It Worked for 18th-Century France

December 13, 2011
They stole into shadowed passageways, creeping on the pads of their feet, as quiet as the monsters you’re sure are wandering through your house when you’re the last person awake, that you’ve never seen, whose existence you cannot prove but you know, just know they’re there. Hands on shoulders to steady each other in body and spirit, they find what they’re looking for: a door hidden by shadow and alley filth. Safety is exchanged for a whisper, a hiss of breath that forms the words: “Vive la Resistance”. Over 200 years later, another society meets in secret.
“Alright everybody, listen up! We need to organize!” hollers the senior, leaning out onto the railing over the assembled crowd. In all its years of concerts and shows, the music room has never been so full. Band, orchestra, and choir kid alike gather in response to the Gilbert Public School Board’s upcoming vote on whether or not the junior high jazz band program should be reduced. Though the decision would not directly affect us as high school students, the thought that only half as many students would participate in junior high programs and carry over to high school was horrifying. Fewer students would enter into the jazz program in junior high, and even less would carry over into high school. Eventually, all the current students in the high school’s phenomenally large and talented jazz program would graduate, and there would be no new students to fill the ranks. With fewer students, fewer teachers would be required to instruct them, and most of our music department staff would be laid off. Even if a semester produced a large group of prospective students, only a limited number can be allowed into a class taught once a day by a single teacher. It might take several years, but inevitably, the program would die out. If then band program could be eliminated, the orchestra and choir would be next to go. Once those were gone, what would stop the school board from going after dance and drama? And after the performing arts were vanquished, who would stand up to protect the visual arts, like drawing, clay, and painting? We were determined to halt this downward spiral before it had even begun.

It wasn’t as if these programs were mediocre, or fading out anyway: On the contrary, they were going strong. Earlier in the year, our marching band had taken home first place in the very first state championships to be held in Arizona. Our orchestra had recently been invited to national festivals. Our school had just organized and hosted a statewide jazz festival, the very first to be held in the southwest, and such a blow after such a triumph could not be tolerated. Why would the school abandon such successful endeavors, endeavors that contributed to our school’s prestige, and drew more students to enroll? When questioned about their motives, a board member claimed the musical arts were too expensive to fund. This made no sense either. These groups had been almost entirely funding themselves through student fees and fundraisers throughout the year. The small budget allowed the music department was nowhere near the sum doled out to the school sports teams: teams that were not worth a single credit hour and very few of which had titles to their names.
Furthermore, it was well known that nearly half the students enrolled in the music classes at our school were also taking numerous honors and AP courses. Many of these students were enrolled in the same courses, and relied on each other for academic support when a band concert coincided with a calculus test. (They always did, too. I cannot count the times I’ve loaded my textbooks into the car along with my instrument, with the hope my friends and I could snatch a few minutes to study between performances.) However, the extra time and effort a student had to give to succeed in band, orchestra, or choir in no way detracted from their studies: In fact, it complemented them. Eight of the top ten students in my own junior class, as well as the valedictorian, salutatorian, and national merit scholars of the senior class were involved in the music program.

Perhaps the most important reason why this transgression could not be allowed was the loss of community the students would suffer. When I joined band as a freshman, I was the epitome of a shy, awkward adolescent. Few close friends, bare-bones resume, scared of my own shadow. Through band I learned not only how to play an instrument, but leadership skills, teamwork, time management, and responsibility. My fellow “band geeks” became my family. We logged so many hours together, practicing, performing, competing, traveling, it was impossible for us not to feel this sense of community. This kinship existed in the other music programs as well. Even if the groups didn’t mingle on a regular basis, we certainly understood each other: band students were not exactly chummy with orchestra students, and choir students didn’t want much to do with either of us, but when a crisis arose in one group, we all supported each other. This is why it took less than a day to arrange a meeting in response to the school board’s pending mistake.

We discussed our plan of action, feeling it was important that we present our argument to the board professionally and diplomatically. If we showed up outside the educational complex building, wailing complaints and shouting demands, we would destroy whatever credibility angry teenagers have, lose our chance to convince the board, and look foolish besides. The board would have no desire to listen to an angry mob. Would the aristocracy look twice at a mob of starving, ragged peasants flinging garbage at their palace walls? No. (After being ignored, would the enraged peasants fly the revolutionary flag, storm the building, and break out the guillotine? Probably. It worked in 18th century France. However, a revolution is no pretty thing. If we could solve this with democracy, we would.)
We wrote speeches, and sent them to each other for editing and collaboration. We pressed our shirts and slacks and skirts, shined our shoes. Three days later, a multitude of well-dressed music students, from our school and others who feared they’d face program cuts next, filed into the Gilbert Public Schools Administration building to show support, share our stories, and defend our community. When the results of the vote were published, we were relieved and proud to see that our music programs were safe. Our revolutionary spirits were appeased for now, but we would never hesitate to call them forth once more if our beloved band was ever threatened in the future.





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