A friend of my son’s was hanging out yesterday afternoon at the house, after having tried out for one of four drum major slots at the local public high school he and my son attend. They’ll both be seniors next year. My son, before relapsed leukemia destroyed his world, high school and otherwise, had hoped to make drum major in the band by his senior year. Now he’s happy just to be able to participate, if only occasionally. But my son’s friend, who is a good kid, a bit worldlier and cooler than most of the kids in the band, decided he would try out for drum major as something of a capstone for his high school career.
The high school they attend serves one of the ringlet cities around Birmingham, Alabama that grew up with suburbanization and white flight in the sixties and seventies. It is not the richest of the ringlet cities, but it fancies itself the smartest, home to a goodly portion of the doctors, lawyers, professors and other professionals that work in the city. Urban enough that it has a strong business-tax base, it spends more per capita for education than any other public school system in Alabama.
Its marching band considers itself one of the best, not just in the state, but in the nation. Of course, no matter how much my son argues otherwise, there’s no objective criteria by which the band could claim such an honor. But fully a quarter of the students participate, making it, at roughly 250 strong, one of the largest high school bands around the state. They march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade at least once every four years, and usually do one other major excursion within the same time frame. My son marched in the Rose Bowl parade his freshman year, and next year, as a senior, if all is well, he’s scheduled to march in the Macy’s parade in New York.
Except that my son’s involved, I could personally care less about band. When I was in school, I played football and admit (not proudly these many years later) to having sneered at band kids as being too prissy to play football. The band in my school seemed to understand that without the football team, there wouldn’t be a band. The football team plays the game that draws the crowd and has the half-time lull that provides the band a stage. But at my son’s school, and probably a great many more like it, the band’s half-time performance is considered by more than a few the whole point of the football game. In my way of reckoning, even now, the band people have got things backward.
But since the band is considered such a big deal, the coveted drum major slot is huge. So instead of having one drum major, they have four, a number that has been gradually creeping up through the years. My nephew was a drum major a few years back when they only had three. Before long, they’ll have a whole squad of drum majors. Then the scramble will be for whom gets to be the lead drum major. There’s no limit to how eagerly humans will seek the approbation and approval of their peers, and especially with kids in high school, when the approval flows from both community and family in one gigantic swirl of sanctification for the family and the kid. The fortunes of families in the community rise and fall according to the exploits of their children on the gridiron, either during the game or between its halves, and in this particular community, it matters at least as much or more what happens during half-time as what actually goes on during the game. Which is also why being selected for drum major, a position for which there is really no objective criteria for selection (like the band’s performance itself), depends a great deal on the politics of the situation.
So when my son’s friend told me he’d tried out for the drum major slot, I wished him good luck, but having always tried to be a parent that doesn’t talk bullshit to kids, I told him not to get too discouraged if he didn’t make it. He’s a good kid and would make a fine drum major, but I knew his family wasn’t one of the favored clans in the area, and the math wasn’t in his favor. Two of the kids that were trying out had been drum majors the year before. One of them was a genuinely-talented kid that had been drum major for two years already, having made it as a sophomore. He was a kid that was always the lead in the show-choir musical (another ridiculous waste of extracurricular time, but I dither) or the school play, and everyone just knew he would always be a drum major. The politics of ability made it impossible not to choose him, even though his family was in the second tier of favored clans in the area.
The other kid with previous experience was not among the most talented at much of anything, but her family had first-tier connections. Her dad and the son of the former governor were big buddies.
So I explained to my son’s friend that there were only two slots available. The previous drum majors would definitely make it again. How could a band director justify not choosing them without looking foolish in the breach? Then he told me who else was trying out. One of them happened to be the child of the former governor’s son, whose buddy’s daughter, just discussed, had made drum major as a sophomore. The former governor’s granddaughter was a rising junior. Though absolutely lacking in the way of remarkable skills, there was no way she wouldn’t make it. I explained that with her trying out, the remaining six people were effectively trying out for one remaining slot. As an added complication, all three of the shoo-ins were white, in a school and band that has about a 25% black population. The chances they’d add another white kid like my son’s friend to the drum major rolls was exceedingly remote.
And so it came to pass when the drum major list was released, there were the two previous drum majors, the former governor’s granddaughter, and another girl that may or may not have been the best choice, but was certainly the only one chosen with some measure of objectivity. Incredibly, she wasn’t black, which the band director might later regret, or may not, depending on how he deciphered the political calculus. While blacks make up 25% of the band and school, they have no representation among the first-tier clans in the community. Time will tell whether his decision was a wise one.
My son’s friend didn’t make it. But he was presented a lesson that I think is more valuable than anything that he might get out of composing a paper for English or memorizing a formula for math class: In a world where there is no objective criteria delimiting skill and talent, i.e., in a world where humans decide the success and failure of other humans strictly on their own subjective considerations, if that world depends for its existence upon political largesse, then all decisions of import will become political decisions.
I hope he further gathers that the best strategy for dealing with such a world is not supplication to the political powers that be, but is simple and utter rejection of their world; that the only hope for becoming a man who he might be able to respect is to reject the trappings of the politically-animated world and fastidiously strive to seek or create a world where his talents and abilities will be rewarded upon their merit.
If he takes away an understanding of at least some of the reality this political-driven world presented for him, he may very well be on his way to gaining an education, a feat that rare few achieve in high school, or afterwards. His time in high school might just have not all been wasted, which would be an exceptional feat in the annals of this, or any high school, and would certainly be more impressive than making drum major because one’s daddy happens to be friends with the governor’s son, or because one’s granddaddy happened to have been governor.