I'm sure you probably don't remember me. I was one of your students when you were the band director at Nordonia High School back in the 80's. I was one of the "Donnelly Girls." I played alto and baritone saxophones in concert band, and was on the drill team in marching band.
You're probably more likely to remember my husband, Alan Emery. He was the concert-t-shirt-wearing, smarmy kid with the southern accent who's antics probably provoked you to question your decision to go into teaching. He drove you crazy, but you put up with him because he was a tremendously talented flugabone and bass clarinet player. He, along with a few fellow band mates, once TP'd your house. Instead of calling the police, you invited them in to enjoy pizza with you, your wife, and two toddler boys. Ring any bells?
Anyway, a few of us former Nordonia Band members reunited this past weekend for a football game back at the old alma mater. Naturally your name came up several times as we reminisced about our shared past. Like all intense leaders, there were several varying opinions regarding your teaching style. It was then that I realized something. I've never told you how my four years under your leadership has directly affected the way I've carried out the rest of my life. I wanted to remedy that today.
You took over as Band Director at Nordonia my freshman year. The band had always been pretty good, thanks to the supreme dedication of the elementary/jr. high band director, Mr. Kirk. But you came along and told us we could be better. You told us we were sloppy and undisciplined, but that we had the potential to be great, and you were going to get us there.
It started at band camp. Don't you just hate what that horrible movie, "American Pie," has done to the perception of band camp? Thanks to a few clueless Hollywood idiots, everyone now believes that band camp is some retreat in the woods where everyone paddles around in canoes and does unspeakable things with flutes. We know better don't we? Band camp under your leadership took place at Ashland College. We spent one week in the hot, humid month of August, sleeping in a dorm, eating cafeteria food and marching. Lots and lots of marching. We literally marched from sun-up to sun-down. In that short week we learned, and then perfected, the pre-game and half-time routines for the upcoming football season. Kids would be dropping like flies, fainting from heat exhaustion. You'd simply have one of the band parents get them some water, sit-out for a minute, then go right back to marching.
You had a saying that everyone learned very quickly and soon hated with a deep passion: "Take it Back." This was uttered when we'd get half-way through a routine and you'd see something you didn't like. You'd then blow your whistle from your perch on top of a ladder, pick up your megaphone and cite the culprit's error. Then you'd say, "Take it back," and we'd all head to the end zone, ready to start all over for the billionth time. I was once the reason to "Take it Back." I was exhausted and stepped-off too early in the cadence count. I knew my error immediately and cringed when the inevitable shrill of your whistle echoed off the rooftops of the surrounding campus buildings. "Take it back for Donnelly," you said into your megaphone. I turned to my fellow band mates and tried to apologize with my eyes as we all walked back in tired silence to the end zone. They all forgave me, comrades in fatigue that they were!
It's funny though. As tiring as those long practices were, we still found time for plenty of antics in the evenings. This included freshman slaves being put through shaving cream-saturated initiations and other harmless hazing pranks. I know you always turned a blind eye to the "festivities," but I'm pretty sure you were aware of what was going on. I think you also knew that a really tremendous thing happens when you're with a group of your peers, working harder than you ever have before: long lasting, deep friendships emerge. When you have to rely on each other for encouragement and support, and when you're really quite sure you can't "take it back" one more time, some pretty tight bonds begin to form.
You showed us how tough we never knew we were. At the end of some of those long, hot days when every muscle ached and we were physically and mentally spent, you'd say, "Do it again." I remember quite distinctly thinking, "I can't," and believing it with every fiber of my tired, sore body. But guess what? I did it again. And again. I DID have it in me--only YOU seemed to know that.
As you well know, all that work paid-off. We were a tremendous, classy, disciplined unit. We performed not only at football games, but state-wide band shows and competitions. There were none like us. While other local schools sported "Dance Band" style shows, with sloppy, showy disco numbers, you told us that our style was "Class." They executed "Saturday Night Fever" selections and Beach Boys medleys. We marched with complete precision, thigh parallel to the ground, and performed classical numbers like "New World Symphony" and "Tchaikovsky's 4th."
Everyone knows that being a part of marching band is considered highly nerdish. No one who is a band member could ever be included in the group of popular, cool kids. I guess our school was no exception. But you gave us something even the cool kids couldn't deny us -- RESPECT. We were damn good, and the whole school knew it.
Your leadership skills extended way past your efforts with the band as a whole. Your attention to us as individuals was unprecedented. When I began applying to potential colleges my junior year, I shyly came to you and asked if you would write a letter of recommendation to the schools for which I was applying. You agreed without hesitation. I confess, I peeked in the envelope you handed me the next day and read what you wrote. Your kind words of praise, although greatly exaggerated, made me beam with pride. I know you did the same for countless others as well.
So, as we forty-something, former band mates reunited at that football game this past weekend, we passed around delighted hugs and told each other we hadn't changed a bit. Then we sat down on those same bleachers and watched the current Nordonia Lancer Marching Band take the field. Except that it had rained that day, and the field was very muddy. So both schools just stood on the field instead and played their prepared songs. We all laughed as we thought of how you NEVER would have stood for this. We'd have been out there, knee-deep in mud, and would've been the recipients of your cold, hard stare if we dared to dog-it and NOT lift our thighs parallel to the ground, mud or not!
Oh, they were so undisciplined, Mr. Smicklas! They moved their heads from side to side, looking around, when they were supposed to be at attention. And we could definitely see them chatting with each other as they exited the field. When they marched by, Alan noticed one of the percussionists actually had a small bag of doritos sitting on her drum head. Apparently, she enjoyed a snack while performing.
Two of our band alums were also parents of a child in the current band. They said they knew the band was undisciplined and not very skilled, but that the kids truly loved their director and genuinely had a very good time. I'm sure they did. I hope they'll have nothing but wonderful memories for years to come, involving their precious years as members of the Nordonia Marching Band.
But, truth be told, Mr. Smicklas, I feel a little sorry for those kids. They don't know what it's like to be pushed hard, hard enough to truly see their own full potential. They don't know what it's like to be part of a group of people that have sweat, cried, and fainted from heat exhaustion together. They don't know what it's like to march onto a field having complete confidence that they are part of something really tremendous and have earned the respect and love of their classmates.
So, Mr. Smicklas, I'm writing today to thank you. I'm positive that the intense work ethic I posses today is largely due to the fact that you pushed me so hard to be better back then. Thank you for believing in my potential and my abilities. Thank you for never taking "I can't" for an excuse. But, most of all, thank you for the sweet, sweet memories I'll always treasure and the sublime friendships I'll forever cherish. I wouldn't "take them back" for anything on this earth!
Joan (Donnelly Girl #3)
Thanks for reading!!