At a glance, you may see an average high school freshman. Her gray-blue eyes framed by purple glasses, her wavy blond hair pulled back in a casual low ponytail, her fair complexion met with the darker tones of her black sweatshirt and leggings.
What you don’t see is that, among adjusting to being a high schooler, Mary Clare Wessels is adjusting to having more than twenty-eight students make up her graduating class. What you don’t see is a flutist learning to play in a concert band consisting of more than five students. What you don’t see is the scar hiding between her right shoulder and neck from her surgery due to her thoracic outlet syndrome. What you don’t see is Mary’s story as she becomes a more comfortable member of this larger community into which she has jumped.
Journey to East
From kindergarten through eighth grade, Mary attended private Catholic schools. The schools were small, and the communities close. With grades being made up of less than thirty kids, parents and students alike spent a lot of time together. Yet growing up, she didn’t always have a group of people to consistently call her friends.
“Eventually as I got older I was like,” Mary pauses as she reflects on traveling to games with her middle school’s volleyball team, “‘Hmm. [At] other schools … everyone else is talking to everyone else,’” she hesitates as she looks off. “‘And I’m over here in the stands, just sitting here.’ That probably shouldn’t happen at school, you know?” She laughs it off, but the pain of experiences like those will not soon leave her memory. At Mary’s old school, if you didn’t fit in easily you didn’t fit in at all.
She attended the Catholic grade school Our Lady of Good Counsel from second through seventh grade. But if you weren’t “adopted” into a social group you were left, “floating around there, doing your own thing.”The loneliness of those few years was not the end of her junior high experience, however. Mary transferred to Annunciation School, a Catholic school in Aurora, at the beginning of her eighth grade year following the closing down and restructuring of Our Lady of Good Counsel.
“The community was amazing,” Mary says, her face lighting up. Students were more welcoming, providing a stark contrast to the social environment of which Mary was previously accustomed.
But all good things must come to an end, and a new change faced Mary: high school. For most freshmen, the location of the next stage of schooling has already been determined by a school district based on boundary lines and demographics. But not for the Wessels family.
Mary and her family debated for months on whether or not to choose Aurora Central Catholic, Rosary, or East for her high school education. Mary’s eyes widen as she remembers the anxiety of picking a path that would determine how the next four years may turn out. What guided her decision-making process the most was finding the right band program.
It’s in discussing music and band that Mary, bubbly already, becomes most excited. Coming from schools with band programs only a fraction (and a very small one at that) of the number of students enrolled in the band program at East, the allure of a larger ensemble was impossible to turn down.
Joining the band
Being a member of a strong band program was always at the top of Mary’s priorities. She began playing flute in the fourth grade, per her parents’ encouragement to learn to play an instrument. But she still keeps the same excitement of playing and improving as a musician that she did when she first began. Mary fondly remembers the instant connection she had with the flute while she was trying out instruments.
“I remember I was like, ‘This is my instrument,’” she smiles as she recalls the first time she got a note out on the flute. In fact, she doesn’t stop smiling as she discusses music. But playing didn’t come easily for long.
Once she started practicing more frequently, it became easy to get frustrated and lose confidence. It took months of pushing through weaknesses and enduring the not-so-pretty sounds to become a better musician. Mary was beginning a long journey of working through the challenges of mastering an instrument, a process she would continue to endure once she got into high school band.
What drew Mary to the East band program in particular was the concert she attended at the end of last school year.
Hearing the different ensembles play altered Mary’s perspective on what high school music programs could offer. Mary immediately became set on East and she anxiously anticipated being able to join the program.
Before the school year and concert band could begin, marching band season started, an activity for which Mary also enrolled. The number of new freshmen joining the group in itself was greater than the number of students making up Mary’s graduating eighth grade class, let alone the hundred other upperclassmen and returning members making up the rest of the band.
When the topic of the first rehearsal comes up, all Mary can do is laugh. By her account, there were more people and more sounds than she was used to. A whole new dimension was added to the music world to which she was previously accustomed.
“Half of the time I couldn’t play because I was just smiling,” she says, shaking her head as she remembers the summer afternoon a few short months ago that changed so much of her perspective.
The bands Mary played in before high school consisted of only a few of her peers, and concerts were frantically prepared for as several schools’ bands came together the night of the performance to try to have a larger ensemble cohesively give a concert.
There was — and is — still a lot of improvement to be made as a musician, she admits. In her previous band programs, independence was not taught, so it became easy for Mary to rely on her teacher for notes, rhythms, and technical concepts when other musicians her age would not.
Her junior high schools cycled through band directors: there was a new one almost every year. These teachers had either little experience with the flute or with leading ensembles in general, making learning the instrument a matter of following along to get through the piece instead of developing musical interpretation skills.
“I didn’t know half the notes when I came into marching band,” she explains, her faltering smile hinting at the panic she felt in not being able to keep up with the fast pace of this large group. It was a victory to be able to play a long note among the chaotic rhythms and key signatures and time changes dancing all over the page.
The expectations of the directors were not going anywhere, though, and Mary understood that she needed to get practicing. She recalls coming home and lamenting to her mom, “‘You think I was bad when I first got my instrument? You should hear me now!’”
But to Mary it’s worth the hard work to get better. There is no end point or place where one can say they have accomplished all that they can on their instrument.
“That’s the thing about music. There’s always going to be something or someone that’s better than you… Or eventually someone will become better than you,” she says, much more serious than when she joked about making so many mistakes just moments before. Despite the challenges music promises to bring her in the coming years, Mary is determined to keep practicing and improving even if she started at a different level than her peers.
Acclimating to the new norms and culture of Oswego East posed another challenge for Mary. A new sense of independence had to be acquired in both social and academic settings. Having such a small class in her previous schools, the students stuck together naturally. The entire grade level would travel together and sit together from subject to subject, class to class. “So now it’s like you have to fend for yourself,” she explains of having to not only navigate but also shove through the halls to get to classes on time.
Mary’s parents, Andy Wessels and Jean Lasics-Wessels, share the same sentiment. The transition into a larger school and district may have been as much of a shock to them as it was to their daughter.
“Going into Oswego East, wow!” Mary’s mother Jean Lasics-Wessels exclaims. Her husband laughs and nods in agreement. “But it’s a good change. I think it’s been kind of a learning curve for us,” she goes on, describing the family’s assimilation to the public school system.
Andy Wessels also testifies to the challenges of picking a new school and trying to predict how well it would fit for his daughter. Their family knew that finding the “perfect” fit was far from a reasonable request, but they did work to find what checked the most boxes on their list of preferences whether they be musical, social, or scholastic. Their thankfulness for all that East has to offer is evident, however, as he says, “There’s nothing we’re concerned about. [It’s] a very positive situation,” with a sure smile.
Along with the overwhelming size of her new environment, Mary also has to adjust to the new academic demands of the school and district. She anticipated such struggles from her experience while transferring from Our Lady of Good Counsel to Annunciation in eighth grade.
“My grades went like that.” Mary snaps her fingers. Our Lady of Good Counsel was behind in curriculum in relation to other schools in the area. Mary instantly saw how her education had compared to other students’ when she got to math class at Annunciation and the lesson was on how to graph a slope. But Mary didn’t know what a slope was, let alone how to graph one. She laughs as she remembers her time playing catch-up and relates it to the experience of going into East and needing to re-adjust in similar ways in her current classes.
“[It’s] a hundred percent different material,” Mary says of the curriculum in East’s classrooms. Although it’s not impossible to grow either. She found students at Oswego East to be welcoming and supportive, something she was grateful for among the whirlwind of change she was trying to keep straight in her mind.
Mary decides to see her new experiences (and challenges) as shaping her for the better. She knows some friendships will fade and some will grow stronger. She knows academic successes will more often outweigh social stresses. She knows the sometimes overwhelming amounts of changes she’s experienced going into her freshman year are opportunities that will soon yield positive results.
A bump in the road
Beyond the struggles of adjusting to expectations in the music department and classrooms alike, Mary has also dealt with the medical setback of thoracic outlet syndrome. She can share just about every detail of the condition and how it related to her case. She tells how she was born with an extra rib that stopped blood flow from going to her right hand and caused sometimes unbearable pain with medical terms rolling right off her tongue.
“At first when she started complaining about her arm, I didn’t believe it,” Lasics-Wessels admits.
“She thought it was boloney,” Mary adds, not missing a beat. But once the complaints became more consistent and a play-fight with her sister ended in her screaming in pain, it was obvious that something needed to be done.
When Mary got an X-Ray and had an orthopedic doctor review it, there was still some disbelief as to what her condition was and what it entailed.
An extra cervical rib was the problem. Despite having never heard of the phenomenon, Mary and her parents knew they had to act. Mary needed surgery.
Mary got the rib removed just over a year ago. In fact, her first day of school at East marked the one-year anniversary of her surgery. While the procedure is long over, the process and stress of it all is still fresh in her memory. From the physical therapy to the annoying cold she endured after being discharged, recovery wasn’t always easy. But what really frightened Mary — and still does — is the syndrome potentially affecting her playing and marching the flute.
Mary confesses that symptoms have started coming back in her left arm and hand. She squints as she relives being told by doctors not to march if she felt any pain. Though she takes their concerns seriously, music is a serious part of her life too. “If I’m not crying, I’m okay,” she says, giving a thumbs up and a smirk at her loophole to not have to miss out on marching band and playing.
Mary will continue to take each day as it comes and plans to have an MRI scan to see what may be affecting her left side and if thoracic outlet syndrome is still to blame.
It’s been an eventful year for Mary, to say the least. As her family will testify, she’s gaining a new perspective from the accumulation of experiences over the past several months. With the ups and downs ranging from medical concerns to getting to class on time, Mary has become stronger. And while the future cannot be predicted, it looks bright.
Mary plans to pursue studying the flute and music throughout high school and potentially in the future as well. She looks forward to four years of growing in friendships that are just beginning to develop now. She anticipates the success surely awaiting her both inside and outside of East’s halls.
The future is uncertain. What with thoracic outlet syndrome symptoms reappearing and her successes in the band program and high school yet to be seen, unpredictable may be the best word to describe what lies ahead. But what is certain is that Mary is ready to approach all that is to come.
Elizabeth Dyer is a staff writer for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl