The moment Jesus Guzman said, “It lets me forget where I am,” I knew I had my lead. All I had to do was figure out how to gift wrap it.
I wanted to catapult readers directly into the story, but the tone of the lead had to be presented delicately and accurately. The story couldn’t be melodramatic or maudlin. This kid doesn’t feel sorry for himself, isn’t angry at the world, never tries to take advantage of his plight.
“He always has a smile on his face,” Raymondville High band director John Turner told me. “The other kids go out of their way to help him overcome the disability. They students rally around him. He is a positive young man, and he does not feel sorry for himself.”
I had to capture that, but I also had to be frank too. No person would ever choose a similar fate, so, I tried to capture these almost contradictory realities.
Again, here are my first two graphs:
Jesus Guzman plays the drums for about a million reasons. Number one: He’s great it at. It brings him attention and admiration, even adoration. He gets to hang out with older kids because, after all, he’s a member of the Raymondville High ”Fighting Bearkat” Marching Band, even though he’s a 14-year-old eighth grader.
But the real reason — the single, most important reason — Jesus plays the drums is because when he’s pounding away or laying down a dreamy groove into a magnificent wash of drums and cymbals, he loses himself in the moment. Everything dissolves and disappears, and it’s just him and the sticks and the skins, and inside that moment and that place, Jesus finds nirvana.
”It lets me forget where I am,” he says.
Let’s stop for a moment. For the second paragraph, I needed to understand the language of drumming, so I found a website dedicated to the 100 best drummers of all time: John Bonham, Buddy Rich, Keith Moon, Hal Blaine, Ringo Starr.
I read at least half of the bio sketches. I was already familiar with many of the technical terms, but I needed to brush up on the poetry of drumming. A magnificent wash of drums and cymbals. The sticks and skins. Riffs, fills and touch. I needed an accurate description to establish a context that built to the most important line in the story: “It lets me forget where I am.”
I had to put Jesus in his bedroom, and I had to put readers inside his head.
Here’s the rest of the story:
Where I am.
It’s not some puffy sentiment from a wannabe rock star. It’s real. Where he is is in a wheelchair, and barring a miracle or a medical breakthrough, he will spend the rest of his life in it. On New Year’s Eve, 2006, he suffered a broken back after the front left tire of his father’s Chevy pickup blew out, jerking the vehicle into the path of an on-coming SUV.
Of the five members of his family on their way to a party at his grandmother’s house, Jesus was the only person seriously injured. Today, he says he has few memories of the accident or the days and weeks afterwards when his parents tried to explain to him what had happened and what it meant.
”At first, when I let him find out what had happened, he was still hospitalized and heavily sedated,” said Rosa Guzman, his mother. ”He didn’t really understand what was going on. He wasn’t himself.”
Eventually, he recovered enough to grapple with the truth.
”I told him again what had happened, and he teared up and cried,” Mrs. Guzman said. ”When they came to pick him up and take him up from his hospital bed to his wheelchair, he didn’t want to go.”
”This is temporary,” she assured him. ”We’re going to take it step-by-step, day-by-day.”
Jesus spent several weeks in a recovery center and then was shuttled between clinics for physical therapy and counseling to help him come to grips with the realities of his new life. He returned to school in March, 2007 — in the wheelchair he left the hospital in.
TWO YEARS LATER
”I first met Jesus two years ago when he started band at our middle school in the sixth grade,” said Raymondville High band director John Turner. ”He wanted to play percussion and because of his intelligence and musical aptitude, we placed him there.”
That he is confined to a wheelchair didn’t matter, he added.
“An average student playing the snare drum, timpani or orchestra bells is reaching down to play,” Turner added. ”When Jesus plays, he is forced to reach up from below the instrument to play. This does not give him much leverage as he tries to perform.”
But Jesus overcame this and other obstacles while retaining a positive attitude and a sense of humor. He rarely displays frustration or anger or bitterness, and when asked about the source of his apparent boundless enthusiasm, he shrugs and answers, “I really don’t know.”
It’s an answer he uses often. Fact is, he has little to say — at least to a reporter he’s never met in person — about the accident or those early days back in school.
What do you remember about the accident? Not very much.
When you woke up, did you realize you were severely injured? No.
When were you told you were severely injured? I don’t remember.
When you learned you were severely injured, how did you react? I don’t remember.
What is your prognosis? I don’t know.
Anything in else you’d like to say about the accident or your early days back in school? Not really.
You might think he’s monosyllabic. He’s not. The background noise on the digital recorder picked up during a telephone interview with him is that of other young people in full howl and squeal mode.
“He’s very intelligent, very talkative,” Mrs. Guzman said. ”He is also very, very independent. He likes to do everything by himself. I’ve always told him, ‘Never say no until you’ve tried,’ so he tries to do everything he can, and if it’s very hard and he can’t make it, then he’ll ask for help, but he doesn’t like to be helped. If he’s able to do it, he’ll do it.”
For example, Jesus loves baseball. This spring, he served as a varsity team manager and statistician.
“He always has a smile on his face,” Turner said. ”The other kids go out of their way to help him overcome the disability. They students rally around him. He is a positive young man, and he does not feel sorry for himself.”
Again, he seeks no favors or special privileges. For example, during the start of summer band, students are required to participate in various physical exercises, particularly sprints and runs. Jesus wheeled himself around the track, beating other band members to the finish line.
One of his few accommodations to his injury comes during football season, when fellow band members carry him and his wheelchair into the stands so he can perform with the band, then cart him to the field so he can play with the sideline percussionists, then return him into the stands for the second half. He loves to jam out, playing cadences on a snare drum worn by another student and placed at Jesus’ level.
“When we travel as a group on school buses, we have a bus designed for the handicapped, and the others kids want to be on that bus with Jesus,” Turner said. ”If we take a charter, students volunteer to lift him and help him into a seat. Jesus never takes advantage of this situation. He does as much for himself as is possible and is an independent student who wants to be left alone for the most part and not to be treated as any differently than the rest of our students.”
If there’s one thing Jesus does well, it’s disprove the ”What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians? A drummer!” stereotypes. Turner said Jesus is a cerebral musician who thinks deeply and carefully about each song he tackles. He isn’t a Ringo to everyone else’s John, Paul and George. He’s a multi-skilled, classical percussionist.
To earn his seat on the All Rio Grande Valley Band, he tried out on snare drums, the timpani and the marimba. He also competed with the top band at his school UIL Concert and Sight Reading Contest during the spring and was an important member of the percussion section that went to contest.
“I can imagine that if you were to spy on him in the practice room, you would see careful attention to detail and spurts of practice followed by silent analysis of what went well and what needs to be improved,” Turner said. ”Most band programs have lots of drummers and would-be drummers. Few band programs have percussionists who are able to play more than one or two percussion instruments equally well. I can count two in our program and Jesus in one of them.”
The other, he said, is an 11th grader.
“This is my 29th year of teaching, and my third year in Raymondville,” Turner added. ”I have had quite a few exceptional students during this time, and Jesus is near or at the top of my list of students who have excelled.”
At home, Jesus is constantly drumming on something: counter tops, furniture, his legs, your neck and shoulders — whatever he finds.
“If we’re at a party and he’s bored, he just starts banging on the corners, anything he can hit,” Mrs. Guzman said. ”He’ll say, ‘Mom, can you hear the difference in this sound or that sound,’ and I’ll say, ‘No, I don’t.’ And he’ll say, ‘Mom, you just don’t understand music.’”
So, does Jesus plan to make a career out of music?
“I don’t know,” he answers — yet another three word response — pauses, then adds, “I’m only in the eighth grade.”
In other words, that is a long way off, particularly in light of where he is today.
I’m not sure how I arrived at the “10 years | two years | today” construction, but it seems to work. I instinctively knew it would be difficult, if not impossible, to weave the quotes together in a more traditional Q-T-Q form.
As for the ending, I wanted to take the reader from the near present into the future. I think it’s a great way to end any feature story — so long as it isn’t forced. I almost always ask my sources, “So where do you go from here?” The answer may not always pan out, but I’d rather have the information and not need it than to need it and now have it.
The thing I like most about the “where do we go from here” quote is that it offers the story to ride off into the sunset, Hollywood-style. John Wayne shambling off a porch into a dusty and lonely future in “The Searchers.” Rick and Captain Renault sauntering into the drizzly night as the airplane carrying Victor and Ilsa Lazlo escapes for Lisbon.
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
I want my stories to fade to black with a quote as amazing as that.
Next blog: Literary devices I used, and liberties I took with my writing.