Thursday, June 6, 2013

Obnoxious and Disliked

Obnoxious and disliked.

I'm no historian. My collegiate study of history was limited to the overly specific history of western music. In grad school, it was the history of education; and in seminary, it was church history. The last general history course I took was in high school. And yet I am intrigued by the way in which themes work themselves out through history. I've enjoyed every Ken Burns documentary I ever watched, and a good historical drama can really hold my interest. Throw in some catchy songs and dynamic performances, and BAM! I'm hooked.

With that established, I hereby nominate William Daniels for the honor of best musical portrayal of a historical character for embodying John Adams in 1776.

I first saw it on TV on the Bicentennial Independence Day, 1976, and he had me. Most of the songs in 1776 are forgettable, with unfortunate lyrics and mediocre melodies. But whatever he's singing or saying, William Daniels sells himself in this role as few actors ever have. He is obnoxious and disliked, obsessed with independence, grieving his separation from his beloved Abigail, torn by the need to compromise on core principles if there is ever to be anything resembling a decision. His passion, his stubbornness, his refusal to acknowledge that any vision less vibrant than his own contains even a fraction of the truth manifest in his own, make him a well-lettered version of his first century namesake, John the Baptizer. "Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?"

I was reminded this week of John Adams (who was also brilliantly portrayed, more recently, by Paul Giamatti, who, if anything, rendered the great man even more obnoxious) by the stubborn insistence of one of my students that she alone was doing the right thing, even though it cost the rest of the band dearly.

Some background: the Banks High School band was scheduled to march in a parade last Saturday, June 1, the first real marching the band had done in my two years as its director. My predecessor was a marching guru who had built the school's drum line into a monster worthy of a far larger school; but with his departure, many of those drummers fell away, and the band shrank. For two years, we've been building it back, until it seemed clear in January that we needed a parade to aim for. The Lebanon Strawberry Festival Grand Parade fit the bill for many reasons: it was a small town event, a shorter course (2.5 miles), scheduled the Saturday before graduation rather than the day after (as was the case with the Rose Festival Grand Floral Parade); and most of all, the band was ready, and more to the point, I was ready. Student teaching at a high school with a marching megalomaniac as my supervisor turned me off to it in a big way. But now I've had two years to establish myself with these kids, and I knew they wanted to do this.

So I signed us up, and for more than a month, we focused exclusively on marching, learning and memorizing three pieces (including an original student arrangement), practicing marching techniques in the school parking lot, refitting uniforms for every member of the band, recruiting parents to fill important support positions, reserving a bus for the long ride there.

And then, a week before the parade, something truly horrible happened: a 19-year-old former band member died of cancer.

His name was Ryan, and he was a wonderful young person. He'd been an avid member of the drum line, and had continued to play after graduation. A year ago this week, I sold him one of the school's drum sets; he wanted to own the set he'd learned on. Clearly this was a tragedy that affected everyone who'd known him, and some of my students had known him for a very long time.

And the funeral was set for 11 a.m. June 1, the same time as our parade.

We had a concert four nights before. I called a meeting for after the concert to listen to what the band and their parents wanted to do about this: call off the parade? Come up with some way of honoring Ryan locally? I was certain there'd be some students who'd want to attend the funeral. And there were; but as a group, in a matter of minutes, the band decided the best tribute for Ryan, the thing he would've most wanted of them, was to go ahead and march in his honor. The decision was unanimous. I sat down after everyone had left and wrote up an email, which I sent out to my music parents list, telling them how deeply their sons and daughters felt this loss, how sincerely they believed they could honor their fallen comrade in this way, and how proud I was of them for the way they came to this decision.

Except there was one band member absent from that meeting, out with bronchitis. I'll call her Carol. She's the trumpet section leader. On Thursday I got an email from Carol's mother, telling me that she had come to a different decision, that the right thing for her to do was to go to the funeral. I groaned when I read the email. We'd really missed Carol at the concert. We'd miss her even more if she wasn't in the parade. We were already going to be short one of our four trumpet players, who'd be attending a funeral for his grandfather; with two missing, including now our strongest player, the band would sound weak. I wrote back to Carol's mother, hoping to convince her that the band's decision was the right course, but there was no changing this young woman's mind.

The next day during rehearsal, Carol announced her decision to the band. She received glares from many. I rose to her defense, though I was internally as unhappy with her as any of her classmates, saying that, while it was definitely going to hurt not having her with us, we'd do our best, and she had to do what she believed was right.

Saturday we did our best. We all wore black armbands with Ryan's name emblazoned on them. I marched alongside with my whistle, signalling each song; and I held my trumpet in one hand, playing Carol's solos, spelling my two trumpeters by picking up some of the higher notes. By the end of the parade, my lip was shot. But it was good, all of it. At the review stand, we stopped to hear the announcers describe how we were marching in Ryan's honor, and then played a piece specifically dedicated to him. I'd never thought marching band could be so moving. Once we got back to Banks, several students headed out to visit Ryan's grave.

Tuesday we were back in the band room, debriefing, talking about what an awesome tribute it had been, how much Ryan would've loved it. Carol felt the need to insist that the memorial service was also beautiful. I thanked her for representing the band at the service, though I was still harboring some irritation that she hadn't just accepted the decision of the rest of her classmates.

Today something occurred to me, and suddenly I had John Adams in my head: as brave and beautiful as the rest of the band was, Carol was, without a doubt, the most courageous person in the room. She stood up, by herself, to all her peers because she believed she was doing the right thing.

It's very hard to be a lone voice for rectitude, even if it's a situation in which more than one person may be doing the right thing. The solitude of certainty is not something most teenagers seek out. There were a few times when I did--I've written about the "Brains in Our Feet" editorial elsewhere in this blog--and paid for it in public scorn and endangered friendships. There's a word for individuals who stand up against the masses: prophet.

Coming to that epiphany, I realized that, rather than feeling inconvenienced by Carol, I was something else, something that felt far better: proud. How can I criticize her for doing the very thing I, myself, had done on a few occasions, knowing how much it might have cost her? I value the right to be uniquely opposed to others above all others in our Constitutional democracy. I have, in fact, argued many times, to the Boy Scouts, the Methodists, and anyone else that has used the tyranny of the majority to enforce wrong decisions on the whole of the body that the rights of the tiniest minority, even a minority of one, are what this nation's foundation documents are all about. We came into being because of obnoxious prophets. Were we to turn on them, not just persecute but prosecute them for their unique message, we would be no better than the authoritarian governments of Turkey, Egypt, or the Russian Federation. The right of the few, of even the one, to be passionately opposed to the rest of us, even if that passion resides in a wrong opinion (thing neo-Nazis or the Westboro Baptist Church) must be protected at all costs. As soon as we turn these individuals over to the thought police, our democracy is doomed.

Don't forget that sometimes the individual really is the only person in the room with the truth. It's precisely what makes standing up for it so frightening. What if they're all right, and it's me who's the crackpot? Even with Constitutional protection, it takes enormous courage to face down not just the antipathy of one's friends, but also the self-doubt inside one's own head.

More power to you, John Adams, and to all your descendants, including the 16-year-old trumpet player who stayed home from the parade so she could go to a funeral. May your obnoxious messages continue to buzz in our ears.

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