Playing La Cucaracha

piano keys and grade school are hard to navigate

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Serena Wagner

One time in grade school I was on the playground attempting to play basketball with my buddies when a younger kid named Benny walked up to me and said, “So, Mr. Paulus. I hear you play the piano.”

That’s a weird thing for a third grader to say to a fourth grader, though not unexpected from Benny. He wasn’t one of the popular kids. He was one of the smart kids. The kind of smart that makes you stand out. And stand apart. And it gets you teased by your contemporaries because you say weird things like, “So, Mr. Paulus. I hear you play the piano.”

To this day, I can’t decide if his parents fed him that line or if it was just Benny being Benny. He was a nerd, well before it was cool to be a nerd.

I was adept enough to join him for a duet of La Cucaracha a traditional Spanish folk song popular in Mexico. It’s about a cockroach. It was perfect for two young white kids from Wisconsin.

Anyway, I did play the piano. Kind of. Not as well as Benny, but I’d taken some lessons. I was adept enough to join him for a duet of La Cucaracha, a traditional Spanish folk song popular in Mexico. It’s about a cockroach. It was perfect for two young white kids from Wisconsin. Perfect for the school’s talent show.

Up until that day on the playground, I didn’t even know the school was having a talent show.

When I got home that day, my mom somehow already knew about Benny’s invitation. I’ll be honest – given the school’s social pecking order, I was nervous about doing it. But at her encouragement, I accepted.

I went to Benny’s house a handful of times to practice – he took the harder part of the duet. We’d play La Cucaracha on his family’s upright piano for a while and then, mysteriously, we found ourselves with a bunch of free time post jam session (sesión improvisada).

I suspected all of this had been orchestrated by our parents – some experimental social time to see if we got along. I had been growing away from my friends that year, or to be more depressingly accurate, my friends were growing away from me. They wanted to play sports. I wanted to play Star Wars. And while I can’t say for sure, I got the impression Benny didn’t have many friends at all.

In short, things felt a little forced.

Benny’s house was different than mine. His family was a lot more talkative. I remember his dad playing with his younger brother, making the kid laugh so hard he lost his breath and started coughing. I wouldn’t trade my own dad for anything, but he never laid down on the living room floor to play G.I. Joe like Benny’s dad did. It was odd to me.

I barely remember the actual talent show. We sat side by side and played our music teacher’s electric keyboard down in the school’s cafeteria/performance space/makeshift gym. It was a short performance. It went fine.

I don’t remember talking to Benny much after the talent show. We went back to our normal routines. I went back to the confusion and vague heartache of wondering why my normal friends and I didn’t have much fun anymore. (Don’t worry, I turned out fine.) Benny went back to ... I have no idea.

And I’m being arrogant. Benny was the real protagonist of the story, dealing with a chubby kid from a different class who didn’t outwardly act like he wanted to be friends. But I’m arrogant in that line of thinking, too – arrogant enough to believe our time together rates a page in the guy’s memoirs. The whole deal probably stood out more to me, because honestly, it was really nice to be invited to something. A talent show, no less. It was a happy experience and I was lucky to have had it.

If such a thing were possible, I might go back in time and chose to be a kid like Benny. I wasn’t exactly popular in school. But I wasn’t exactly unpopular either. I was somewhere in the quiet middle. I’m realizing now how the desire to be popular or cool – or at the very least not embarrassed – pushed me towards activities and interests about which I really didn’t care. And what’s worse, those desires kept me from stuff I probably would have truly loved. And maybe a friend or two.

If I could go back in time, I’d tell Benny thank you for the invite. It was a brave thing to do. And I liked playing the piano with you.

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