The other evening two good friends shared with me something that was at first funny but quickly began to actually frighten me. Our discussion that followed, rooted in what we had watched, has stayed with me–almost haunting me. As a teacher I have many responsibilities but perhaps the most important one of all is accountability. Accountability to myself, to my profession, but most of all, to my students. Teaching–in every conceivable sense–shapes the lives of students, of people. HOW you shape the life of another individual and WHY you shape the life of another individual is equal to (in my humble opinion) the how and why of a doctor saving an individual’s life.

Ok–you’re calling me melodramatic. Let me throw some names out there then: Charles Manson, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, Jim Jones, and Adolph Hitler. You’re saying, “But those are CULT leaders! They were crazy!” Yes, they were. But first and foremost, they were teachers! Maybe not in the conventional sense, but ‘teachers’ nonetheless. Through their teachings each created a following–people who looked to them for guidance, understanding, compassion, mentorship, even love. People who had a need and found their need fulfilled by the words and/or actions of teachers.

I could list so many others–religious figures, politicians, business executives–some would have positive influences on people, others would not. It doesn’t really matter and that is not the point of this post. The point is that as teachers (as ADULTS, as HUMAN BEINGS) we have a  responsibility to provide a safe environment where people can grow and to never forget that our students are looking to us for guidance, understanding, compassion, mentorship, and love. Our students savor every word that comes out of our mouths. Our students notice every last detail about us (hey UMMB alums from the early 80’s: if I say “Navy Blue Suit” I have no doubt you will say “Powder Blue Stitching.” Am I right?!).

Starred Thought: The influence a teacher has upon a student is powerful–and they will remember you forever.

Let me make this very personal: People would say that I am a cult leader. Between the UDMB and DMA I have a following of thousands. This scares the living daylights out of me!!! That is NOT what I want nor desire…but when you break it down to brass tacks it sort of is the situation. And again, this scares the living daylights out of me!!!

I prefer to think, hope, whatever, that what I am creating (for lack of a better word at this moment) is a CULTURE.  A culture where PEOPLE are given the tools to make decisions for themselves; a culture where PEOPLE are given the tools to grow, to learn, to lead their lives in a way that is honest; a culture where PEOPLE do not blindly follow but learn to lead themselves.

So what brought all this on????

As I said at the start of this meandering post which accomplishes what I am not sure just yet, I watched something that frightened me. It frightened me because it was narcissistic in nature and contained absolutely no substance whatsoever.

Starred Thought: All hype and no substance makes you a fluff-head. 

Teachers speak – students listen; students absorb; students apply what they learned. What one says MUST have substantive value! Even the smallest of comments are taken from your mouth and put into action by students. The experiences you create for them will become part of the foundation of their lives.  This is scary, scary stuff folks!!! If you spout off rhetoric with no substantive purpose you run the risk of hurting people.

There is a phenomenal quote in the first Jurassic Park movie spoken by the character Ian Malcolm:

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

The internet affords us the LUXURY of being able to leave a digital footprint for hundreds, if not thousands of others to experience. We can “reach” so many, many people. This is a TOOL…a tool that is taken for granted these days; a tool that is abused by many as well. Just because you have this tool available to you doesn’t mean you should use it!  (And the irony is I’m doing just what I said one should not do.)

It was (and still is) never my intention to create a cult. It was (and still is) my intention to create positive learning experiences for my students that they would never have if not for the UDMB, if not for DMA. THAT is creating a culture! Yes, I have a following and yes the reality of that is frightening to me. I hope beyond hope that I always remember just how fragile that following is, just how impressionable they are, just how needy they are. I hope I always remember that:

With great power comes great responsibility.

Teaching is a form of ‘power.’ Teaching requires great responsibility. …always check your ego at the door and remember,  you are shaping LIVES!

Anyone who as ever participated in marching band or drum corps or any of the pageantry arts knows the feeling. There is a “buzz” that starts a couple of weeks before the activity begins. There is anticipation, excitement, and even a sense of nervousness in the air. You simply cannot wait for it to begin!

And then, quite suddenly, you’re in it–and it’s exhilarating!  With regard to marching band it starts with Band Camp. Friends you haven’t seen since the end of spring semester (or even the end of last season) are greeted with renewed joy. New members are welcomed into the “family” with open arms. You hold your breath and wait for your four favorite words: “Set up page 1.”

Very quickly the week and change of Band Camp comes to an end and the semester crashes into you like a freight train. Suddenly the excitement of the first game is careening toward you and you can’t wait to get back on the field in Delaware Stadium. The first game comes and goes in a blur–you are pretty sure you did well but you don’t remember too much about the day. You just know you missed a few dots, cracked a few notes and did your best to play “Delaware Forever” right after the 4 snare taps. You know you’ll dig in and “get better” over the next few weeks.

And then suddenly it happens…the second phase: “you can’t wait for it to be over.”

That’s correct–we love this crazy thing so much but one day the rain starts, classes get harder, papers to write begin to pile up, and exams just never seem to end. The stress of college life takes over the thought of marching band begins to irritate you. Temperatures start to drop and you’re wearing so many layers you can’t hold your instrument at the proper angle. With each passing week all you can think about is “when is this going to end?”

But end it does, bringing us to the third phase: “you can’t wait for it to begin again.”

You find yourself at the start of the last week of rehearsals. Seniors are starting to cry and talk about how they cannot bring themselves to write their “Last Will And Testament” for the band banquet book. Juniors are realizing they’re NEXT. Sophomores are wondering if they’ll be selected for Field Staff. And Freshmen can’t believe they ever doubted for a second that they would survive band.

Marching Band–oh what a crazy thing it is with which we have such an intense love-hate relationship.

Tomorrow is Homecoming at UD. There’s a buzz on campus for the first time in many years–a buzz that has students GLAD they are part of this campus. A buzz that feeds school spirit and one that makes just being on the grounds feel like HOME.  It takes an enormous effort to put together all the various events that take place on Homecoming–efforts that tend to go unacknowledged.  So let me take just a moment to thank the folks all over campus who have “stepped up their game” and made Homecoming something to look forward to as opposed to being a chore!!

With that said, the role of the band is multifaceted when it comes to game day. Preparation is pretty nuts frankly. Gotta get a new show out and make sure the old show is ready for postgame–toughest audience of the season: the UDMB alumni! They WANT to be wowed….(and in all humility I can say without any hesitation that “wowed” they will be tomorrow.) The band will have a shortened rehearsal at the ungodly hour of 730am in order to rehearsal with the Alumni Band at 830am. Then the Team Walk, then a quick “lunch,” then a performance inside the BOB at the President’s Reception.  After that we try (hope and pray) there is enough time to do the traditional concert in the Gold VIP lot. Then it’s clock work: west concourse parade and pregame.  All of that takes place between 9:30 – 11:45am.

…coffee…LOTS AND LOTS OF COFFEE will be required!

With all the insanity of Homecoming there are a few moments, albeit moments that are brief, that I cherish each year:

  • seeing the alumni from years past (this year we have folks from 1961 on the field!);
  • seeing their families (so many tuba mutes!  er, I mean, children!!);
  • seeing the multigenerational UDMB families on the field during “In My Life;”
  • watching the “old timers” mingle with the “baby band;”
  • smiling, laughing and knowing what it’s like to break the horn out again and trying to recapture your youth and relive those memories of entertaining the fans in UD stadium;

But most of all…I LOVE the stories! Each and every one of them begins with “Remember when…”

Tomorrow will be my 21st Homecoming at UD. I look forward to many, many more in the future. I know “the world did not begin with me” and that there were years and years of Homecomings that occurred long before I ever set foot on this campus. It is those stories I long to hear each year–the ones that happened prior to 1995. It is those stories I want the current band members to hear (albeit with an understanding that the world was very different back then!!). And the reason is so very simple:

You need to know where you came from in order to know where you’re going.

Welcome home alumni—we’ve missed you.

It is so easy to point out what is wrong with people or situations these days. It’s all around us all the time. The person who can’t hold a door open for the next customer at the convenience store; the person who races you to a parking spot; the person who blows through a stop sign almost hitting you and gives a look that says YOU were wrong; the person who thinks taking a gun and killing a bunch of strangers is the answer to all their problems….and the list goes on and on and on.

There are many days I shake my head and wonder just why everyone is so angry ALL.THE.TIME.

Take this example for instance–it is one that is my greatest fears given the world we live in.  A man who lives near a high school doesn’t like the “noise” the school’s marching band produces. Answer: take a pellet gun and shoot the kids. Seriously?

But this blog post is NOT about that recent news story, nor is it about gun violence and/or control. It is about realizing if you just look a little closer and TAKE SOME TIME you will find many people who are still GOOD PEOPLE out there.

A few weeks ago I was well into my second metric century ride when it was clear I had misjudged the weather. This was not a sponsored event–it was just me, my ride, and the road. I had two water bottles mixed with half Gatorade/half water and a bunch of riding appropriate snacks in my jersey pockets. I was good. I was set. I could do this.  …and then the humidity jumped and the temps rose from 68 degrees to 81 steadily over the first 30 miles. With this not being a sponsored event I did not have food stops to look forward to–I had to get back to my car after the first loop in order to replenish supplies. That first loop was 38 miles. Down one water bottle and well into the second it was clear I wouldn’t make it back to my car with 8 miles to go and feeling VERY dehydrated.

Rolling into Port Penn along back country Delaware roads I saw a small bait shop that was open. I went in and asked if I could refill my water bottles. This was a simple “mom & pop” type store. Nothing fancy. Just local folks providing small services to local fishermen. The woman looked at me, said “Of course!” Do you need bottled water or Gatorade. We have some of that if you want more than just refilling these bottles.”

And that was when I realized I had only taken a credit card with me and no cash. I told her as much and she said:

“Do you ride through here often?”

I said, “Yes, it’s part of my regular route these last few months.”

She said, “Then the next time you come through, whether tomorrow, next week, next month, you can pay me $3 for this extra bottle of water and this bottle of Gatorade. You cyclists come through all the time and are always so nice.”

I said thank you and promised her I would be back through later that same day. She waved me off and again said whenever I came through would be just fine.

I’m sure you know how the story played out but here you go anyway:  I got back to my car just fine. There was no way I was going to do the second part of the ride–it was just too oppressive and I was not prepared as well as I thought I was. I got in my car and drove back to the little store and put a $5 bill on the counter. I yelled “thank you” to the woman who was now in the back steaming crabs. She looked up, I waved, smiled and left.

Two weeks later I rode through Port Penn again. I was well prepared for my ride but I wanted to stop in and say hello regardless. There she was, smiling at me behind the counter. She reached into the cash box (not a register mind you) and pulled out $2. She said, “You overpaid me last time.” I smiled, went over to the refrigerator, pulled out a bottle of Gatorade and said, “Now we’re even.”

Whether it’s a nice couple who are barely scraping by to make a living and do a good deed for a road weary cyclist, or a surgeon who takes time out of a conference in Vienna to contact you about the concerning email you sent two hours earlier, or another doc who decides to go back to his office–after having left hours earlier for the day/weekend–in order to take care of one of your students…take a moment and look around folks: there really still are GOOD people in the world.

This is not a religious post–but it is about the definition of the word. In fact, let us begin with that:

According to Merriam Webster, the basic definition of the word ‘faith’ is strong belief or trust in someone or something.

There are times when a series of circumstances tests our faith. Days when nothing seems to go right, when every conceivable and inconceivable obstacle appears out of nowhere and is thrown directly in front of you. It takes every ounce of energy you have to avoid running into that brick wall that you are convinced was not there one second ago. By the end of days like those you tend to get into your car, drive out of a darkened parking lot, head home to a quiet house and question why on earth you even bother trying.

Fortunately there are hints of wonder that walk side by side with the challenges—you just have to look hard enough to see them. One of the beautiful gifts I get is watching my students “figure it out.” First, yes, it is a GIFT one receives as a teacher. Second, “figure it out” is sometimes the most important lesson you can ever teach a student.

Today’s young adults want their world to be black and white. “What do I need to do to get an “A?” “What exactly is expected of me in this class?” What do you want me to do at this exact moment in time in order to not be wrong?” This is our world now…but the truth of it all is that there are no answers to the above questions.  The world is NOT black and white friends. The world is 1 million shades of gray.  This means that putting the gray matter located inside your skull to work is the only option you have at having a prayer at survival.  Sadly many of our young adults are not ready for primetime–they have been set up to FAIL by previous teachers, and yes, their parents.

My dear friend Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser likes to preface sessions with “Truth or Sugar?” …and always the group says “TRUTH!” The reality is that the truth is a killer.  So while the truth that today’s young adults have been set up to fail in many ways is brutal, it is NOT the end result.  It is, however, the starting point!

So where do we go from here? UP! That’s where we go! And as we climb the ladder which seems to have no end in sight, no arrival point, no moment of “I’VE MADE IT!” we keep climbing because of this little thing called ‘faith.’

Perhaps a recap of yesterday will help with understanding where all this is coming from this evening:

The derailment began when the band buses were not only late but apparently the drivers did not know they needed to bring the band to the stadium BEFORE the game…we’ve used this company since BEFORE I was director. Then I got a text that the pit equipment truck battery was dead and they were waiting for it to be jumped. Then I called Motor Pool to find out that they were waiting for me to tell them to go to the CFA to jump start the battery even after they had been called by my GA 20 minutes earlier. Then everyone EXCEPT the trumpet section arrived at the practice fields–still short 1 bus. Then the pit truck arrived during warmups so we changed up the entire practice schedule and did Pregame first.  All of this occurred in the span of ONE HOUR!.

Next we finally get the pit fired up (literally–we be electric now!!  All mic-ed up and putting out decibels!!) and start to rehearse the Overture. 15 minutes later—evacuate to the Field House due to storm cell with thunder and lightening.  Rehearsal over.

None of this would have been bad had it been any other time of year. However the last time we rehearsed with the pit was the last day of Band Camp 6 days ago. The rehearsal on Wednesday had us still on met and we did NOT “run-thru” any of the tunes except Overture–we were still breaking things down and running “chunks.” If you are following you have started to break out into a cold sweat because you know what all this means:  the first real run of Overture, Masquerade and the encore Malaguena would be under the proverbial gun DURING halftime!  No chunks; no met; 1 -2, GO!!!!!

And they did….and I finally calmed down.  Those of you who know me are aware that I get wired with nervous energy at the first game. I don’t want them to fail at anything. I don’t want them to go home thinking “we’re no good.” I don’t want them ever to feel embarrassed. Usually I am excited to see/hear what they do because I KNOW they are going to be incredible right out of the gate.  Last night was not one of those times.  Last night I was a nervous wreck. They weren’t ready; they didn’t have a single full rehearsal in 6 days; they had no idea what to do when the team scored; they had no idea how to get on and off the field. …and the list went on and on.  I was a virtual train wreck heading for the end of the line that was hovering over the edge of an abyss.

(ok…perhaps a tad melodramatic….or not.  I was a mess!)

And then they played the first note of the Overture after the auctioneer narration and the music box…and I giggled.

And then they played the final crescendo…and I chuckled.

And then they played Letter O of Masquerade…and I outright laughed.

And then they unloaded Malaguena…and I wished I had a horn so I could join the soloists on the sideline.

And then….postgame was even better.

Have a little faith.  I didn’t yesterday. I had lost most of it. I was caught up in the insanity and lost sight of faith: faith in the one thing that has always been a constant for me—this band pulling up their boots by the bootstraps and ‘figuring it out.’

It was always there…I just couldn’t see it at first because I wasn’t looking hard enough….

It was the spring of 1995 and it was just another job. That’s right: A JOB. For after all, what is being a band director at a major university: nothing more than a paycheck. Right? …not even close.

I did not know then that I would spend the rest of my life in Delaware. At the time I considered it as another job that might lead somewhere else one day. Frankly I was never one who looked farther down the road than 10 feet. When it came to work, I lived in the proverbial moment. (Not so much with the rest of my life but that is neither here nor there.) The University of Delaware hired me to be their marching band director and that was that–time to get “at it.”

21 years later I find myself still here. Many life events have occurred: I lost both parents, a few pets, and an enormous amount of dear friends and loved ones. I bought and remodeled a house. I have been through a ridiculous amount of cars. My knees and hips have either been rebuilt, replaced or on the brink of one or the other. …we will NOT discuss my shoulders…

Regardless of all that, I consider Delaware my home. Sure I’m a north Jersey broad that marched drum corps (Go Bucs!) and can still drive like I own the road, but my home and heart has taken up residence in a small state that is nothing to be messed with.

Tomorrow night the one “thing” I love more than perhaps anything in the world will come to life on a football field. 350 college students will don uniforms, carry instruments and give up their hearts and souls for 15 minutes during halftime at a football game and again for a tad longer post-game. This “thing” keeps me going year after year. I would be a liar if I didn’t say it gets a bit more difficult each summer to summon up the energy, the creative power to write a show, the ability to push physical pain and limitation away and “be in it with them” again. But somehow, some way I manage.  I have to because they expect nothing less.

This “thing” will once again remind me how much I love what I do, how grateful I am to have A JOB that I love each and every day, how lucky I am to be able to give to others what was once given to me. To strive for excellence, to achieve goals only dreamed of, to push beyond self-inflicted personal limitations, to look into the faces of those who do not understand and smile thinking “they have no idea what a joy my world truly is.”

It’s called college marching band.  It is a world that cannot be explained–just accept it as something greater than yourself. Being Santa is hard work…not so sure I would have it any other way…

UD Commencement was yesterday and I was driving back from a week of “doing nothing” in the Outer Banks. I have not attended commencement in a number of years…I can’t seem to bring myself to overcome the concept of the finality of it all for yet another group of magnificent men and women departing in order to join in the celebration of their success.  The final home game is bad enough…then there’s Band Banquet and the annual video I slave over for them–that’s brutal.  To do it a third time, well, I just can’t seem to–to say “goodbye”–and I know they don’t understand. I’m not so sure I do either.

Call it avoidance, call it denial, call it anything you like–every year a group of incredible students make their way out of the stadium one last time and are called “alumni”–and I choose not to celebrate the moment with them. There is no question that some feel disappointment, some feel anger, some feel indifference. They should. I held their hands, in some cases, for four years and now they step off the edge into the abyss alone.

Know one thing Class of 2015–you, as did all the others beforehand, changed me during our time together. Your collective presence in my life added joy, fulfillment, happiness and peace…ok and the occasional challenge as well, but how else is one to grow if not for challenges? You are all part of the never-ending legacy of the UDMB. You are all family forevermore. I will leave you with one final thought, one you’ve heard before:

“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We can’t, we’re afraid!” they responded.
“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We can’t, We will fall!” they responded.
“Come to the edge,” he said.
And so they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.”

― Guillaume Apollinaire

…and fly, you will.