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Sunday, October 11, 2009
A Bus, a Band, a Community

Late-night thoughts on this evening's events and tragedy, and larger things.

I spent two hours at American Fork High School tonight, roughly from midnight to 2 a.m. Many of my readers already have a fairly good idea what was happening there and why. In fact, I saw some of you there.

Before a Hero, Now Doubly So

With 100,000 or so other people, I suppose, I first heard that one of the American Fork High School Marching Band's four buses had crashed this evening south of Pocatello, Idaho, while I was listening to the latest BYU football game on KSL. By now authorities have released the name of the teacher who was killed, which spread via the Internet some hours earlier: Heather Christensen, a woodwind teacher. (Here are developing Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News stories.)

It is worth noting that she was sitting at the front of the bus when the driver lost consciousness, and that she left her seat and attempted to steer the careening bus to safety -- obviously at grave personal risk. The bus ended up on its side, and numerous students were injured, though none critically, according to reports. The actual outcome is bad enough, but it is not difficult to imagine how much worse it might have been without Christensen's final, saving act. Her sacrifice likely spared at least a young life or two, maybe more, and almost certainly prevented numerous students from being injured much more severely.

A good, beloved teacher is already a hero; this one is doubly so tonight and evermore.


Would you indulge some further, scattered but not random thoughts?

I have a son who graduated last year from American Fork High and a daughter who is a sophomore there this year; neither has been in the marching band. It's my sixth-grader who knows Ms. Christensen. (I use the present tense advisedly, but it's also a habit. In all those dozens of funerals I conducted in my years as a Mormon bishop, I always spoke of the deceased in the present tense. But that is a topic for another setting.) This is not my sixth-grader's happiest night.

When my daughter came downstairs at about 11 p.m. and asked if I could take her and some friends to the high school to meet the three buses that would be arriving sometime after midnight, I didn't ask why or try to dissuade her. I knew why, and their going was the most natural, appropriate thing in the world. She has friends who were on the buses, but it's bigger than that. I knew there would be a crowd at the school, lured there partly by friendship, and perhaps in some cases out of curiosity, but mostly by a sense of community. That's important.

More than ten percent of the student body is in the marching band, a splendid organization which I have compared to an especially serious Texas high school football program. The band itself is world class, and it won its competition today, as usual. Its size and its tradition give it deep roots in the community.

There's that word again. Community.

Hundreds of students had already gathered at the high school when we arrived, around midnight. They were joined by many parents -- of the gathered students and the returning ones. There was at least one television van and one newspaper reporter, too, as well as a handful of police officers; these were unobtrusive. And someone brought in a lot of cookies and hot chocolate.

It would be another hour before the buses arrived, as everyone there well knew. There were regular updates by cell phone and text message from students on the buses. Some students were even keeping others' parents posted, because those parents had children on the buses but no cell phones of their own.

What I discovered, as the night went on, was that there were students and parents and other friends there from other schools and cities in the area. That sense of community I mentioned is larger than a single school or town and larger than those rivalries we enjoy and exploit.

More than Just a Band (A Personal Memory)

As a student at Idaho's Snake River High School, I traveled that same lonely stretch of freeway dozens of times in school buses, going to and from basketball games, musical events, and other destinations. I have driven it myself many times in a car. But there is something else familiar about all this, something more important than geography.

When I was not chatting with friends and neighbors I saw outside the high school, I was reflecting on the autumn of 2003, when my neighbor and a friend, both members of the marching band, were killed in an automobile accident in American Fork Canyon. I planned, conducted, and spoke at my neighbor's funeral. We had it in the Alpine Tabernacle here in American Fork, to accommodate the 900 or so people who attended. The entire marching band was there in uniform. After the final amen, they formed a solemn and impressive honor guard outside the door, two resplendently uniformed lines, between which the casket was carried to the hearse.

At the cemetery, the band played as part of the graveside service. They are always stunning when they play; this time was no exception. But the most poignant moment, at least for me, came slightly later. As the echoes of their music faded, with the band still at attention, the drum major turned ceremoniously to the bereaved parents, who were standing nearby, saluted them slowly and with exquisite precision, then turned away. Later I asked around, trying to find someone with a photo of that moment, which I could give to the young man's parents, but I found none. I don't need one for myself; the image is indelible and vivid in my mind.

I wrote a letter to the band on my official letterhead, thanking and praising them for their role that day. The student leaders of the band wrote back, thanking me for my letter. I found their reply again just the other day, when I was filing some papers.

There's something about that marching band of ours. Whether I am simply attending a performance (which I confess I don't do very often) or working with them at an event everyone wishes didn't have to happen, I come away thinking that, for all the things that are wrong with the world, here is something that is right with the world. The caliber of their adult leaders is exceptional. The caliber of the youth themselves is no less so. When I'm feeling a little older than they are -- as I do justly -- I may worry a little about the world my generation will bequeath them all too soon, but I cannot bring myself to worry at all over the fact of which we so often remind them, that the future will soon be in their hands. I know some of them, and, counterintuitive as it may sound, I find theirs to be promising, willing, and very capable hands.

I didn't know that a marching band could inspire such thoughts. The small one in which I played in high school certainly inspired no such reflections -- at least not in me.

Those Remarkable Youth

It's not just the band members who impress me so. I know quite a few of their peers who are not in the band, and tonight I observed many more whom I do not know.

The gathered crowd tonight was noticeably subdued, but not morose. There was a lot of chatter and occasionally some quiet laughter; the incorrigible, resilient cheer of youth is something the rest of us should probably envy more than we do. They were orderly and well behaved, not to mention quite diligent in spreading each new bit of intelligence gleaned from a text message or phone call from someone on one of the incoming buses.

There were some hugs and a few tears that I saw. Then the buses arrived. The principal had just asked the crowd to allow the band members to walk to and have their habitual brief meeting in the building, before descending upon them. I'm not completely sure this crowd needed to be told to behave respectfully tonight.

As each bus pulled up in turn and unloaded, the crowd applauded. It takes a while to unload a large bus, but we just kept applauding. When two or three band members lingered on the bus, the crowd stopped applauding, waited patiently until the stragglers were finally climbing down from the bus, and resumed applauding. I said to someone during those minutes that this band probably deserves such a reception every time they come home, not just when there has been a tragedy.

When the band members emerged from the building after their meeting and began mingling with their fellow students, I had no difficulty telling which students were in the band. They were the ones who looked shaken, stricken, traumatized. There were sobs, tears, and subdued, shaky voices as they were greeted by their waiting friends.

I found myself suspecting that many of the students who gathered to greet the buses must have been moved to congregate at first by their own needs, by an instinctive desire to find support in community. No doubt some others were already thinking primarily of someone else from the beginning. By 1 a.m., when the first band members exited the first bus, it was quite clear that the youthful crowd as a whole had discovered a larger purpose for its presence. I cannot imagine that any greeting would be sufficient to calm the troubled minds and hearts of the young musicians who witnessed the crash itself or its aftermath. But to be greeted respectfully and with subdued, relieved enthusiasm and affection by hundreds of friends in the wee hours of the night must have helped at least a little.

To help a little actually is not bad. The pain of such experiences passes gradually. If a community can banish just a little of it right away by its response in a given moment, it has done all that can be done at that moment.

Speaking of the given moment, I have to get up in three hours to finish preparing tomorrow's Sunday School lesson. My thoughts are with those who will wake to sterner things, if they manage to sleep at all tonight.

Michelle Draper comments (10/12/09):

Thank you for this moving tribute. This band shapes lives and saves many in the process. This weekend brings many memories to the surface and I am eternally grateful for the friends, neighbors, and especially this great organization that brought meaning and comfort to our loss.

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