The date of my great epiphany eludes me, but even now, six months later, the fateful quote still resounds perfectly in my ears: “Hey Helen, Rachel’s gonna stretch ‘em today, okay?”
This sentence, however insignificant it seemed, struck me in the core of my being and brought tears of shock to my eyes. I glanced at Jessica with sudden loathing, stepped off the podium and trudged to the back of the room in humiliation. If I continued to be robbed of opportunities to prove my competence as a potential color guard captain, how would Ms. Dede ever see how fervently I desired the position? She had informed us that she would be filling three leadership posts: flag captain, rifle captain, or the coveted overall captain. There were five of us trying out for these; I could only hope for the part of flag captain—overall guard captain was extremely difficult to obtain.
Guard had been the pinnacle of my existence for the past two years. The program was an essential, irreplaceable part of me; color guard was my “escape” from all the trivial problems of conventional life. Even during the off season, I practiced rifle, hoping to get ahead before tryouts resumed in March. I loved guard more than anything in the world. Somewhere in the catacombs of my soul, I knew that I could better the guard’s reputation with phenomenal leadership.
As I watched Rachel go through the routine stretches, I felt a steel wire of determination begin to form in these catacombs. This feeling blazed through my veins like a violent fever, and the tears resurfaced, threatening to fall. I looked around at the new aspiring guard girls. I could easily empathize with those who appeared nervous; I had been very intimidated at my first audition practice as a newcomer. I felt positive that I knew what these girls were experiencing, and I wished that I had the authority to comfort them, to help them realize that the terrifically high standards of Ms. Dede were not impossible to achieve, even to transcend, with extraordinary devotion and hard work. A guard member who had begun with very little raw talent but instead possessed exceptional determination, I was proof that even the most awkward, clumsy girl could create the exquisite beauty of color guard if she was willing to practice. Of course, I could always pass on this knowledge and earn respect as a senior member, but I believed that the girls would truly appreciate my advice if it came from one of their leaders.
That evening, with the wire of determination still pulsating through my veins, I decided to take action. I drove the vehicles out of the garage, swept the floor, and closed myself in with only my rifle, flag, and a portable stereo. I had been preparing a potential routine in secret for several months, although I did not have any real intention of trying out for captain. As a junior, I had only been a member of the line for two years; Mom had prohibited me from trying out as an eighth grader, instead insisting that I march with my saxophone through my first year. The other prospective captains had been color guard members every year of high school. This gave them a competitive vantage, but I no longer cared. I wanted the position so intensely, with every fiber of my being. My shortcomings in experience only prompted me to practice in every spare second of time, regardless of fatigue and in lieu of social pastimes.
I wasted no time warming up or stretching; instead, I immediately dove into redesigning my routine. I kept some of the work, but I quickly realized that my original plan was far too easy. I wanted to come up with something grand, something spectacular. Simply standing in one place and doing drop spins on rifle was not enough. Ms. Dede would appreciate intricate work; my performance must be one that showcased not only my skill in handling equipment, but also my ability to turn those skills into a living work of art. I switched out various moves for hours, writing down each new set of counts as I added them in. Finally, I ascertained that I had enough material to at least cover a good introduction, so I plugged in the stereo to see how my progress fit with Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” my designated song.
The first part of the routine fit with the music perfectly, to my astonishment. I had to fix a few kinks in timing, as well as add a few high tosses, but I could tell that the overall effect would be quite remarkable when performed well. The work complimented swells and dips in the tune so closely that it seemed formulated singularly for “Moondance.” I had invented rifle moves that were especially challenging; intense practice would be essential to ensure consistent perfection.
I was more than willing to practice intensely. I carved out specific time in my schedule to polish the routine; on days that my last block class did not meet, I went home to practice until I had to leave to pick up my sister from school. When I came back, I finished any homework, and then went to work until nine or ten. As soon as I arrived home again, into the garage I went, picking up my rifle and gloves along the way. Often, I would rehearse until very late in the night, and then a little bit in the morning before school. Although I knew the other girls trying out for captain were receiving help from older members, I refused to let anyone besides my family observe my progression. This was not out of spite; rather, I felt that even if I did not make captain, I would be proud to say that I had toiled through the routine’s creation on my own.
Months and weeks flew by, as they tend to do; on the eve of auditions, I practiced only until dark, and then went inside to get some sleep. Altogether, I thought the routine looked good, but I had been forced to make some adjustments within the past two weeks that had still thrown me off occasionally during practice. I went through the entire song only once before school the next morning. My hands were already so clammy that I was worried I might drop and break my rifle before I had the chance to audition.
Classes had never seemed so slow, or so mundane. I felt feverish throughout the day, and my head ached from worry. Would Ms. Dede finally see how badly I wanted this? Had I practiced enough? I walked to the band room mechanically upon hearing the three o’ clock bell, yet I had the strangest sensation that I was floating instead.
I was knocked out of my trance immediately upon entering the band room. Chaos had ensued among the auditioning girls—red lipsticks and hair ribbons flew around in the blitz. Mr. Tate, the head band director, looked disgruntled; he sent us all outside after we had changed into our khaki shorts and white shirts, and told us not to return until Ms. Dede had arrived. I situated myself in a corner to work on my rifle tosses and review the main tryout routine. I was oblivious to my surroundings until I heard a voice behind me.
“Hey, uh, can we ask you something?”
I turned around. Two “new” girls stood behind me, flags in hand. They both looked frightened.
“Can you watch this and tell us what we’re doing wrong?”
I put down my rifle, surprised that they had come to me for assistance. “Yeah, absolutely,” I said, feeling a smile cross my face. “Where do we need to start?”
I helped the two with their routine until their audition numbers were called. They thanked me, beaming, and ran off to the gym. I resumed my rifle practice, feeling much less apprehensive than before.
After the main auditions were complete, captain tryouts were held. Some of the stress from earlier in the day began to resurface. Moments now passed as quickly as bullets; terror began to rise in my chest. The anxiety between the potential captains was tangible, almost suffocating. I escaped into the guard room until my name was called.
I handed my music to Ms. Dede. “First song on the disc, and I’m trying out for flag captain,” I murmured breathlessly. I sauntered down the steps to the gym floor, hearing nothing but my own muffled heartbeat, as if my ears had been plugged with cotton balls. I put down my flag and stood with my rifle, waiting. I was now overly aware of everything around me; my senses had become poignant, so that the air itself felt somehow alive.
“Ready?” asked Ms. Dede
A thousand thoughts raced through my head in a single instant, but for the second time that day, an unconscious smile made its way over my lips. “Ready,” I replied with sudden confidence.
As “Moondance” began to play, everything else disappeared. Before, I had thought that such moments, the ones where the rest of the world seems to slide away, existed only in movies and cliche romance novels. But there on that gym floor, for less than two minutes, I truly felt as though I were the only being in existence. I forgot about Ms. Dede, about the other girls watching, about the possibility that I had worked for months to gain nothing, if being rejected for captain was considered “nothing.” All that mattered was creating the beauty of color guard that makes it an art all its own. I hit my final pose, and the world melted back into view. Relief poured over me in torrents. No more late night practices, at least not for a while. No more stressful rifle tosses or complicated count structures. I was finally done.
The leadership positions for the next season would not be announced until the band banquet, a week after auditions were held. For a few days, I was comforted by the notion that I had done everything possible to prove my merit, but soon I dreaded the coming announcement. I often caught myself writing YOU DID NOT GET CAPTAIN along the edge of my chemistry notes, determined to prepare for disappointment. To actually achieve the position seemed unfathomable.
Friday night, the night of the banquet, came rather quickly. Throughout the dinner, I could barely speak from trembling. I picked absently at my food, too solicitous to eat. I was certain that if I ate at all I would throw up. Finally, Mr. Tate stepped up to the podium.
“Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the 2007-2008 Gibson County High School Band Banquet. I hope you all have enjoyed the meal so far…”
I put my head down on the table. The boundless formalities only made me more nauseous. I was about to run to the bathroom when Mr. Tate reached the crux of his speech:
“We will now reveal next year’s band leaders. As I call your name, please step up to the front of the stage.”
My heart fluttered behind my ribcage. He unfolded a sheet of paper and began to read from a list of names and titles. I crossed my fingers on both hands, not daring to breathe.
“Percussion captains, Liz S and Darren W. This year, for our color guard, we will have three captain positions to accommodate the growing number of color guard members—overall captain, flag captain, and rifle captain,” announced Mr. Tate.
“Overall captain…Helen F,” he read monotonously.
For an instant, I thought I had finally worried myself into insanity. I simply sat at the table, gaping stupidly at Mr. Tate. A few seconds passed, and I stood slowly, mouth still hanging open, and practically bounded to the front of the room to join the other new leaders. After feeling so much emotion for the past few months, I could feel nothing at all. The numbness was quite welcome.
After a meeting with Mr. Tate about next year’s leadership, we were dismissed. The chilly May air swirled around me as I walked out to the car, still stupefied. I thought briefly about what I would bring my—my!—guard girls as a welcome gift at Freshman Orientation. Brownies, perhaps? Cupcakes?
I turned on the car, ready for some heat. As I drove out of the parking lot, I turned up the volume on the CD player. I had forgotten that I had left “Moondance” on repeat as I was coming to the banquet. Van Morrison’s timeless voice brought an eruption of joyous tears to my eyes and unencumbered exultation to my soul.
“It’s a marvelous night for a Moondance…”