Being a band director is not always the most enviable job in the world. The appeal of other lines of work such as door-to-door encyclopedia sales and video rentals rises and falls on the waves of parental hassles and personal frustrations. When self-doubt arises, however, I think of Donnie, a student of mine during my first stint of teaching in rural western Kentucky.
Donnie was from a poor but proud family. He tried in his classes but lacked the ability or drive, or whatever it is, that enables one to do well at any given task. By the time I arrived on the scene, Donnie already had a colorful history in band. At one concert during his 5th grade year, he fell asleep on his bass drum in the middle of a musical selection. I started teaching at the school the next year and quickly realized that Donnie could not read music or play in rhythm. But he loved band, so we persevered.
Over the next three years—with much toil and a lot of rote teaching--we celebrated Donnie’s budding musicianship. His 7th grade triumph was performing quarter and eighth notes in rhythm. His 8th grade accomplishment was marching all the way from the back sideline of the football field to the front hash mark without getting out of step—30 seconds of pure excitement! (It took until the end of the season, but who’s counting?) Finally, there was the glowing attainment of this young man’s career: performing with the high school percussion ensemble at the regional solo and ensemble festival.
It would have been easy to overlook Donnie and not include him in the percussion ensemble. After all, our school had a history of excellent festival performances. Still, I was determined to have Donnie participate. So, I split one person’s part into two and gave him 10 measures of cymbal to contribute.
Finally, the big day came, and we traveled to the festival to present our best case to the judge. It was wonderful, one of those rare moments a teacher cherishes. The students, including Donnie, were flawless; the performance forceful and moving. To my great pleasure, the judge’s score reflected their efforts. Out of the hundreds of solos and ensembles performed, this group was the only one to be awarded the highest honor available, a SuperiorPlus. No one was prouder than Donnie. When I pinned on his award, a round bronze-colored medal hanging from a dark blue ribbon, he said with boastful pride, “Mr. Royse, we got a Superior-Plus, the only group the whole day that got one.”
At the end of the year, I resigned my position to pursue graduate work in another state. But I tried my best to stay in touch with my former students. Three years later, I returned to attend their high school graduation.
Upon reaching town, I stopped by the Quick-Mart to get something to drink. As I walked into the store, I heard an unmistakable voice. “Mr. Royse, how are you doing?” It was Donnie. His features were the same, although he was a little taller. He was wearing black tennis shoes, old faded blue jeans, and a light blue T-shirt. My eyes fell to his chest, and what I saw was one of the most amazing sights of my life. There, pinned to the T-shirt, was the same bronze-colored medal and dark blue ribbon I had given him several years before.
Donnie would not be graduating with his classmates. Personal and behavioral problems had forced him to withdraw from high school (though he eventually finished up elsewhere). Clearly, that Superior-Plus rating was one of the greatest shots of self-esteem Donnie ever received. It may very well represent the single greatest achievement of his life.
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 1984 edition of Education Week as One Shining Moment