The Book of Band, a High School Reunion, and the Power of Funny

Grasping our drinks like crutches, Cathy and I strolled over to a man we both thought we recognized. “Tuba, I think,” I said to her under my breath as we walked, “but I can’t remember who.” Cathy and I both played clarinet in our high school marching band, and most of the people we knew at our 40th reunion had also been members. It was easier to recall what instrument people played than to remember their names.

Before we got close enough to read his name tag, the man had either read ours or recognized the yearbook pictures that had been helpfully added so people could visualize who we were back then.

“Cathy Elliott,” he said. “And Sue Willett.” He smiled. “I remember you. Clarinet. Both of you, right?”

We nodded, and I looked at his tag. “Joe Ayoub,” it read. Now I was sure, but I asked to confirm. “Tuba?”

“Yup. Though I don’t think I could play it now.”

Apparently, none of us three had picked up our instruments since high school.

Back then, the drummers and tuba players were the coolest. They wore mirrored sunglasses, had their own inside jokes, and created a mystique about what went on in the drum bus during the trips home after games or competitions.  

But high school reunions have a way of leveling the playing field, and while the young me would never have just walked up to a tuba player and started talking, it was comfortable to do so now. Our shared experiences were more important than our differences; high school hierarchy and clique-ocracy had gone the way of hall passes and SATs. 

Cathy and Joe and I talked about marching band and how important it felt back then, to belong, to be part of something. Even if you weren’t popular or pretty or athletic, if you could play an instrument or even just swing a flag while marching, you could be part of the band, or at least the band front—the collective name for the girls who tossed batons or spun rifles or swept flags in time to the music.

In high school, I played the role of Cathy’s not-so-pretty sidekick. A really bad short haircut late in my junior year solidified the part; I had never felt uglier than I did then. Unfortunately, that was my hair for my senior picture, the one that is in our yearbook, the one that appears on my name tag at every reunion.

Earlier that evening when I checked in to the event and saw that horrible photo next to my name tucked inside the plastic sleeve, it instantly brought me back to the girl I was back then, the one who felt like an ignorable, unsightly nobody.

Not my best look.

I almost turned around and pulled an Elvis, leaving the building. Of course that was Agnes, my depression, who told me to bolt. I folded a drink ticket over the picture, which seemed to appease Agnes. People could still see my name, but I didn’t have to show my worst photo ever to several hundred people.

I like this look better.

Joe and Cathy and I shared stories of our time in the marching band, and I mentioned one of my most powerful memories. “It wasn’t so much about the competitions or football games for me,” I said. “It was when I read the Book of Band at the banquet,” I said.

Joe’s eyes widened. “You wrote that?”

“Wait. You actually remember it?”

“Remember it? I loved it. I was just reading it the other day. I still have a copy.”

“Get out!” I found this hard to believe, and the insecure girl within awakened Agnes, who looked for signs that Joe was mocking me. But his eyes looked sincere, and he was smiling.

“You wrote it?” he repeated.

“Yes I did.” I was having trouble wrapping my synapses around this moment. “I can’t believe you remember it, let alone still have it.”

I thought of my teenage self back in 1977, sitting at the lunch table with a bunch of band people, talking and joking about important topics, like who was going out with whom, who said what about somebody else, and which teachers were driving us nuts. We also talked about marching band stuff—and staff.

“In the beginning, there was Miller,” I said. Mr. Miller was our band director—who was kind of like a god to us.

Everyone laughed.

“And Miller created the Band.”

They laughed more. Encouraged, I went on.

“He separated Band and Band Front, and it was good.” I was on a roll.

One of my friends said, “You should write that down.” Was it Neil? Hope? I can’t remember.

But later that day, in a fit of inspiration, with my Bat Mitzvah bible open to the Book of Genesis for reference, I wrote the Book of Band, a humorous parody filled with inside jokes and references that my lunch table—all members of the Abington High School marching band—would understand.

The next day, I read it to Cathy, and then to my lunch companions. “Oh, man. You should read that at the band banquet,” one of them said. Who specifically made the suggestion is also lost in the muddled folds of my middle-aged brain.

I don’t know how the seventeen-year-old me got the courage to approach Mr. Miller, to show him the story, and to ask for permission to read it at the banquet.

But I did, and he said yes.

A little terrified (okay, maybe more than a little) at the thought of speaking in front of a group of people who were nearly all way cooler than me, I thought it would help if I had something to hold, something more substantial than penciled words scribbled on pages torn from a Mead spiral notebook. 

Lynda, another clarinet-playing friend with access to the art room, provided the perfect prop: a huge old art history book with a ribbon bookmark, sprinkled liberally with clay dust. I rewrote my story on note cards and paper-clipped them to the deckle-edge pages.

The night of the banquet, I lugged the large book up to the podium and dropped it down in a cloud of dust: the perfect special effect. “In the deep dark recesses beneath the band room of South Campus, archaeologists have recently discovered The Book of Band, which tells a story as old as music,” I began. “Tonight, I have been given permission to read a few chapters from it for you.”

I opened the book to the ribbon-marked page, dramatically blew off more dust, cleared my throat, and began:

“In the beginning, there was Miller…”

Everyone laughed.

With me.

The whole room was with me.

Listening to my words.

And the words were funny.

And it was good.

I felt like I was seen—and heard—for the first time.

It was a defining moment—a realization that my writing could make people laugh. 

That moment is why I am a writer. Specifically, why I write humor. And why I keep at it. Because giving someone a giggle or a chuckle or a guffaw or a LOL feels wonderful. 

After I performed the Book of Band, several people—parents and band members—came up to me and asked for a copy of my story. Though I didn’t remember it, one of them must have been Joe Ayoub.

And now, forty-something years later, he told me he still has a copy.

He had saved my words, my writing, for four decades. He could have thrown out the Book of Band so many times over the years. Yet he didn’t. He kept it right through a recent move. “We sorted through twenty years of accumulated stuff,” Joe told me. 

He didn’t remember who wrote the the story—I hadn’t put my name on the copies I distributed— but he liked it enough to want to keep it around, like a favorite book he didn’t want to part with. 

I was amazed. Honored. Thrilled. I had never considered this, as I write my haiku and my blog posts and my tweets. I send my musings and my funny out into the world for a brief moment where they might be consumed by a few people, and I always assumed they were quickly forgotten.

“Oh my G-d, Joe, if you still have it, if you could find it, if you could send a copy of it to me, that would be the most awesome thing.” I had looked for the Book of Band several times over the years, and had never been able to find my originals: the hand-written version or the note cards or the typed-up version I had copied for ten cents a page at the Abington Memorial Library, so I could give it to those who had requested it.

“I’ll look,” he said. Then he cautioned me, “We just moved, so I’m not completely sure where it is or if I still have it. It could be anywhere.”

The rest of the reunion was pleasant enough, connecting with people I thought never knew my name, sharing details about where we are now, our kids, grandkids, dogs, cats, jobs. After the conversation with Joe, Agnes sulked in a corner and didn’t come out until I left. The party ended, and we all went our separate ways, promising to stay in touch, to look each other up, or friend each other on Facebook.

That night, I stayed over at my mom’s house—the home I grew up in—and as I slipped into the floral sheets of my old twin bed, my iPhone buzzed with a text message: “Sue, Great seeing you tonight. Got lucky and found this easily. I’ll email you later if you like. Joe.”

Joe Ayoub had sent me two pictures of the original Book of Band.

My words have come back to me.

And they were good.

Page 1 of the Book of Band. (Photo courtesy of Joe Ayoub.) This won’t be funny to anyone other than Abington High School marching band members from the mid to late ’70s. The names are those of the band’s staff; Mr. Mauro was our drum instructor, and Mr. Everitt was our drill instructor. P.W. stood for Plymouth Whitemarsh, our band’s arch rivals.

Page 2 of the Book of Band. (Photo courtesy of Joe Ayoub.) The Abington High School Marching Band won our state championship in 1976.

12 Comments on "The Book of Band, a High School Reunion, and the Power of Funny"

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  1. The font is too small to read on my phone, but as a band geek I bet I would love it

  2. Amy Palmer says:

    What a great experience! And if I ever go to a reunion I’ll be prepared with a photo of my choice to place over the one on the name tag.

  3. as a former “band geek” I stand in approval and wave my flag!!!

  4. suzanprincess says:

    As a former clarinetist in a (way-less-disciplined) High School band, I totally enjoyed your Book of Band! (As I do all of your writing, actually. Photos, too. So there, Agnes–phlbbt!) I also relate to the agony of the yearbook photo–I hated every one of mine.

    • Another clarinet player! Woo hoo! Back at band camp, I remember we designed a t-shirt that said Licorice sticks together! (Clarinet joke.) We were so impressed with ourselves. And thanks for the Agnes raspberry and the kind words about my writing. I didn’t realize there were others who hated their yearbook pictures as much as I despised mine. I feel for you!

  5. I haven’t been to a HS reunion since my 30th. At that one, one of my friends and I switched name tags (there were no pictures on them). It was good for a few laughs. 🙂 Now just a small group of us from HS get together at least once a year to catch up.

    • Sounds like a good plan. We have a small group that gets together once in awhile. There’s always one reason or another why I can’t make it. I’m glad you have a group that stays connected!

  6. Denise Wood says:

    From one band nerd to another, great memories! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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