I was so excited about my first summer band camp, which was held in the huge swampy field next to the football field at the high school. We lived in the neighborhood across the street from the school and so each day, we would walk over to the school and spend hours sweating, marching, and trying not to die of malaria from all of the mosquito bites.
Our marching band was an award-winning band and about an hour into my first day of band camp, I figured out why. Mr. Page—our highly skilled band director—was a tyrant. He knew exactly what he wanted done and exactly how he wanted it accomplished. And we were going to practice it over and over and over again until we executed it flawlessly. We lined up, marched the formations, played all of our songs, and he would stalk up and down the rows of musicians, blowing his whistle, pointing his long finger, and barking orders. At the end of the day, we stood in formation, trembling with exhaustion, dripping with sweat, waiting for a small word of praise or a smile. But—nothing. He would blow his whistle and dismiss us with a wave of his hand.
After school started, we belonged to Mr. Page twice a day. Each day during second period, we would line up in parade lines and march around and around our small town, serenading the small businesses, stay-at-home mommies, and retirees. And each day when school ended, we would line up on the football field and march through our halftime show over and over again until finally Mr. Page would signal us to line up in parade lines. He marched us off the field and up the front driveway of the school. He signaled us to parade rest and then he would march up and down the lines to see who was out of line. All too often, I fell into that category. He would stand at the end of my line and bark: “Someone’s out of line here!” Our line would adjust and then we’d hear: “STILL out of line!” We would readjust and then we’d hear: “WHAT’S SO HARD ABOUT MAKING A STRAIGHT LINE?!” And we’d readjust until eventually, he’d walk away to correct another line. I’d grit my teeth and wish I could quit. But I’d never been a quitter and wasn’t going to start now.
The first night that I performed with the band, I was terrified. I lined up with the rest of the band—in my navy, gold, and white long-sleeved uniform—praying that I wouldn’t die of heatstroke and that I would remember the notes to the songs and my correct steps in formation. As the football team ran off the field at halftime, we began our march onto the field.
I remember three things about that night. First, I remember hearing the announcer’s voice booming across the field: “Please welcome your Hallsboro High School Marching Tiger band!” I remember how the wet grass and mud clung to my white shoes as I moved through the formations. And I remember that after we had completed the routine and marched completely off the field and out of the stadium, Mr. Page came to the front of the formation to dismiss us. And when he stood in front of us, he smiled.
It was a small smile—almost shy. And it was very quick. But it was a smile. And just as quickly, it was gone. But in that brief second, I knew exactly why I had suffered through it all. Because that one tiny smile was worth everything else that I had to go through to earn it. We all felt it and those occasional smiles fueled us to work hard and win first place at every contest we entered that year.
At the end of that year, our high school closed. We had known it was coming. All of our county schools were consolidating into three new, bigger schools. The thought of a bigger band, full of people that I didn’t know was terrifying to me. And Mr. Page had announced that he wasn’t going to go teach at the new school, which meant we’d have a new director, too. It was all too much for me. I decided that it was time for me to quit. At the end of the semester, when we did pre-registration for fall semester, I simply didn’t sign up for band.
I had always thought that Mr. Page didn’t like me. Or at least, I assumed that he didn’t care about me. I figured that to him I was just another kid to keep in line. But when he found out that I hadn’t signed up for band, he called me into his office. He invited me to sit down in the beat-up brown armchair and then he proceeded to lecture me about quitting the band. I don’t remember what he said that day—his words were cancelled out by the emotions that I felt. For the first time all year, I thought that just maybe, I was good enough. Just maybe, I had some talent. And though I still quit, I felt like I could walk away with my chin up instead of with my tail between my legs.
My entire life, I have been a perfectionist. As hard on me as Mr. Page was, I have been infinitely harder on myself. I have to walk a straight line, perfectly in step and in the right formation. I try to hide in the back of the pack and not stand out. If I think I’m going to fail at something, I usually won’t even attempt it. And if I mess something up, I’ll spend hours or days reliving it in my mind, trying to figure out how I should have or could have done it better.
The enemy has had a good time with me—keeping me focused on myself and focused on how to earn the love that God has so freely given me. As I talk to the women around me, I find that it’s a pretty common strategy—to keep women so bound up in insecurity, fear, and self-centeredness that they don’t have the energy or confidence to do the ministries that they are called to. We become secret-keepers and masqueraders—hiding what we believe are weaknesses and spending our lives trying to be on our best behavior. In the process, we come off as fake and hypocritical instead of loving and accepting.
I thank God for His grace and for helping me more and more to see the world—myself included—through eyes of the Spirit instead of eyes of the flesh. On those days when I’m hardest on myself, I am beginning to sense God calling me into his office and inviting me to sit down in his old, brown armchair and saying to me, “You’re okay. You just need a little practice. But I’ll take all the time you need to help you get it right. Now, chin up. Let’s go play.”
Thanks to Alissa (Sahlstein) Watts for the picture. That is our actual 1991-1992 HHS Band at the Pow-Wow Parade in Buckhead, NC. If you had a magnifying glass, you might be able to see me in like the first or second row of the clarinets.