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Tonight, I watched my two older boys play in their high school marching band show, as I have for the past few years. I usually only go once or twice a season. Football games, with the crowds and bad behavior, are not my cup of tea. I’m only there for the music, but, boy, am I happy to watch them.

The marching band was wonderful. I had seen them at the end of band camp in August, but watching them perform a medley of Beatles songs in their uniforms in front of an audience was soul-stirring, not just for the fact that the kids did a great job, which they did, but because it stirs up a plethora of memories for me.

I was a band geek in high school and I was proud of it. I still am. In the marching band, I found a community of quasi-misfits that welcomed me with open arms. I wasn’t a cheerleader, I wasn’t in student government, and while I wasn’t bullied, I certainly wasn’t a popular girl, but I fit right in with the band kids. In the summer of 1988, I went to my first band camp. I was absolutely terrified. Because the music program had been newly reinstalled only a few years earlier in our district, all three high schools shared a band. We were Tri-Union and although there was friendly smack-talk between schools, we were one cohesive unit. The only time I had ever been to any kind of camp before was when I had been in Girl Scouts and we went to weekend camp. It was wet and horrible and band camp didn’t appeal to me at first, but I loved playing the flute and decided to give it a try.

I went through initiation that freshman year. Back then, words like “hazing” didn’t really have the meaning they do today and as freshmen, we were subjected to things such as jumping off of the high dive (did it!), singing the school fight songs or “I’m a Little Teapot” in the dining hall, races of pushing pennies with our noses across the dining hall floor, and standing at attention during our free-time, monitored by upperclassmen. Each night, those who had committed transgressions such as forgetting to wear their class button or messing up during the many rehearsals were sentenced to marching into the lake at the close of evening’s rehearsal. The “Weenies” were made to march, in step, down to the lake and march in while the rest of the band came along to watch. Nothing horrible or serious ever happened and we went through it all with good attitudes.

On Friday night of that long, hot, tiring week, we were seated around the campfire with our “big brothers” and “big sisters” where we were blindfolded and given body parts of our respective mascots to eat (really cold noodles, grapes with syrup, and cashews) in order to truly become full members of the band. When it was done, we were all emotional with the work and sweat of the week as well as feelings of accomplishment. We had done it! We were in! And we really were. The band community is a welcoming one that protects its own and is fiercely loyal. If you weren’t an excellent musician, you may get ragged on in class or in rehearsal, but you were still a part of the group, always.I can still see that today in the band where my sons play. Most of their friends are fellow band (and/or theatre) members, mirroring my own experience more than twenty years ago.

The four years I spent in marching band were some of the happiest of my life. I can’t remember some of my high school teachers (okay, more than half of them), or who many of my other classmates were, but I can remember who the band seniors were when I was a freshman. Wayne Duperon and Renee Thompson were gods in my eyes back then and I knew from Day One that I wanted to be a drum major like them one day. I worked hard, won the “Best Sophomore” and “Best Junior” trophies and finally, my senior year, I made drum major with one of my best friends. I was a “big sister” to three freshmen and came back as a counselor after I graduated for four more years, even quitting a job in order to go to band camp. I had summer loves, best friends, and was challenged to push myself further than I ever thought I could. In my junior year, I auditioned and qualified to travel to Australia and Hawaii with the Michigan Lions All-State Band with my best friend, Jenny. We had a fabulous time, and learned the hard way that Honolulu does, indeed, have a red-light district. (A blog for another time…) For a kid who didn’t ever really think she would make anything of her life, music showed me that I could fly high, that I didn’t have to settle for anything, that I could achieve things through hard work and dedication. I didn’t feel like I had a place at home, but I had a place in the band. Band gave me the confidence I needed to fight through my abusive situation and to set goals in my life. Without it, I shudder to think of where I would be.

These things are what I remember when I watch my boys march across that field with their friends. Although I’ve encouraged them, I haven’t pushed them into this program. They both began in elementary school, followed it through into middle school, and were then swept away in high school, just like I was. Middle Son is in it mainly for the fun with the trumpet, but Oldest Son has amassed quite the collection of instruments, including my old flute and piccolo, which I heard loud, sweet, and clear on the field tonight, happy to be played again. I resisted letting him play it at first, selfish pride of ownership getting in the way, but I realized that it wasn’t meant to be hidden away. While there is a small sense of pride that they’re following in Mama’s footsteps, I’m more happy that they’ve found a place to shine and that they’ve found some amazing kids to be friends with, many of whom they will be friends with for the rest of their lives. Music and discipline do something to the soul that makes it swell with emotion, with possibility, and makes one feel things that they’ve never felt before. Music will help some kids find a place in a topsy-turvy world and will help others learn something new about themselves. Although I don’t feel like I was given a good academic education in my home district, the music program and my directors, Mr. Dale Olmstead and Mr. Dennis Winnie, made my high school years more than bearable.

Music is so important. It is love. May all of the bands keep playing. Thank you, marching band, for giving an old band geek some feels tonight.

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