The words were: “Who do you think you are?” They landed on my spinal cord with a load of past memories that made the weight initially painful. These words, spoken by a marching band director, came over the field’s public address system, making me initially complicit. I was part of the public, after all. We had arrived at this place to watch a rehearsal of our steadfast friend from high school. She was taking this moment to relive a bit of her youth, appearing in the color guard of the alumni drum and bugle corps with whom she had spent summers with so many years ago. She was back, as were her friends who had marched with her back in a previous century. In high school. A place and time that had brought us together initially.
The sound of a director’s voice gave us all a twinge of post-traumatic stress. We had all grown used to that sound as members of a high school band. Marching band. I have often referred to this period as the time I was involved in a paramilitary organization, one that brought me closer to a group of folks who continue to hold very special places in my life. Including the woman I married. All of which does not fully explain the trauma part. That was a function of being led through our learning experience through high expectations and competition. I didn’t play team sports in high school. Except for band, and that was plenty when it came to the ritual humiliation of adolescents who were already on shaky ground. They were in marching band, for heaven’s sake.
When I grew up and went to teacher school, one of the things I was taught was that students learn best when the compliment to criticism ratio is kept at a pretty solid five to one. Five encouraging things to one get to work on that. Building confidence aids learning. This was not something our high school band director had encountered on his way to being in charge of a group of teenagers. Or if he had, he had made other choices about how to handle them. Breaking those fragile egos in the service of getting a core group of like-minded members seemed to be his ethos, and constant haranguing seemed to be his best hope of getting our spirits broken. The intent, it seemed to come out the other side a lean, mean, marching machine. Clipboards and bullhorns were thrown. As were tantrums. Not by the kids, but by the nominal adult in charge. “That’s wrong! Can someone please tell me when we will start getting this right?”
And so it went. We shed our uniqueness for a uniform determination to be the best of die trying. We won some of our competitions. We came in second or third in others, and each result was met with sparing approval. We shouldn’t ever get too proud of ourselves. There was always something we could improve.
As I sat there in the stands, watching this group of dedicated grown-ups perform with drums and flags and horns at a level I had never attained myself, I was struck by the notion that their dedication was never in doubt. These were folks who had shown up years after they had aged out with the hope of leaving one more great show on the field. What made this guy think he was going to get better results by hollering at them?
The good news is that after that rehearsal, some of the adults took it upon themselves to speak to the adult “in charge.” They didn’t like being talked to that way, especially after donating their lives and limbs to the cause one more time. Knock it off with the “Who do you think you are?” jabber. They knew. They would be successful. On their terms. It made me happy to know that someone had spoken up, if not for me, then for the bandies who came before and after me. Who did he think he was? My high school band director? Too bad. That past is buried now.