By Gwen Rockwood, syndicated columnist and mama of 3
Last night, I went to our middle child’s 7th grade band concert, and it felt like going home to my roots and my people. Like my son, I’m a proud “band geek.” Always will be.
I had some friends in school who weren’t band geeks, kids who were in athletics or cheerleading. Those activities are great, too, and I’m sure they build character and make great memories. But there’s something special about the bond between band geeks – a bond you only get from marching down the road less traveled.
One thing that hasn’t changed in the 32 years since I’ve been in middle school is the political pecking order. Football and cheerleading are still at the top of the social food chain, particularly in Southern schools. There’s still an unspoken pressure for boys to play football and girls to cheer, and choosing not to can put you into an often uncomfortable “other” category.
For me and so many others, band was the place that welcomed all the “others.” It gave us a home and a creative mission.
When it was time to pick an instrument in sixth grade, I chose the clarinet. Even though I still love the way a clarinet sounds, I admit it’s probably the dorkiest member of the woodwinds. Flute players look feminine or artistic when they play. Saxophone players look laid-back and cool (especially when they wear shades.) But we clarinet players must morph our mouths into an expression that looks like a cross between blowing up a balloon and tasting a lemon – which is not a great look on anybody, much less a too-skinny, socially awkward sixth grader.
In ninth grade, I tried out for the band’s majorette line – after two years of lessons and practicing daily on my driveway. I survived auditions and earned a spot as a twirler, which was wildly exciting for a ninth-grade band geek because it meant I’d get to wear a cute uniform with rhinestones and dance to band music while tossing and catching a baton.
Our majorette line decided to revive the old tradition of twirling fire batons during one of the halftime songs. It was a risky move, considering that it was the 1980s and our big hair was held up by determination and a dangerous level of (highly flammable) Aquanet hairspray. I wish I could tell you we survived the experience without a few cases of singed bangs. We didn’t. But we were together and we were having fun, singed bangs and all.
That sense of community is what I remember most about my band years, which extended beyond high school and through four years of college, a bowl game and an Inaugural parade. Those band geeks were some of the most kind-hearted, funny people I’ve ever had the privilege to know. They cared about performance more than popularity. In band, “different” was not a dirty word. And we didn’t take ourselves too seriously – which is an easier lesson to learn when you’re wearing a ridiculously aggressive plume on your hat.
Band programs across the nation say, “Give me your others, your quirky, your socially intimidated masses yearning to belong.” And when those kids show up, clarinet cases and batons in hand, band directors teach them to play, to march, to make moving pictures while blasting out a wall of sound. They give us our moment to shine during the big game.
When it was my son’s turn to pick an instrument last year, he went into the decision fully intending to choose the trumpet. But when I picked him up from school that day, he got in the car and proudly announced he was a tuba player. When I asked him what made him change his mind, he said, “I don’t know. It’s just different, and I like it.”
His embrace of “different” made me smile, and it made me grateful that band geek DNA lives on to play another day.
Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. To check out Gwen’s book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.