A Different Drummer
The confession of a marching-band dropout.
For some people, discipline is freedom. Not just a path toward freedom, the bondage itself is a state of liberation. The coterie of band geeks at my high school had waited forever for the opportunity to wear itchy heavy uniforms, to march in black, regulation roll step orthopedic shoes that most people don’t get to enjoy until old age, to be forbidden to wear makeup and jewelry, to misinterpret Beastie Boys and Black Sabbath, to observe minor holidays with parades. They wanted to belong to something, to share an experience and identity, to express themselves within narrow confines. A funny about high school is the way adults can take something inherently appealing, like the public performance of music or poetry, and make it embarrassing and dull. Of course we shouldn’t have it any other way, as this process forces us to find and interpret books and music for ourselves, adore the obscure, and then appreciate what we thought was banal. The surprising thing is that many very cool adults were in marching band as kids, which I discovered after outing myself as a reluctant member. While I played clarinet in my school band from grades three to eight, I spent only a single year and a half in marching band. But that time was memorable, dreadful.
Many bandies seemed to relish the opportunity to be a part of a football game, that most primal suburban high school experience. To be a happy member of a marching band is to be stunningly conventional, to be cognizant of one’s limitations, and to maintain the illusion that people care, that people besides mom and dad are here to see you! That your contribution matters. And that you have the indomitable power to help your team, tootling them to sporting glory. Go Tigers! That people can be rallied to positive effect by good vibes and rehearsed choreography and John Williams chords. In many ways, marching band seemed like a precursor to the military, at least my idea of what the military is like. Or a strict religious observance. I, not being a fan of either, was a miserable slobbering mess when forced to play a trumpet in motion. I could perhaps attribute my high harm avoidance to the radical discomfort I felt around band people, at a time when I needed to find myself and discover my kind of people.
Band camp was a formative experience. It was the first time I starved myself, the first time I was caught smoking. It included my first pitiful suicide attempt, my first big breakup. I was starving for attention amid people who were happy being part of a black and gold and white polyester group, who would not trade their faux brass buttons for tickets to Lollapalooza ’94. Band was probably a savior to many who welcomed a community of like individuals who salivated over belonging to a group. I preferred to clutch new vocabulary words close to me: sovereignty and autonomy and iconoclasm. I was happiest in one of my many black T-shirts, reading in bed in the almost dark with the closet light on, and if mom was busy and leaving me alone, all the better. Band was both a microcosm and a nichey subset of high school; for a weirdo like me, it was possibly the worst place to be. In a high school homogenous in identicatory categories of race, religion, and class, relative trivialities of taste such as dress, music, appearance, and general conformism are telescoped to great importance. Civilians see the members as uniformly geeky, so when you have no real friends within band, you are kind of lost. I and three other reluctant members resisted becoming part of the group and yet with military precision, the steps and the songs and the commands got stuck in our heads. Even though I draped a thrift store cardigan over my instrument case, I was still part of them, they who didn’t even want me!
Aside from the militaristic aspect of marching band, members become young capitalists, raising money for the various Bowl performances. We had to make hoagies in an assembly line and sell them. Asking vegetarians to handle bologna is just mean. We also sold Florida oranges that people were bizarrely excited about, as if we were in some country where oranges were exotic, unobtainable.
This is not to imply that bandies are all the same; there is a variety of band geeks. Some are even hot, and being in marching band does not preclude fucking. In fact, for many people band provides an easy route to sex with self-selected members of one’s kind. Indeed, there is a hierarchy that depends variously on appearance, seniority, and instrument. Percussion players are the coolest and the dance team — low-rent cheerleaders in less sexy outfits — had a snobby distant quality. I was rejected from the flag team in my last ditch attempt to escape the tampon hat and fugly uniforms of the corps. Yet, flag team is about the most useless element of a marching band and involves less talent and interest than baton twirling. My one year in band included some of the most explosive drama I’ve ever experienced. There were lies and subterfuge, crushes, theft, suicide attempts. I realized early on that my instrument made a good weapon against those who commented on my supposed fondness for the black arts.
Somewhere along the way, my foot got fucked up. I had been wearing the same shoes and not bathing, so my toes became infected. After camp, I had outpatient surgery on my foot, though at the time the camp nurse determined my foot to be well enough to march.
Band camp is the closest I’ve come to a hazing experience. I have successfully avoided professional sport and frat parties, college orientation, mandated group revelry, official bacchanals. In band camp, both adults and kids revealed their sadistic qualities. All aspects of appearance were policed and walking in step altered the brains of even those of us who didn’t care, those few whose proscribed dark lipstick was smeared by their instrument’s aperture. My friend (call her Snarla) and I, desperate to get kicked out, smoked on the bus to camp and stubbed out the cigarette on our K-Swiss upon being caught. Snarla was double-jointed and scrawny, tough with long fingernails, an avid giver of charley horses and punch buggies, pinching red rose gardens on my arms during assembly. Under her tutelage, I happily became a hellion, first smoking, then swallowing a bottle of aspirin at the water fountain, then hyperventilating on the field, then getting bloody and foamy on the dorm bed, shaving my legs to “live through this.” It is disingenuous to blame your disintegration on others. The dissipated life is welcomed, though sometimes we need a tour guide to be conveniently blamed after the fact. I am your fall girl. Though Snarla was the corrupter, she placed blame on me, she turned on me, and was ultimately accepted as one of the seniors, thus escaping the hazing.
To willingly join a marching band is to allow oneself to be treated like a criminal. This is pre-CCTV and Homeland Security, but the feeling of surveillance was strong. To violate the dress code — by writing “SLUT” on your stomach in red lipstick, say — is to welcome harassment. In the vast sameness of marching band, my tiny cohort and I insisted on being punished and called out, anything to be distinct from everyone else. In band, much like the Greek system, I imagine, freshmen are paired with “senior buddies” who torture them. This is a strange interpretation of mentoring.
For the last night’s talent show, the freshmen were dressed in Raggedy Ann-makeup drag and scanty outfits, and sang to the older boys. Raw eggs were involved. It was all very Dazed and Confused. For the willing, this is a Nietzschean experience. Orientation, or basic training if you’d rather, is a transparent mission statement and encourages conformity through the desire for group acceptance. This mere week of camp is worse than anything that follows. It breaks you in order to mold you into something better, a process reminiscent of my Catholic upbringing.
After my parents realized how awful marching band was, they insisted I join something else. I chose crew, a fledgling sport at our school with no tryouts, no public humiliation, and an abundance of pothead hacky sackers who could somehow lope for miles and climb cracked outdoor urban staircases with ease. The one race I attended, I stayed alone in a hotel room watching Roseanne and eating pretzels. Besides band and crew, the extracurriculars on my college applications revealed my slack two final years of high school: newspaper and the last-minute fraudulent invention of the Ezra Pound Appreciation Society.
It might surprise the reader to learn that my younger sister Lila was a talented saxophonist who also joined band despite my terrible experience. This is partly explained by the disparity between us. I was angry and crazy, she was not, so why would she choose activities based on my experiences? Also, she was tasked similarly to find a parent-approved extracurricular, one with satisfactory physical activity. She was forced to wear a diaper on the field.
Lila was a vegetarian who never ate cafeteria food. She brought her own cheese sandwich school. At camp, she ate nothing but peppermint Lifesavers. In all cases, weight loss, no matter how dangerously achieved, is received with praise. I also had an eating disordered moment at band camp, fasting for that week, and the only concern I met was Snarla’s finger poking my collarbone: “So, are you trying to be anorexic or something.” I also impress upon you that the distinct high school horrors are so searing that until today, Lila and I have not talked about our similarly bad experiences.
My sister provides me with the example of someone who, unlike me, did everything she was told to do and yet was met with cruelty. Unlike me, she joined band in part because she enjoyed her instrument. But marching band destroys the love of music. Those who love music and sports are permitted to exercise that love in school until the end of junior high, when it all becomes cutthroat and elite. She was in band for two years, though the last year she never learned a song, never played, never even used a reed. Lila took a 24-hour long bus ride to Dallas to play in the Cotton Bowl. There are things in life that cannot be explained. Could it have been her love for a certain floppy-haired young man, floppy skater-hair being de rigueur in the ‘90s? The powers that be seemed to have an underdeveloped sense of irony or overdeveloped sadism. On the Dallas trip, the marching band stayed at the ranch where the TV show Dallas was shot. During Lila’s tenure, the band played the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. and detoured to Medieval Times. They played to no one in front of a building, she recalls. In the rain. I remember also playing to no crowd, in the rain, in front of a fountain at Disney World. I also took a bus ride to the South and sat through the longest, coldest football game, hours of light snow and tedious sport. I also never played my instrument, sometimes never even made a right angle with my arms, holding my trumpet to my mouths. It is a religious mystery to me that a marching band functions when so many members do not play their instrument. It is also delightful that it doesn’t matter whether or not you play. I was never taken to task for not playing a note. Rather, not buttoning my jacket and wearing the wrong color socks was an unforgivable infraction, one that fellow bandmates were all too willing to report, tattle-telling being the marrow of a band geek.
And I was using desperate self-spiral as a science experiment: how to get attention, how to fascinate or bore, how to die halfway. Boys always seem more interested in these things, in the self-created tragedies and pacts that absorb girls’ minds; girls get pissed off, possibly seeing through it. I am not a partisan of the Mean Girls philosophy. In the rush to judge the subtle cruelty of girls, people seem to forget the horrible violence that boys and men perpetrate. Anyone can become a criminal, though those with power are more efficient. Experiences like this one will always make me sympathetic to the teenager-sized hole in your heart, wanting to be free. • 26 October 2011
Kati Nolfi is a librarian and writer in Washington, D.C.
Photograph from istockphoto.com.