It was the perfect recipe. Perfect, though we couldn’t have known it before all the ingredients were there.
- One small, midwestern town, where family lines run deep even as the population dwindles.
- One school with a void where the music and band programs used to be.
- One grand idea by an alumnus.
- A few dozen eager alumni plus a handful of current high schoolers; all qualified band geeks.
- One natural leader grabbing the reins with equal parts optimism and get-it-done practicality.
- Homecoming Night
- Nostalgia, added to taste.
When I graduated high school and then left for college in 1999, I was in one frame of mind: don’t look back. I wanted new, more, and different. It took years and plenty of road behind me to appreciate my school age years. I’m still working on it, honestly.
My parents continue to live in Stephenson, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. As well, at least a few members of our family have resided within a reasonable drive of our hometown since graduating high school. All seven of us siblings have made it a priority, as life allows, to continue gathering at the home in which we all grew up. So, fully leaving behind my small town roots was never my path, and for that I’m thankful.
In more recent years of this age of social media, I found myself reconnecting with high school friends. It was exciting to discover where our roads took us. Some were surprising and some not. I began to appreciate the memories with these individuals and enjoyed seeing each other’s adventures and families on Facebook and Instagram. Still, I didn’t attend reunions or make a point of reconnecting in person with more than a scant few people.
Among the best of my high school memories are the band memories. I loved band. There were only a few high school classes or programs I’d say that about, and band might be at the top of the list. So, when I was invited to join a Facebook group a few months ago called SHS Alumni Pep Band, my curiosity was high from the start.
The idea came from my old friend Ron. He’d recently learned that the Stephenson schools are now without both a music and band program. It saddened him, as it did all of us discussing it on the group’s page, and he proposed that we bring back the pep band for homecoming night of the varsity boys’ basketball season. The delightfulness of the idea was apparent, but could we do it? Was it even practical to try? Did any of us remember how to play? With ample brainstorming and reminiscence, enough people committed to the plan and there was no looking back.
I found myself signing on for my first hometown event in 22 years, and the closest thing to a high school reunion I’d yet to experience.
The level of interest and the reach of the appeal was fascinating. We became a group spanning five decades of graduating years. Literal generations in the same ensemble.
A couple months out from the homecoming game, we scrambled to find usable instruments and resurrect our dormant skills. Scott, a fellow ’99 graduate who lives in Stephenson again with his family, jumped on the tasks of digging up sheet music for each instrument and dispersing them online for all of us. He reserved the band room, now set up for Spanish classes, so local alumni could practice together.
I took my saxophone in for a tune up (aka to make it functional again) and borrowed a former bandmate’s extra alto sax to start practicing in the meantime. Later I found out my instrument, used when my parents bought it for my older sister before handing it down to me, would cost several hundred dollars to repair. The repairman was frank about it not being worth the investment. I’m still sad over not playing that saxophone again but thank goodness for my friend’s loaner.
Relearning the old pep band standards felt like a montage of comedically inspiring efforts. It was slow to start but eventually my fingers remembered what they were doing and my lungs built up a smidgen of endurance. It took a little longer each practice before my jaw started aching.
After a few weeks, I still doubted I could play the songs with other people. When it worked out to be in Stephenson for one of the Sunday afternoon practices, I loaded up the saxophone and arrived at the high school with all sorts of nerves. However, it only took stepping through the door of the old band room for those nerves to change to joy. We warmed up our instruments and greeted each other enthusiastically. I felt that coming-home feeling that belongs to the rare pieces of youth made up of only good things. Whatever that piece might be for you, for me it was band.
What I got a taste of during that practice was in full force on homecoming night.
The gymnasium was filled to the doors. Where typically only half of the bleachers are pulled out to hold the fans, this time every section was packed with people. That alone set the tone for the alumni band. There was a hint of stepping back in time to the games of our own high school years, when it was unheard of to only fill up half the gym. The entirety of the band seemed to adopt an unspoken mission to answer the excitement of that crowd with generous enthusiasm in our songs. Personally, my children’s eagerness to see their mom play in the band was contagious. I was thrilled to watch my family’s proud faces as they spotted me on the bleachers.
In the end, I think we thoroughly surprised ourselves. We were somehow all members of the same band despite our widespread ages. Playing together felt natural. The presence of our beloved band directors – teachers who remain favorites in countless students’ hearts – challenged us to hit the right notes… and roll through the notes we missed.
I can’t summarize everyone else’s emotions from that night but all of mine were tethered back to gratitude. As I write this a month later, that is still what I feel more than anything else.
For the crowd’s call for more songs after the game finished. For hugging my band directors. For blooking around from my seat on that bleacher and seeing friends. For the reminder of the greatness of a small town, and the celebration of the gift of music to a community and school. I’m grateful for all of it and for playing a part in it.
After the game, many of us trekked out to Belgiumtown Bar & Restaurant, a country tavern a few miles off the highway with delicious food and the friendliest bartenders around. They stayed open hours past their normal closing time and we savored minute after minute of visiting over drinks, laughter, and old favorites on the jukebox.
The reconnection of that night with the friends, the town, and myself filled my soul with good things. There’s no mistaking the value of it in this (and every) era of our lives. I hope very much that each person who played in the band or attended the game that night received a share in that goodness.