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The Flatlander

Band Goes Beyond Music

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I’ve written about Blake Henley and the Fighting Yellowjacket Marching Band in this column previously. You’ll also find considerable space dedicated to them in last week’s newspaper as well as in this  edition via our weekly photo page.

Enough, you say.

I disagree.

I recently spent a couple of hours with Henley and over a late lunch of cheeseburger, fries, and a Pepsi interviewing him for a story set to appear in our next Stone County Living magazine. The upcoming issue is focused on youth and successful youth programs. We thought it interesting to speak with Henley about a marching band program he took over seven years ago – and one that has flourished.

In a 35-year journalism career, I’ve interviewed thousands. Some are a delight, others a pain, some are secretive, and a few are just downright mean.

Henley is a pleasure. But I’ll leave the details of that interview for you to peruse later when the next magazine hits the streets.

What I’d like to tell you about here today is something I saw last Friday, March 18.

It is still on my mind.

For months, we’d known the MVHS band had scheduled a trip and would raise its own private funding to perform in Washington DC. After a long bus ride across Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia, and into the nation’s capital, 44 students would perform at the WWII Memorial and four of those students featured in last week’s Leader would place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. Henley took his first group on the trip several years ago and speaks reverently about that experience and its impact on the students. This is at the core of Henley’s transcendent teaching style – going beyond.

The first thought that goes into producing each week’s Stone County Leader is a menu of potential ideas or events that have local significance and reader value. In my mind, 44 high school students headed off to Washington for a “value-added” experience to their educations checks lots of boxes. So, I told Henley at the end of our lunch meeting I’d show up on Friday and get a photo of their departure for this week’s edition.

And I will always be glad I did. It was two and a half hours I’ll not soon forget.
And I’ll go ahead and get to the point of the entire column right here.

Our high school band is a model for the community we should aspire to be. That’s right. The band is our model.

First, a word about Henley.

If you’ve ever been one of Henley’s band parents you know your child learned a lot more than music.

He has a great perspective on the band’s role – most typically its function is to enhance something bigger. At Friday night football games, the band is present to create an experience, Henley says. Student lesson? You’re not always in the bright lights. Oftentimes you are just a part of something bigger.

I’ve watched Henley with his students now on more than one occasion. From the director’s seat, he is personally engaged in every moment. In the brief two hours it took to prepare the bus and band for departure, Henley loaded a ton of luggage and equipment, managed and checked boxes from at least three organizational lists, created a moment where the students would show respect to the bus driver, allowed students to participate in a pre-departure prayer, and with everyone on the bus moments before departure, he played the role of janitor and cleaned the band hall’s restrooms.

And there was one thing I observed about him through the entire stressful departure experience.

He never stopped smiling. Joy showed in his heart.

There is no other word. The band students are amazing.

Maybe because of Henley’s transcendent style, maybe because of a certain mix of demographics and socioeconomic status, or maybe because at their young age they’ve learned something that we adults have not yet learned, the MVHS band is a model for community.

Watch these students interact. There are no labels, no lines or boundaries, no first-class section on the seating chart. No one is substandard or less than another. They are one unit working keeping harmony – together.

I watched this Friday for hours. They pitched in and helped one another, came together for the collective job, got the job done, all the while treating one another with respect. It did not matter that one student might have a better homelife than another, or that one might drive a nice vehicle while the other had only a rusty bike.

I spoke to one student last week who said the band had been a life-changing experience for him. He attempted several times to describe its significant impact on him and fumbled for a few words to describe a dynamic where students “got a chance.”

“It seems like we don’t get judged here,” he said.

Consistent with his personality and style, Henley sitting nearby chimed in for a teachable moment.

“Grace. The word you’re looking for is grace,” he addressed the student by name.
With the band as our example, may we all do the same for one another.

See you in next week’s newspaper.

(Steve Watkins is a writer and columnist for the Stone County Leader. Write him at steve@stonecountyleader.com)

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