No Obligation To Be Here

Lynn with Rifle in Indianapolis 500 Parade

Have you ever volunteered for a grueling event, in which you will be anonymous and under lots of pressure?

In the early spring of my high school senior year, a faculty member told us there was a snafu with our graduation date– graduation would be held one week earlier than planned, because the scheduler of the invited dignitary confirmed the wrong date, and there were no reasonable days to rebook our ceremony. The timing meant graduation would happen on Friday evening of Memorial Day Weekend.

When we seniors heard the news, we shot smirks at each other, then outright smiles and joyful laughter, because we wouldn’t have to take comprehensive final exams! Getting out one week early!

Our band director stood calmly while we smiled and shouted our approval. Then we quieted, sensing there was more news coming.

Her expression turned serious as she gestured at us seniors. “That means, for all of you seniors, you are not obligated to march in that parade. If you choose NOT to march, you can skip the twice-monthly evening practices for the parade and in May you will report to study hall instead of band class. If you choose to march, you will be required to attend all practices… and abstain from any wild or late-night partying on graduation night. I will need a decision from each of you in the next two weeks.”

It was a longstanding tradition that our Indianapolis area high school combined its band with three other high schools surrounding Indianapolis and marched as a cohesive unit in the Indianapolis 500 Festival Parade each year. It was the highest honor our band experienced each year… and it was a lot of extra work. And sweaty.

As she walked away, we seniors were chatting excitedly. Some declared immediately and loudly they were taking the study hall option. That signaled a flurry of high-fives among their peers of the same opinion.

I admit, the offer was tempting for the first minute or two.

I fell silent, considering my situation. I was in the midst of a gritty academic struggle with another student– the valedictorian and salutatorian honors would fall to us, but the placement was still to be determined by our homework and test scores of the current semester… and was within mere points, with every assignment counting. If I became the valedictorian, I would be expected to write a speech and deliver it during the graduation ceremony.

If I chose to march, this would be my third time, and I remembered the sequence well. Preparing for this parade would mean meshing four different squads of each type (rifle, flag, snare drum, trombone, etc.) and the annual arguments of who would create the rifle routine, how each squad member would be positioned in the combined unit, and where the combined unit would be placed into the whole marching unit (block). Then would come the marching practices in the local streets, and finally the parade itself… on what seems like the hottest day of spring each year.

The parade rules demanded that all bands perform in dress uniforms– no tshirt-and-shorts ensembles allowed. For a unified appearance, our (affordable) combined band uniform tops were red plastic jackets. With no water nor ice allowed along the route due to parade rules, at least one band member collapsed from heat exhaustion during the parade each year.

Then I considered the physical toll from previous experience. While the drummers’ hands went numb and the brass instruments dealt with painfully swollen lips, the color guard’s arm and shoulder muscles would be screaming and almost useless from performing the routine countless times along the route. A twirling rifle gets slippery from sweat, but don’t drop it– or else the entire band has to march over it before the rifle can be retrieved by a staff member and run back to the front of the marching block. We faced the added stress of being internationally televised while on that black-and-white checkered carpet, which, by the way, tends to swim before one’s eyes while marching in military posture, eyes locked forward.

Was I willing to face all that… with no repercussions for dropping the whole situation, right now?

After a few days of contemplation, I approached the director and said, “I will march the 500.” She looked a little surprised, and a day or so later, she pulled me aside for a private conversation. I was a good marcher and performer, but had I thought this through? Was I willing to do all this extra work AND show up the day after graduation, in marching shape? My answer was “yes.”

The evening practices were as grueling and exasperating as I recalled from previous years. Hot, humid, and full of competing egos battling mosquitoes and dodging uncaught tosses as we gradually mastered the routine. The smaller units traditionally were placed in the front of the marching block, and that’s where the rifles landed.

The placement of each member was no exception to the politics of the situation. The name banner carriers would, of course, go first. One school insisted on maintaining their rifle squad intact, and since theirs was small, it was placed in the row directly behind the banners, centered, and it fell several placements short of filling the entire curb-to-curb row. As the most experienced and accurate marcher of the remaining rifles, I was placed as Right Guide of the next row, which was the first full-size row of the marching block.

…Which meant I now had the responsibility of setting the pace for the ENTIRE band. In our marching style, members either looked straight ahead to make sure their “file” was straight, and they were permitted to briefly glance at the rightmost marcher in their row to make sure their “rank” was straight. Because of the military-style tradition of marching, I was not allowed to turn my head and glance backward. If my stride was too short, the band would be too compressed. If my stride was too long, the band would get too stretched out. We marched in front of the drum majors, so there was no one facing backward to signal me to adjust my stride. I had to maintain a perfect 8-to-5, which is shorthand for “eight steps for every 5 yards”… and of course, there are no football-field yard markers on a city street!

The day finally arrived. Not 12 hours before, I stood at the podium in front of an audience of 300 people to deliver the valedictory address in air conditioned comfort, garbed in a pristine white gown and mortar board. I had a good night’s sleep… well, as best that an adrenaline-filled — but not alcoholic– evening can provide. Now I stood on a city street in dress uniform. Inside my boots were 2 pairs of socks over my bandaged feet, and I was feeling the humidity sweating its way through my hat-covered hair.

At that moment I had a profound realization as the late May sun pressed down on us… ‘I CHOOSE to be here today. I chose to deal with the time-consuming evening practices, parrying over ego-infused decisions, and general physical conditioning… all for an event that is purely optional.  The band directors have no control over my future; they could eject me from the band today but can’t pressure me to perform in order to maintain my academic standing. The entire band is counting on my skills, and they trusted me to carry through with my voluntary commitment.’

I realized that I was present because I loved to spin my rifle and be a member of something bigger than myself. I enjoyed the challenge of displaying my mastery of skills, for one last time with these people. And I knew I could serve this group, to guide them as they stepped across the checkered carpet and through the typical march-in-place and resume-pace stuttering rhythm of the journey.

I have thought of that moment many times in the ensuing years. That realization, and the work ethic required to achieve it, have been a standard on which I have based many decisions. Do I love something enough to do it unpaid, anonymously, with great physical effort, under harsh environmental conditions? Am I willing to give service to help this happen?

Sometimes in network marketing, we toil under analogous situations: unpaid service, anonymous behind-the-scenes activity, and stand in the front of the room under scrutiny from our teammates and guests.  Certainly we encounter the repeated private efforts of outreach, business presentations, and follow-up long before any public acclaim is given. Those questions can help one determine if one has the long-term view and leadership qualities to guide a team when the outcome is uncertain.

And I pay special attention when a potential teammate mentions they marched in a band… they likely have similar qualities of resilience and focus!

–LYnn Selwa, “The Rocket Science Coach” ™

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