Lighting the Candle: Thank You, Mr. Baumgartner

Irene (seated, second from left) and Pam (seated, fifth from left) in third grade. (Photo courtesy of Pam Muñoz Ryan.)

If I hadn’t been a failed violinist, I might never have become a writer.

When I was in fourth grade, the public school I attended had a coveted orchestra program. I signed up to learn the violin, along with my friend Irene Cervantes. We were both smitten with the violin and the prospect of being in the orchestra. Every week, Irene and I walked together through our working-class neighborhood to our before-school music lessons, proudly holding our black violin cases.

Mr. Baumgartner, the orchestra teacher, was very strict. He emphasized that if anything happened to the instrument we played we’d be cut from the program because the school could not afford to replace it. We all understood.

I wasn’t very good at the violin. No matter, destiny intervened and the dreaded thing happened: I was practicing at home when the bridge popped off my violin and flew across the room, the strings collapsing before my eyes.

Terrified of Mr. Baumgartner’s reaction, and having no idea this was a common violinist’s mishap (because the bridge is held in place by the tension of the strings), I tried to fix it. I tiptoed into the garage and secured the bridge back in place with globs of an unfamiliar glue, making sure it would never, ever, pop off again. It was only slightly crooked. I prayed that Mr. Baumgartner wouldn’t notice.

Of course, he did. And when I saw the color drain from his face, I knew my fate was sealed. Sadly, he patted me on the back and told me that maybe I could join the orchestra next year. When I cried, he suggested that I join glee club, which often sang during assemblies with the orchestra.

I did switch to glee club, where I stayed, thinking I’d found my niche. As luck would have it, the elementary school glee club automatically fed into the junior high chorus. Instead of a violinist, I would be a singer in an orchestra of voices. Don’t be confused. I didn’t have a good voice, but in the midst of so many others, I could blend.

In the spring, the junior high chorus held auditions for the All City Honor Chorus — a very big deal — which performed with the All City Honor Orchestra, where Irene Cervantes was now the first-chair violinist. There were five spots allocated for my school in the All City Honor Chorus, and, coincidentally, only five girls, including me, auditioned. They had to take me. It didn’t exactly feel like success.

One Monday after a big performance, my English teacher, who was the advisor for the school newspaper, asked if anyone was a member of the All City Honor Chorus and would be interested in writing an article for the school newspaper about the experience. Something inside me propelled my hand into the air. I was already obsessed with reading and books, but the idea of writing anything had never occurred to me. Until then.

I wrote the article. When I saw my name in a byline — in purple ink from a mimeograph machine — and my words on the page, I couldn’t wait to write more. The following year I became the editor of the school newspaper with a staff of two, including me. I had found my calling.

I understand now what I never could have understood then about my life as a writer. If I hadn’t ruined the violin and Mr. Baumgartner hadn’t suggested I join glee club, which fed right into the junior high chorus, which led to the All City Honor Chorus, and an invitation to write about it, I might not have discovered that rush of excitement and knowing.

I saw Irene Cervantes years later at a high school reunion, and we reminisced about being in orchestra together in the fourth grade. When I asked her what she’d been doing all those years, she told me she was a professional violinist for a symphony orchestra in Sydney, Australia.

That might have been me, too! (Right?) But Mr. Baumgartner set me on a different path — to the philharmonic of writers, illustrators, educators, and literacy professionals. Thank you, Mr. Baumgartner, for sending Irene Cervantes to her destiny…and me to mine.

From the May/June 2021 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Pura Belpré Award at 25. Find more in the "Lighting the Candle" series here.

Pam Muñoz Ryan

Pam Muñoz Ryan has received two Belpré Awards for narrative, most recently in 2011 for The Dreamer, and one honor. Her latest title is Mañanaland (both Scholastic).

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