By Donna Wolf-Palacio | It was a foggy morning in March of 1968, and I watched the professor shuffle into my Introduction to the Symphony class in College Hall. She was a short squarish woman with chopped-off hair that looked like it had been cut around a bowl placed on her head. She wore men’s suits, mostly navy or black, and ties. Stories about this professor—whose name is now lost to me—had her roving with the likes of Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso in Paris in the Twenties, though we imagined her in one of the outer circles, because of the drabness of her suits.
My boyfriend had not made it to class, so I sat in a corner of the room, separated from the other students by empty chairs.
A week later, Martin Luther King would be shot. My friends and I would be arrested for gathering in a group of more than 10 people, which violated a city ordinance designed to prevent riots after the shooting. We would miss Introduction to the Symphony because of the arrest, and the professor would not be sympathetic to our absence, because, she said, she had two nephews serving in Vietnam.
For anyone who did not pass through it, that pivotal year must be hard to imagine. Our generation had just realized that our parents’ fate was not necessarily going to be our own. Of course, there had been other times when the young rebelled against the values of their elders, but when ours came, we imagined we followed in the footsteps of the great revolutionaries we read about in history class.
Our parents had lived through World War II. We felt the echo of their terror, but the Fifties cushioned us into such a lull, we couldn’t quite wake up. Even the Kennedy assassination seemed unreal and mysterious. Who were the bad guys now? Our parents had come of age simply wanting to be on the right side—against evil and greed and violence. When King was killed, it all seemed to go bad. Evil seemed to infect everything. The chance to act out against it gave us a sudden luxury of rightness, one we would never have again. To get arrested in the name of justice, real justice, was to us as much of a leap as the first human step on the moon.
We were so different from our younger selves, the elementary school students who said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, eyes on the flag. The girls my age had worn white gloves and wide poodle skirts to dances; the boys, saddle shoes and jackets. For a long time all we did was the box step.
I remember dragging a friend along with me to the demonstration, knowing she wasn’t as sure as I was that it was a good idea. It seems so minor, now, simply breaking a small law. We didn’t burn ourselves, like the monks in Vietnam. We weren’t beaten or killed, like civil-rights workers in the South. We had grown up watching cowboys and Indians on TV. We just wanted to feel that we were absolutely, completely on the right side.
But this was all still a week away, in the unimaginable future. Today, our suited professor was lecturing us about Sibelius. Jean Sibelius, she said, was a Finnish composer, active in the late 19th and 20th centuries, much influenced by Tchaikovsky until he evolved his own symphonic style. One story had him returning from his customary morning walk, exhilarated, telling his wife that he had seen a flock of cranes approaching. “There they come, the birds of my youth,” he said. One of the birds had broken away from the formation, circled above him, then rejoined the flock to continue its journey. Two days later, Sibelius died. It was September 1957, and he was 91 years old.
After her lecture, the professor walked up and down the aisle before playing the first record. We listened to Tchaikovsky for a while at first. Then she pulled up the needle. “Sibelius,” she said, “learned a lot from Tchaikovsky, and imitated him, but then he found his own musical voice. Now, in this next symphony, we can hear how he went from one to the other.”
Then she put on the Sibelius, lifting her puffy hand from the needle to raise it in the air and bring it halfway down with the opening notes.
“There, you see,” she said over the introductory themes. “It’s still like Tchaikovsky; you hear that?” With characteristically brusque movements, she moved back and forth, from the blackboard to the record player, her hand in the air.
As the symphony pushed on, she concentrated intently, like someone listening for the sound of a car going over gravel in a driveway, a sound anticipated for a long time.
The first signs were almost inaudible. But the professor had been at this window many times before. As she heard it approach, her face became redder, more animated. Her eyes brightened.
“There!” she said. “Do you hear it?” As if it were an echo in a canyon. “Do you hear!?” She looked around at our pale faces, then at the ceiling, clasping the stubby fingers of her hands. Her chest in its stiff navy jacket seemed to contain great heaving. The excitement of Sibelius’ strange crescendo seemed to have entered her small square body.
“There it is!” she cried. And with an outward thrust of her arms, she blended her voice with the music as it rose into something that was indeed new, different.
“Do you hear it? I AM SIBELIUS! I AM SIBELIUS!” Her voice was deep and thunderous. There was music in it, and a strange light in her eyes, as she threw her arms into the air.
It was all over soon: the symphony, the class. Other things took on their inevitable importance. The professor went back to her customary drabness. I graduated and became what I became. It has been more than 40 years since that fateful spring, and there have been few true American martyrs. For a moment we witnessed morality, religion, and reason crossing paths like distant stars in alignment. Later the credo “Everything is political” somehow became ours, with its sour, if not bitter, taste.
Yet years later, I can still see those dark arms fly out, that stranger’s body shake with each full syllable, as she in a cry like thunder calls out, I am Sibelius.
Donna Wolf-Palacio CW’69 is a training and education coordinator for Hall Mercer CMH/MRC of Pennsylvania Hospital. She also teaches poetry at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.