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Band culture is a thing, a good thing

When our daughter told us a little over four years ago that she was interested in trying out for the color guard for the Tuscola High School marching band, I thought it had to be part of some elaborate prank. She had never been much of a “joiner,” and had never expressed even a whiff of interest in extracurricular activities in elementary or middle school.

On top of that, we had heard from friends of ours with older children in the marching band how grueling and all-consuming band-life could be, beginning with “band camp,” two full weeks of intensive day-long practices before school began in August. How would our daughter — who could made a trip to the laundry room to fetch a towel seem harder than chopping a cord of wood before sunrise — ever be able to get through the practices? How would she react to the sudden discovery of perspiration? Of actual, rather than imaginary, fatigue?

We didn’t know, but as her parents, we were like scouts trying to ignite this little spark — wherever it had come from — by blowing into the kindling. A few years earlier, she had fretted over how difficult it had been to make friends at her new school after we moved out of town and into a new school district, and now she was about to enter high school, which made us shudder with our own memories of what a cold and cruel place that can be for fragile beings. If she were part of the band, that might mean she could make a new friend or two before school began.

I remember vividly taking her to her first practice. I knew she was nervous, because she didn’t object to my getting out of the car to walk her inside the band room to make sure she did not feel lost or have a panic attack. The first thing we saw was an older girl — a senior, it turned out — hunched over, petting a puppy. My daughter, who has a thing about puppies, let out a little involuntary yelp, causing both the senior and the puppy to look up at us where we were standing.

“You want to pet him?” she asked.

Within minutes, she had made her first friend. Well, two friends, if you count the puppy. Within two weeks, she had made several friends. One of us would pick her up from band camp, and she would excitedly relay all the events of the day. Sometimes she would complain about the stress of unfamiliar physical exertion. Sometimes she would worry that she would never be able to work her flag or rifle well enough to be part of the guard, which had very high standards. A couple of times, she even cried and needed to be reassured again and again that she would be OK and that we were proud of her for doing her very best.

The most important thing — which was clear from the start — was that she was part of something bigger than herself. Of course, we had no way of understanding at the time just how significant that would be, how being part of the marching band meant being a part of a culture, how much that culture would require, and how much more it would give back to those willing to become a part of it. We could not have guessed that her decision to try out for the color guard would not only change her high school experience, but would change her life.

That was four years ago, just a heartbeat away.

On Saturday evening at North Henderson High School, the Tuscola High School marching band capped its season by winning its last competition and being named grand champions. It was a fitting conclusion to a magical ride, filled with laughter, hard work, and many awards from a variety of competitions. It was a fitting conclusion for our daughter as well, the timid, frightened young girl who was once afraid she wouldn’t make the team, now a co-captain, confident, graceful, and self-possessed. Now a champion. Still a part of something bigger than herself.

Best of all, she was able to have this experience with her younger brother, who made the drumline as an eighth-grader. For the past three months, the two of them have been in it together, surviving band-camp this summer, enduring weeks of exhausting week-night practices, getting home late, scarfing down dinner, sharing their trials and tribulations with us, and then getting their homework done well after bedtime. Brother and sister, so well-practiced in the art of sibling warfare, bonding in spite of themselves.

I know they will never forget this experience as long as they live. I love the idea of them fondly sharing their memories of the year they were in the band together over the phone when they are in their 40s, laughing about their mother in the stands with a siren and a cowbell and not one bit of self-consciousness about being the loudest, proudest parent in the county, or any other county.

They’ll remember band-leader Tim Wise, the Pied Piper of the band-kids, who year after year led them to places they never expected to go in order to have adventures they never dreamed they could have so that they would become people they never thought they could be. He and his cohort Dillon Ingle have just the knack for knowing when to be firm with a kid who is not pushing hard enough, and when to say just the right words of encouragement for a kid slipping into the pit of self-doubt.

For our daughter, this is the end. She’ll have senior night, and the Christmas parade. But for her the show is over, the curtain drawn.

For our son, this is the beginning. He has four more years of band camps, new shows to learn, countless exhausting practices, all those competitions, so many memories still to make.

For band parents, it is amazing to watch these shows form over a period of months, day by day, week by week, growing more and more elaborate until they are literally awe-inspiring in their beauty and intricacy. But that pales in comparison to the growth we see in our children over the same period of time.

I asked my son a few days ago if he was still planning to play baseball next spring, a sport he has played every year since he was 5 years old and playing tee ball.

“I don’t know, dad,” he said. “I guess I’m a band guy now. I’ve got a lot of practicing to do before next year.”

Yes, band culture is a thing. For our kids, it has been the best thing ever.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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