Growing Up

My hands-down favorite character in the Harry Potter books is Dumbledore. Which I find interesting since if you look at the number of pages he occupies (especially before book six), he’s rarely ever there. But his presence is incredibly powerful. I remember writing a report in high school on “Death of a Salesman”, analyzing the brief appearances of Willy Loman’s older brother Ben. In both cases, there are characters who are incredibly important, pivotal, life-altering characters that jump in and jump out of the story. They’re not the ones that are there day-to-day, but the guest stars and cameos.

One of those for me was a man named George N. Parks. I say “was” because I recently found out he died a few years ago at the age of 57. Which was a blow, because I had looked him up to find a way to write him a note and thank him for some ways he helped shape me. But I missed that chance. So I figured I put those thoughts out somewhere, if nothing else than to catch the memories of one of the cameos in my life.

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George N. Parks was the founder of the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy (DMA). I first got involved with DMA after my freshman year in high school. I had recently been selected as the drum major for the Calloway County High School Laker Marching Band and my band director send me to Eastern Kentucky University for the week-long training program. I had NO idea what I was walking into or what I’d get out of it. I had already been a drum major in eighth grade at the middle school (which, to be frank, is more of a joke than a useful function for the band). And when I marched baritone my freshman year, I watched our drum major and thought I’d really enjoy doing what he was doing. But that was the extent of my understanding of a drum major. Shoot, even then I hadn’t set me heart on music as my future career choice. I was required to go to the camp, so I did.

DMA ended up being this intensive week of marching drills, conducting workshops, lectures/motivational talks, and group activities. And George was the main speaker behind the whole thing, the one who would teach us in an auditorium a few times a day, as well as run some of the marching drills and teach full group conducting (we also had smaller clinics with some of the other instructors).

This all sounds really bland, but it was a fascinating time. Especially George’s talks, where he would teach not only the fundamentals of conducting (which is all I thought drum majoring was) but also leadership and commitment and courage and passion. Good grief, the man had passion. He would teach and tell stories and get us laughing, then completely quiet the room so that you couldn’t breathe till he gave our breath back to us. He would walk around and teach and connect with his eyes and convince us that being a drum major was an honorable and important activity.

I think I’m making him sound like a shyster or a televangelist (though, honestly, I found him more captivating than most preachers I’ve heard in my life). Maybe my mind at the time was too simple to see through him, but I believed that he believed what he was teaching us. And I loved him for it.

Because he bled passion. And he bled responsibility and courage and honor and leadership. He was a man teaching boys to be men (yeah, there were girls there, too, but I can’t speak for their experience).

Now, my first year at DMA I was fresh and it was new and I was a complete ignoramus to everything that was going on. But I was a drum major two more years and so went back to the camp two more years (once more at EKU and another time somewhere down south—maybe in Alabama?). One of the aspects of DMA that was unique was that we were put into groups of six called squads. Those who were veterans of the program were assigned as squad leaders and had the task of teaching some of the fundamentals of the marching style and leadership skills to the rookies. (I could have a whole tangent here about how this method is really probably pretty close to how discipleship in the church can and should work, but I really don’t want to digress right now on it). My second and third years I was a squad leader. I had six people who knew nothing about the camp and I was there to be their little leader, to help them figure out the things I was confused about the year before. I was there to help them learn the lessons I’d already learned. I was there to be a mini-drum major to them—training for being a drum major back with my own band.

And here came one of those moments in my life that I can still close my eyes and see, like I’m there right now. One of those times where my face burned red and I felt like a fool and I felt like a man all at the same time. It was my third year at DMA and my second year as a squad leader. George asked a question about some minor matter of drum majoring and called on one of my squad members to answer the question. My guy stood up and had to answer honestly that he didn’t know the answer to the question. Shoot, even I didn’t know the answer and it was my third year. But apparently it was a part of the small drum major textbook that we all had that I hadn’t really ever bothered to read.

So, there’s my squad member standing there if front of a few hundred people saying that he doesn’t know the answer to the question. I’m feeling bad for him because that’s gotta suck to get called on the carpet by the guy we all admire so much. Then the absolute worst thing happens.

“Who’s his squad leader?”

His eyes rake the room.

I stand up (geez, it twists my stomach even now—fifteen years later—to think of it). This is one of those times where no moved. No one dared take a breath.

“I am, sir.”

I’m not a “sir” guy and I said “sir” to him—it just seemed the right thing to do.

“Why doesn’t your squad member know the answer?”

Because you never told us to read the book. Because why would ever need to know the answer to such a minor thing. Because you didn’t teach on it in one of your lectures.

But I just knew. Ya know? I just knew that wasn’t it. He didn’t say anything or give me a nasty look. He just looked at me and waited for me to answer. Everyone in the room waited for me to answer. Three years at DMA and I’d never seen a situation like this. I’d never seen a squad leader get called up when a squad member didn’t know the answer. Every eye in the room on me. His eyes on me. Big and blue and wonderful and terribly frightening all at the same time. Everything inside of me is shaking because I know the answer and I hate it, because there’s no other answer to give.

“He doesn’t know because I didn’t teach him.”

I don’t remember what he said next. It really doesn’t matter. He didn’t berate me or accost me, though–I’m sure of that. He didn’t use me as an example. I think his response was along the lines of a quiet voice saying, “Yes, make sure it doesn’t happen again.” But I could be wrong. But the thing I knew, the thing I would swear everyone in the room knew, was that the lesson for me had been in the question. And if I’d answered differently, if I’d given one of the easy excuses, then it would’ve proven that I didn’t get the lesson in the first place. But the answer I gave, the slight hesitation while my brain cycled through all the things I could say in response, was enough. The lesson was in the opportunity.

George shoved me into growing up at that moment. He did it by giving me the choice to answer like a boy or like a man. He gave me the chance to be a coward or be brave. As I look back at the things that have formed me into who I am, that moment always sticks out. It was the time I had to take responsibility for something. Not just something, but someone. I had to own that my failure had caused someone else to fail. I had to man up.

I wish I could’ve thanked him, one of some 20,000 high schoolers he worked with. Because he helped mold me and aim me, part of the tapestry God has weaved from my life.

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