nuns finally opened the curtain to another act; the entire fifth grade class doing the Alley Cat (a popular song and dance at the time)
It is a funny thing, the memory. How we remember only certain things in life and forget others. That all that was taught to me that year; math, english, geometry and even art class. That all the people I had has friends. All the things I did, learned, and lived that school year are forgotten except for this moment; Mark O’Neil playing accordion in front of the whole school.
I will never forget his father, how he smiled and hugged him afterwards, I didn’t understand. Mark blew it. He was horrible. He collapsed in front of everyone and will be a laughing stock in Carteret for the rest of his life.
It was years later. After I had kids. After I had learned the disappointments and failures and ups and downs of life. Of learning to live without a father. Of getting over pride and ego. Of learning to accept myself for who I am. Of learning how to keep trying no matter HOW HARD it is that I realized this:
Mark O’Neil playing accordion on stage that school year was the only thing I remember because it was probably the most important learning experience of my life.