Opinion » Bill Cope

Band aid

What's the price of geekdom?

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I have to get this done quick, before my daughter comes back. She's on a two-day bus trip to Spokane for a marching band competition, and I need to be totally finished and have it off my screen before she walks in and asks, "Whatcha writing about, Daddy-o?" and I am forced to explain, "Honey-o, I thought I'd do a column on what an expensive pain in the ass it is to have to continually shell out extra money so's your school can do things like send you 400 miles to Spokane for a marching band competition."

I can't hide what I'm up to for long, of course. When it comes out in the paper, she'll know. Then she will be horrified I have humiliated her before her band friends, her band director, the band boosters and anyone else connected in any way to her band. "Dah-yud! How could you let them know I have the only dad in the whole school who's so cheap he doesn't want to pay for band trips and stuff? And anyway, does everything I do have to show up in your crappy old column?"

In my defense, I will assure her that it's unlikely anyone affiliated with her band will read this crappy old column. And even if they did (since I won't use her name or even her school's name), they have no way of proving it's her dad who's getting fed up with the mounting auxiliary expenditures that come with elective activities in our public school system. And if that doesn't work, I will argue, "Hon, I can't possibly be the only dad who feels this way. I'll bet there are lots of 'em. Thousands of 'em. And I'll bet they gripe about it all the time, just like me. Only, when I do it, it ends up in print."

Yup, we will have plenty to talk about in the coming days, she and I.

It's my fault in part. I wanted her to be in the band. I encouraged it. I pushed it. It's not like I gave her an ultimatum: "Daughter, if you don't join the band, don't come cryin' to me when it's college tuition time!" But since she was old enough to know the difference between a tricycle and a trumpet, I have used a considerable share of my daddy capital nudging her down the band path. I explained how much fun she would have in the school band. I explained how emotionally rewarding and creatively fulfilling it is. I explained how intellectually stimulating it is, and how the friends she will make in band are the most faithful and eternal friends she will ever have. I explained that if she wants to have success in life, make lots of money, be respected by millions and be widely recognized as a genius, to possibly become the first woman president of the United States or be chosen as the first human to set foot on Mars ... it all starts in the school band, baby!

In retrospect, I can see now I may have stated the case a tad too enthusiastically.

Still, experience tells me that if you want your child to stay interested in school and stay motivated and excited about their own education, then an education must include far more than what it takes to get a job out at Micron. And beyond that (I've said this many times before, but here I go again), band, choir, orchestra, art, theater, dance ... yes, even sports ... those things are not--as they have come to be regarded by the people shaping policy for our schools, I fear--mere decorative and expendable geegaws pasted on the cubicle walls of a productive society. Au contraire, amigos, those things spring from the soul of our civilization. And if we want our future citizens to be fully involved in their culture--to be vibrant, well-rounded, curious connoisseurs of all that makes being self-aware bearable--then those finer disciplines should be promoted with every bit of vigor our planners will use to cram mathematics and science into our kids' transcripts, all for the transparent reason that employers are demanding more technically proficient worker bees.

Not that I want my daughter to make marching band a career. Good heavens, no! By the time she turned 30, she'd have flat feet and a permanent crease under her chin from the hat strap. What kind of father would wish that upon his child?

I was just hoping she'd pick up some of that performance edge (she calls it "band geek") one gets from sharing a communal effort with an ensemble of dedicated peers. Be it the school paper, the varsity football squad or a production of Camelot, those experiences do something for our little boys and girls which helps define them as the men and women they will soon become. I'm not sure I can say exactly what that something is, but I believe it to be healthy in every way, and I don't believe it can be found in core academic classrooms where the zeitgeist is more "sink or swim, kid ... you're on your own!"

Only--and here's the rub--it's costing more and more money to belong to an ensemble of dedicated peers. Extra money. Not tax money, which we band-geek-parents pay along with everyone else, but pocket money. (Money you don't have to pay if your kid has no other interests than rushing home from school every afternoon to his Playstation and skateboard.) Money for band trips, money for FFA trips, money for uniforms, money for this and money for that.

I don't entirely blame the schools. They're only taking up the slack from this cursed conservative purge that is trying to turn our public school system into a boot camp for the labor pool and which sees no usefulness in anything but grunt work.

But why Spokane? Were there no competitions closer to home? And cheaper to attend? Must the schools actively look for ways to make it more expensive?

Uh-oh. She's home. God help me. "Whatcha writing about, Daddy-o? Is that what I think it is? No way are you gonna embarrass me with that! Dah-yud, don't you dare ... "

"Honey-o, the way I see it, if your band weren't going 400 miles to competitions, then being in the band wouldn't cost so much. And if it didn't cost so much, maybe more parents could afford to let their kids join the band. And if more kids joined the band, then maybe less fortunate kids could share in the same life-enhancing experiences as you and your friends and maybe we could start closing this opportunity schism between the classes instead of making it ever wider. And then maybe ..."

"Sorry to interrupt, Dad, but I just remembered ... did I tell you I'll need $350 because the concert band is going to Southern California in the spring?"

Yup, we will have plenty to talk about in the coming days, she and I.