Brag Night: Or My Talent Show Misadventures, Part 1

by Andy Jay Bennett

I attended Laura MacArthur elementary school. I have no clue who Laura MacArthur is. A quick search of the Internet turns up a few likely suspects: my school was either named after the daughter of Vice President Alben Barkley, a voiceover actress from Chicago, or a twenty-something girl from Yorkshire who goes by the online handle of “loopyloz666.”

It appears Duluth decided to name my school after a woman whose achievements aren’t notable enough to exist on the internet – and everything’s on the internet. I typed “Single parent monkey families” into Google and got 197,000 results. “Ostrich bubbles” turned up 302,000 hits. Clearly, Laura MacArthur was not a woman of legendary talents. That, however, didn’t stop the faculty and staff of Laura MacArthur elementary school from dreaming up a way for the students to flaunt their “talents.” Thus, Brag Night was born.

Brag Night was an evening where students invited their family and friends to watch them make asses of themselves. Kids wore spangled leotards and pranced around in spastic versions of New Kids on the Block videos. They sang along to Amy Grant and Madonna songs while wearing their mother’s jewelry. This was talent in the way taco salad is a salad.

When I was eight, however, those brave souls performing under the glare of the spotlight were the closest thing my school had to celebrities. In the days leading up to Brag Night, they got out of class to practice. They got out early for the afternoon school performance and came back late after it was over and basked in the adoration of their classmates. For a brief time, these performers were special. And I wanted to be one of them.

The only problem was that I didn’t have any talent, at least nothing that the public would be interested in. I doubt that my classmates’ parents wanted to watch me eat Oreos. In fact, the only thing that separated me from the rest of the kids in my class was that I could read several grade levels higher than they could. By the sixth grade, while my best friend was reading about Encyclopedia Brown solving the Mystery of the Seedless Watermelon, I had read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (although reading and understanding are two very different things). While it impressed my mother, this was hardly a skill that people were clamoring to sit and watch.

My brother, however, was oozing talent. When Tony was still a toddler, my dad had given him a cheap drum kit, complete with “Tony’s Golden Beat” in sparkling gold letters on the kick drum. Tony would bang away on the kit, grinning like a madman, becoming a self-taught drummer without even really trying. A few years later, my grandfather, Wayne, gave Tony an electric guitar for Christmas. By the time school let out for summer, Tony had already learned the opening riff to “Smoke on the Water,” and was an expert at swinging his guitar around his neck by the strap. This meant that by his sixth and final year at Laura MacArthur elementary school he had the talent and materials to form an air band the likes of which West Duluth had never seen.

Air bands, for those of you too sheltered and lame to know, are the punk rock version of lip-synching. Rather than shuffle from foot to foot while faux-crooning “I Think We’re Alone Now” into a hairbrush, air band members wear sunglasses and pretend to play instruments while faux-crooning “You Give Love A Bad Name.” It is, obviously, much cooler. And at Brag Night, an air band always won.

Brag Night was, in reality, a microcosm of the actual entertainment world. The jugglers and tap dancers were barely tolerated, while the air bands were showered with applause and adoration from their pre-teen groupies. For a few days after Brag Night, the air band could have any girl in the room. I, who had never had any girl that didn’t live in my imagination, positively trembled at the thought of some positive female attention. I wanted on that air band.

Tony, however, was certain that the only thing capable of destroying his rise to pretend rock stardom would be having his third grade brother on bass guitar. He wanted me nowhere near his air band. This sort of broke my heart, and it only got worse when he assembled his band members and announced that they would be pretending to rock out on White Lion’s “Wait.”

“Wait,” was the greatest song of all time for the week it was relevant. I knew that this would be an air band performance for the ages and I needed to be a part of it. I was even willing to stoop to the level of air band manager, setting up the instruments that wouldn’t be played and making sure the backstage area had a fully-functioning water fountain, as per the band’s rider. My brother wanted none of it, however. I wasn’t cool enough to pretend to play an instrument in his fake band, and I never would be.

But then his drummer decided he’d rather play baseball. He quit the band mere days before Brag Night, turning in his sticks and sunglasses to my stunned brother just before rehearsal began one afternoon in my dad’s basement. It was too late to find a suitable replacement. There was, however, an unsuitable replacement in the corner of the basement, watching the proceedings greedily with chocolate on his face. It was I, Andy Bennett, air rock God.

I had watched every rehearsal, studied every part, and knew every beat by heart. Tony had no choice. He reluctantly handed me the sticks and I settled in behind the kit. I asked for the sunglasses, and Tony handed me the worst pair of the bunch. His were covered in colored stripes, the bass player’s were giant aviators, and I’m pretty sure mine were women’s. Fine. I would clearly have to prove myself.

1, 2 … 1, 2, 3, 4.

I air drummed the shit out of that song. When it was over, after Tony had finished pretending to hold the last note, he turned to me with something bordering on respect in his eyes. The bassist gave me a high-five. I think it might have been my very first one. I removed my sunglasses with what I hoped was an air of cool nonchalance, and shrugged my shoulders.

“Well?” I asked, the needy quiver in my voice betraying my confident airs, “We doing this?” To emphasize my point, I twirled a drumstick around my fingers, a trick I had learned from watching Motley Crue’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” video for reasons other than drumstick twirling.

My brother hesitated for a second, eyes darting up the basement steps in the futile hope that his less air-talented but more socially acceptable former band mate would suddenly come charging down the steps, hollering “PSYCHE!” When that didn’t happen, he nodded his head briefly.

“Yeah. That was pretty good, actually.”

At that moment, I was so happy I’m pretty sure I could’ve punched out a cop.

The morning of Brag Night began like any other; I showered, had breakfast, and brushed my teeth. But when I went to my closet, the rock god in me took hold. I riffled through my clothes until I found the outfit that most screamed rebellion and effortless awesomeness – a pair of worn Wrangler jeans and a t-shirt that had “Arizona” printed on it in cartoon-colorful letters. For good measure, I donned a batting glove. Grabbing my women’s sunglasses off my bedside table, I heaved my backpack onto my shoulders and headed out to school.

The morning’s lessons were torture. I didn’t care about fractions, I only had eyes for rock. I spent the morning fantasizing about tours and autographs while my classmates learned about common denominators. A thrill went through me when the principal announced over the loud speaker that, “All Brag Night participants are excused and must report to the auditorium for final rehearsal.” I stood, already wearing my sunglasses, and grabbed my drumsticks from inside my desk. Heads turned to stare at me with something I imagined as awe when I jerked my thumb at the door and asked the teacher, “Am I cool to go?”

It was the first time I had used the word cool when addressing a teacher. There hadn’t been many opportunities before this. He seemed as surprised at my choice of words as I was, and swallowed a laugh before nodding his head with a grin.

“Rock and roll,” I actually said, returning his grin and shoving my drumsticks in the back pocket of my Wranglers. I marched out the door and into the hall, where a strange circus procession had begun.

Girls in vomit-colored leotards skipped and ran down the hall; jugglers moved toward the auditorium blindly, their eyes on their airborne balls and rings; the air bands marched in uniform ranks, confident, silent, and intimidating. I rounded the corner and flew down a flight of steps in time to join up with my brother, who was marching a step or two ahead of his other air bandmates, his guitar slung across his back, fresh athletic tape covering it in swipes and stripes to crudely imitate Eddie Van Halen’s famous Fender. We stomped into the auditorium, sunglasses on, and kids who normally pantsed me parted to let me pass. I was part of a gang, I was with 6th graders, I was cool. Even as I was in the midst of it, I had already begun to realize this experience would be fleeting. By that evening, the natural order of things would return, and no amount of sunglasses or air drumming would bring it back. So I was going to enjoy it.

We took the stage that afternoon to an auditorium full of screaming students. Tony mouthed the words with strutting precision, stomping around the stage and shaking his hips. I wailed on the air inches above the drums, spinning the sticks with abandon and joining in on the harmonies. The bass player just played the bass. Even in air bands the bass player sucks. We completed our performance, and I stood, covered in sweat as the ovation began. For a solid five seconds I stood next to my brother and took in the sound of hundreds of children applauding me for something I had done. Many of these kids would yank my underpants up my ass tomorrow, but right now, they were applauding me. It was a good feeling.

We walked off stage and I collected easily a dozen high-fives from students I had never spoken to before – unless it was to say, “Please give me back my Trapper Keeper”. A ridiculously cute 6th grade girl asked me if I could really play the drums. When I said I couldn’t, she smiled, touched me on the arm and said, “You should learn. I bet you’d be really good at it.” At which point I giggled and muttered something about hammerhead sharks (one of the few subjects I felt confident enough in to bring up around girls and one of the many subjects girls couldn’t give a shit about), but no matter, I had clearly arrived. 

I took some extra time in the auditorium before heading back to class. I had learned from previous years that when kids who had performed well in Brag Night came back to class, they were always greeted with applause. Even the teacher would join in, and usually the lesson stopped for a few minutes while classmates peppered the performer with praise. I went to the bathroom and took an extra long time washing my hands. Once the halls were quiet, I made my way back to my class, took a deep breath, and opened the door.

I had timed it well. The lesson was in full swing and my entrance brought everything to a halt. The teacher smiled, set down his chalk, and led the applause. I sauntered in, collecting more high-fives then I knew what to do with, and settled into my desk, letting out a loud, exhausted “Whew!” for everyone’s benefit (this is a trick I learned from my mother; it arouses sympathy and draws attention to just how much effort you are putting into something).

As I basked in the praise of my classmates and teacher, something happened inside me. A warm coal began to glow in my stomach and my muscles relaxed. I realized I wasn’t hunching or crossing my arms to shield my flub from onlookers. I felt ... well; I guess the word is comfortable. For the first time in a long time, I remember feeling like I didn’t want to rip off my own skin and reveal the interesting, funny, thin person that was surely hiding underneath.

In that moment, just being Andy was enough. Well, Andy the air rock God, that is.