In the first few months of fifth grade, as I tried to adjust to being the new kid at a new school for the first time in my life, I became a joiner.
I joined the choir. Something that still amazes me to this day. I stood in line quietly, sandwiched between girls I was too terrified to even make eye contact with, but when I got to the front, I sang a solo and matched pitch with the choir teacher. She pointed at two girls behind me, who kept bursting into fits of laughter, and told them they should be more like me. I was mortified.
I also joined the drill team, though mostly to impress my grandpa. Growing up I’d watched VHS tapes of his time as a drill team coach. I loved seeing the people walk in perfect unison, moving in and out of formation like flocks of birds. I loved the rhythm and the noise of the feet stomping on the pavement.
When practices started, I was slightly disappointed by what felt like juvenile routines. We weren’t stomping so much as we were walking, and our formations were limited to squares, circles, and lines. We felt more like a marching band with no instruments. I was underwhelmed.
To be fair, we were ten, and our limited coordination and body awareness could only have taken us so far. But it was still a bit of a letdown. One of the first times I can remember having reality fail to meet my expectations. Nonetheless, I stuck it out. My sister joined the team shortly after I did, and after telling our grandpa, our commitment was sealed. We practiced multiple days a week after school, ensuring we’d be ready for our first and only public performance: the neighborhood holiday parade.
When December arrived, our drill team, along with many other bands, dance troops and sports teams from other local elementary, junior high, and high schools, as well as local clubs, studios, and businesses, met at a local park to find our place in line. We were wearing white t-shirts, black shorts, and top hats, and were each carrying a large, five-point star that had been hand painted with glitter by one of the coaches.
There were people everywhere, those my age and much older. It was loud and chaotic. It was red, green, and sparkly. Our coach herded us into a circle on a patch of grass behind the library and told us not to go anywhere without an adult. A banner with our school’s name sat beside us and two girls were chosen to carry it to let everyone know where we were from as we marched.
We stretched our arms and legs and stomped in place. Our teacher gave us continual updates—30 more minutes, 20 more minutes—as we started to grow restless. I could hear all kinds of music playing in the distance, and the occasional bout of applause and laughter. I was anxious to start so we could be finished.
In December of last year, I walked out the front door of my apartment building and set up a chair on the small strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk. It was drizzling, and a cold breeze sent the occasional shiver down my spine. I bundled up under an umbrella beside my mom.
Families lined the streets in ponchos and raincoats. Kids clapped their hands and parents held their phones out in front of them, snapping picture after picture.
Marching bands walked in precise step, with the drum major leading the way, calling out commands. Dance teams walked almost silently in jazz shoes, waiting for the boombox carried by one of the coaches to cue the start of their routine. Cars decorated with holiday garb drove by slowly, with members of local committees and businesses waving with friendly smiles.
I kept leaning forward in my chair so I could glance down the street for what was coming next.
In the distance, I could see the park where each team was emerging, and I could remember the small pitter patter of my own feet as my team lined up in the grass, and then inched our way forward to the sidewalk, and then the street.
Watching a group of young dancers, I could see myself, remembering the tentative steps I took as my head darted back and forth, looking for familiar faces on either side of the street. I could hear the startled shrieks and giggles of me and my sister when we saw our dad and his best friend running toward us with silly string. I could feel the sensation of the silly string sliding down the sides of my hat, dripping off the bill like candle wax.
“I was part of this!” my mom said as the group passed.
I smiled as I looked from her to the dancers, but had a hard time imagining my mom so little, so far away from me.
I pictured us walking side by side, our feet determinedly marching up the two mile stretch of street. Maybe we looked at the apartment building we both sat in front of now, waving and smiling and saying, “Merry Christmas!” not knowing we’d be sitting here decades later, waving back.
Some kids looked tired, nervous, or embarrassed. Their eyes glued to the asphalt; their shoulders slumped with fatigue.
Only one more mile to go, I wanted to say. You can do it.
Just keep marching.