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Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Epilogue: Marching Band, Victory, and Justifying the Costs

Some hard questions are reasonable to ask, even if they seem harsh, as long as they are asked for the purpose of finding an answer. And humanity doth not live by bread alone (to borrow a phrase).


If you'll indulge me, I will summarize some recent events on my way to a larger point.

The American Fork High School Marching Band has had an unusual amount of attention in recent weeks here at the blog, to say nothing of the local and national media. It began tragically and heroically a few Saturdays ago, when one of the band's four charter buses crashed on the way home from a competition victory in Pocatello, Idaho. The bus driver had blacked out. Woodwind teacher Heather Christensen was killed in a heroic attempt to steer the bus as it left I-15. Many believe that her efforts saved at least a few lives and kept numerous band members from being more seriously injured than they were. Late that night, the other three busloads of grieving, traumatized band members arrived at American Fork High School. They were greeted by hundreds of fellow students and other friends from the community. You might say -- I did say -- that this was a community -- not just American Fork -- rallying to help its own.

Less than 72 hours later, that broad community turned out in force at Lavell Edwards Stadium at BYU to do more of the same. For its part, heavy hearts and some injuries notwithstanding, the band performed there at another competition, winning everything there was to win -- again -- and, more importantly, honoring their teacher's memory and answering the flood of community support with a beautiful and moving demonstration of courage and grace.

On Saturday, November 7, the band won a multistate competition in St. George, Utah, and was invited to fill an empty slot at the Grand National competition in Indianapolis the following weekend. They went last year, after preparing for a year or more, and placed 14th. This time they were starting from scratch in terms of funding, and without specific advance preparations for a competition which is a little different from their other competitions, not just in the quality of the competitors.

On Sunday, November 8, word began to travel, mostly via text messages and the World Wide Web, that the band needed to raise $250,000 by Tuesday afternoon in order to make the trip. Word spread to newspapers and to television and radio stations. It was a considerable mountain to climb, especially in less than 48 hours, but, for the band and its community, it has been a season of scaling mountains. By the deadline they had raised the money. About 60 percent of the funds came from the band members and their families; the rest came from the community (broadly defined), mostly in small donations. As far as I and my very modest donation are concerned, this was the community's chance to acknowledge and reward not only exceptional achievement by a marching band, but also the great courage and fortitude that characterized the latter half of the band's season.

At Grand Nationals the preliminary round included performances by 90 high school marching bands over a period of two days, Thursday and Friday. The American Fork High School Band performed first on Friday. The competition schedule was sprinkled with exhibitions by other bands, including the famous University of Michigan Marching Band. Of the 90 competing bands, 34 were chosen as semifinalists, including American Fork. These performed again on Saturday morning and afternoon. Twelve bands were chosen as finalists and performed Saturday evening; American Fork was not among them, having finished 14th. American Fork did win the Esprit de Corps Award.

What Is a Victory?

I suppose there were those who thought that winning first prize would be the proper ending for this story, and anything else would be a defeat and a disappointment. One student told me, "If the community raises $250,000 for this, the band needs to win." I agree only to the extent than winning first prize would have been a lovely ending to what is already a powerful story.

I heard from several people associated with the band that getting to the finals at all would be a major victory. They almost got there. Is that a win or a loss?

My thoughts in advance of the competition were much like these thoughts after it. Deserving to be there was a big win. Getting there was a major accomplishment. Performing well enough to make the semifinals was a win, particularly in view of the band not having prepared for Grand Nationals all year, because they didn't plan to go. Finishing a lot closer to 12th than 34th in the semifinals is almost another win.

In my mind's eye I see everyone who has been following this saga nodding quietly at the news that American Fork won the Esprit de Corps Award. I don't know the formal criteria for the award, but it seems right and almost inevitable. For any other corps to demonstrate greater esprit than this one has this year is practically unimaginable.

I would love to have seen the band make the finals, and an outright win, however unlikely, would have been amazing. Neither of these happened, but I still see great victory here, and only small defeat.


Somewhere online someone noted the $250,000 that the band raised so "easily" -- as if quickly and easily were synonyms, which they are not -- and then wondered how many starving people the same money might have fed for how long, in Asia or Africa or somewhere. We might as well wonder how many unemployed Utah construction workers' rent it would have paid or how may new school teachers' salaries it would have funded, and for how long.

(On a purely economic level, it's not as if the money were burned. It was spent on bus and air travel, lodging, meals, and so forth, and thus helped to provide jobs and income for many people. But that is not my point.)

The moral smugness behind the question in this case does not make it a bad question. What justifies a community's apparently lavish expenditure on a trip to Grand Nationals for a large high school marching band? For that matter, why have a well-equipped and well-housed high school football team or orchestra? Why have a large auditorium for theatrical productions, among other things? Why build nice schools, when reading, writing, arithmetic, and citizenship can be taught effectively in quonset huts? All the money we save could be applied to feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless.

For that matter, why would we send our marching band on long trips, when there is a small but ever-present risk of an accident? Why have a football team, when we know there will be injuries? Why do we have a manned space program, when we know that, once in a while, despite our best efforts, someone will die in a ball of fire or the cold vacuum of space?

I will concede that we could go too far in all these directions. In my own thinking it is also possible for us both personally and collectively to be morally culpable for failing to care for the poor and needy. But as for me and my small donation in this case, I can answer why in one word: excellence.

Mine may not be the most dominant educational philosophy, but I believe that an essential mission of our schools -- and of parenting, and of our training of children and youth in general -- is teaching excellence. Youth and children in particular need to see and know and experience what excellence looks and feels like, how it differs from mediocrity, and the respective costs to an individual and a community of achieving it and failing to achieve it.

So we teach and model and encourage and celebrate and reward excellence. Because everyone's skills and interests are different, we create not just one or two, but a wide variety of simulations of real life in which to cultivate excellence. In these simulations, which range from the chess club to the chamber singers to the basketball team, students can experience -- both directly as participants and indirectly as audience and fans -- the effort, the pain, the victory, the defeat, the teamwork, the disappointment, and the joy that the pursuit of excellence brings. They can do so in a supervised environment, with teachers, coaches, advisers, parents, and peers to encourage them, to help them learn what they should learn, and to keep them as safe as reasonably possible in the process. When they fail, we console and encourage them, and we point out that failure is part of life -- indeed, a part of success. When they succeed, we praise and celebrate, then nudge them toward greater excellence.

When they succeed spectacularly, in the humane, artistic, and technical senses, we raise a quarter of a million dollars in two days, during a recession, and send them to Indianapolis, to observe others' excellence and to make one more individual and collective effort to pursue and display their own excellence before this year's marching band season ends.

I do not question the urgent need to care for the poor and needy among us on a local and a worldwide scale. The nature and scope of the needs justify ongoing generosity and sacrifice. But subsistence alone is hollow, if we do not also, generously and at some sacrifice, pursue and sustain higher things. I do not believe I am overstating the case, when I suggest that it is human excellence in many forms which justifies human subsistence.

Brian Rawlings comments (11/19/09):

I am reminded of an editorial comment similar to the one you addressed here, "Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?" Perhaps some of the those lessons apply here also. I think I'm going to glue in a copy of your post next to John 12:5.

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