Deep in the Heart of High School

Veronica Goldbach

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Fatima Garcia had been in school band since sixth grade, and she had only recently figured something out. Something no one tells you when you sign up and pick your instrument. After just about two months as a member of the Alexander Hamilton High School marching band, Fatima finally understood the social hierarchy of band.
At the top of the food chain was the drumline. They rivaled football players in high school popularity. They had none of the geekiness usually associated with band members. No gross spit valves on their instruments. They were never red-faced or light-headed from lack of oxygen, like the brass or woodwinds. No, they were simply cool. Drummers had to be confident. They kept the beat. They were in control and they knew it. They did their thing and didn’t care what anyone thought.
Next came the low brass: tubas, baritones, and trombones. Big, manly instruments usually played by big, manly guys and the occasional tough girl. They were the bass of the band, what gave the band the thumping, like living subwoofers. Strong from carrying huge instruments, they were a group nobody messed with. Not even football players.
Trumpets followed. Trumpets were the section that carried the melody. The show-offs of the band. Big talkers, but not nearly as tough as the low brass. A few nerds filtered into this section.
Female flutes were the coolest of the woodwinds. Like their instruments, they tended to be thin and twitter in high-pitched, breathy voices. Flutes didn’t often get to carry the melody. They were more the cheerleaders of the band, playing harmony or background.
Clarinets ranked right below flutes. Not nearly as girlie as the flutes, clarinets did the grunt work of the band. They backed up the trumpets on melody, beefed up the bass line with the low brass, and helped the flutes with trills and runs.
French horns were near the bottom, barely above oboes and male flutes. Saxophones were the wild card. They could be as cool as trumpets with their smooth jazziness or as nerdy as oboes with their random squeaks. Mostly, they moved easily throughout the groups, blending in well.
Fatima and her friends simply had the misfortune of being matched up with the wrong instruments. Olivia, Fatima’s best friend since kindergarten, was tall and thin with very long brown hair. She was delicate-looking, like a flute, but had the people-pleasing personality of a clarinet. Olivia, however, played saxophone.
Fatima’s newest friend, Vanna, had been in San Antonio only a few months, but it was easy to see she did not belong with her section. Vanna played trombone. With her perfect body, gorgeously curly red hair, huge blue eyes, and flirtatious nature, she would have made the perfect flute.
Alex Menchaca, Fatima’s off-and-on friend since first grade, rounded out their little misfit group. Alex had the mouth of a trumpet and the odd sense of humor of a saxophone. But he played French horn.
As for Fatima, she had the bulk of a tuba player and the cynicism of a drummer. Back in sixth grade she had stupidly picked out flute as her instrument. Big mistake. The other flute players went out of their way to avoid her. They made it seem like Fatima’s fatness was contagious. She actually enjoyed playing the flute and she was pretty good at it.
The band hierarchy was never more obvious than when bands gathered for competitions. Fatima saw it reflected in every band gathered outside San Antonio’s Alamodome on the first weekend in October. The uniforms may have been different, but the division was the same.
Fatima and her friends were crowded into a small shady spot. A shady but by no means cool spot. As usual they were talking about Travis Martinez. Travis was a sophomore trumpet player and the love of Olivia’s life, only he didn’t know it.
“What kind of stalker are you if you won’t even stand near him?” Vanna demanded.
“I’m not a stalker,” Olivia replied. As much as she tried not to, she couldn’t helping looking at Travis. The sun was shining on his sandy brown hair. His broad shoulders filled out his white uniform jacket quite nicely. He was tall and solid. When Olivia was around him, she turned into a zombie, unable to talk or think.
“She’d probably have to talk to him to be considered a stalker,” Fatima agreed.
“True,” Vanna said. “There’s a group of French horns next to Travis. Maybe Alex could go talk to them.”
“Why would I do that?” Alex asked.
“They’re your people. We’ll all go over there with you and Olivia can strike up a conversation with Travis,” Vanna suggested.
As much as they explained it, Vanna didn’t really get the whole Travis/Olivia saga. It had been going on since seventh grade. Olivia would never talk to Travis. Fatima and Alex had accepted that long ago. Vanna, however, seemed determined to push. And Olivia, as quiet as she was, could be pretty stubborn.
Now both Fatima and Alex shook their heads.
Olivia didn’t move. The idea of casual conversation with Travis filled her with anxiety. What, she wondered, was wrong with her? Why couldn’t she just talk to him like a normal person?
But there wasn’t time anyway, as the drum major called the band to attention. What followed was an impassioned pep talk. Most of the speech focused on how Last Stand at the Alamodome was one of the few contests where Hamilton High was able to face bands from the wealthy northside schools. Usually HHS competed against other inner-city schools. This was their chance to show everyone they were just as good as those rich kids. Even if their school couldn’t afford special effects for their show or private tutors. Or to clean the uniforms more than twice a year, Vanna added silently. She was only half listening. The band would show everyone, blah, blah, blah.
Vanna was annoyed with Olivia for passing up another opportunity to talk to Travis. How could Olivia claim to be in love with Travis and not want to talk to him? It didn’t make any sense. But, then again, what did Vanna know about love?
The drum major finished and the band took the field with the low brass blasting the bass line of Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina,” a song that never failed to get the crowd on its feet. This was when putting up with all the icky stuff that came along with marching band was worth it. The stupid band camp jokes, the hours of practicing, and the countless push-ups were forgotten.
“Gasolina” led into the drum break, the drumline’s big moment. The rest of the band danced. The crowd went nuts. The moves might have looked raunchy and improvised, but they had been practiced to uniform precision.
The drum break led into a medley of Selena songs. Vanna didn’t know much about Selena Quintanilla-Pérez other than that Jennifer Lopez had been in a movie about the singer’s life. In San Antonio, the slain Tejano singer had almost godlike status. The crowd stopped screaming and began singing along. Vanna could play the songs “Amor Prohibido,” “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” and “Como La Flor,” but she couldn’t sing the lyrics. She was totally clueless about Spanish, the unofficial language of San Antonio.
The crowd roared when the show ended. Vanna basked in the taste of rock stardom for a few seconds before the band marched off. In the midst of all the frenzy, Vanna couldn’t help remembering that in that huge crowd there was one person missing: Claire Reynolds, Vanna’s mother.
Copyright © 2009 by Veronica Goldbach