Turning in my high school marching band’s leadership application form, I already had a swollen head. I went through band camp with a case of walking pneumonia my rookie year. During water breaks, my saxophone and I were under a shaded tent as I breathed into a medicine-filled tube that would dull the pain breathing evoked from my lungs. Ironically, I even had a set in the halftime show where I needed to move from one thirty-yard line to the other in fifteen counts. Since I was 5’2 and sickly, my directors said they could modify the move for me, but I declined. Even though I was in discomfort, I was dedicated. Perhaps that was a sign to my directors that I could become section leader material. When I applied during my junior year, I already expected that I had the position. I was an excellent marcher and confident in my ability to lead, but shortly, I was to find out that I wasn’t a good leader at all.
Rookie camp always happened one week before band camp commenced. During that time, first-year marchers, or rookies, learned the basics of marching and playing music while moving. This camp helped everything run smoothly once the official band camp started. In my first year of leading, I was excited to be one of the people in charge, but I was also nervous about being overrun with people. Luckily, I only had two rookies: Jack and Raif. Raif, a skinny 8th grader who towered over me at 5’7″, had difficulty maintaining eye contact and talked very little. Jack, Raif’s physical and social opposite, was a short freshman who always had something to say. When I first met Jack, he notified me that he had watched several marching band videos before camp and did not need my guidance. That discussion alone let me know that camp was not going to be a cakewalk.
“Jack, adjust your posture!” “Raif, don’t look down at your feet!” “Never hold your saxophone by the mouthpiece! What would possess you to do that?!” I considered it a successful day of camp if I only had to call out their names a handful of times. I could not fathom why they would not fix themselves, especially since I would correct them almost every other run of sets. That was my job, right? My leaders called me out when I was wrong, so I need to do the same. Sometimes the two lagged too far behind, and I begged the assistant band director to take them aside and help them get the hang of what we were learning. Rather than going with Jack or Raif, I took that as a break and stayed to assist the other rookies – the rookies that genuinely seemed to listen. My conversations with either of the boys evolved into icy interactions. Anytime I approached, I received some eye-roll or sigh. Nightly, I would vent to my mother about how careless the boys were. “What are you doing to help them learn?” my mother would always ask, and then I would recount how much I corrected them and showed them the right way to do things. Each time I would end the story with, “If I could do it with pneumonia, then they can do it while they’re healthy!” And there, the conversation would always end – I never liked how insecure her question made me feel.
I cannot recall what made me snap, but I remember frustrated tears welling up in my eyes as I sat with my director, Ms. Davis, in her office. At this point, Jack and Raif were so annoyed with me that they wouldn’t even pretend to listen when I directed them. Anyone could see that this was no longer a hobby for any of us, but a chore. I did not know what to do, and I was pressing my instructor for an explanation. Ms. Davis told me then that Jack and Raif were on the autism spectrum. The camp’s fast-paced environment was overwhelming them, and unfortunately, so was I. Reflecting on the past week, I was sorely disappointed in myself. Even if they were not on the spectrum, I was not working with them. I was not patient, listening to what they needed, or making myself available to the boys, and I wanted to make it up to them.
On the first day of our official band camp, I apologized to Jack and Raif for the hectic week I put them through. Being the kind guys that they are, they accepted my apology. From that moment, I shifted my outlook on how to lead. If they needed, I was there before and after practices to help the boys out. If they seemed upset, I would try to bolster their confidence. If either of them had to run a lap around the football field, then I ran with them, albeit hating every second of it. If they gave me lip, I tried my best to respond with patience and understanding. As if by magic, Jack and Raif began to flourish.
During the official band camp, Jack and Raif grew very close to the rest of the team, and now I hate the very thought of them not being with the saxophones. Our section garnered a reputation for being the wildcard of the band. You never knew what you would get from us that day. One practice, we’d be the most productive, and the next, we’d have to run laps for goofing around too much. I think that was part of our charm, though. During the boys’ first season with the band, there were still many learning curves; however, I took it in stride and used it to exercise patience and problem-solving. Sometimes Jack would even catch me being lazy and tell me to watch my form! I couldn’t find it in my heart to get defensive. After all, I was the one who taught him to be a stickler for good posture!
Changing my leadership style was a total 360-degree turn in direction, but that is what I needed. Jack and Raif taught me so many things: patience, understanding, how to be flexible when problem-solving, and how to let go and have a sense of humor about things. Where frustration and doubt once stood, there is a strong friendship founded on trust and respect. At the beginning of that summer, I had no idea what it meant to be a good leader, but now I do. It is not about looking good by having the fastest learners or bossing people around just because you are in charge—it is about being there for your team and knowing that, in return, they’ll be there for you.