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Ellie was tall, razor thin and sharp. She moved briskly, purposefully but with ease. What stands out most in a memory full of blank space is her short cropped reddish hair. February 1981 was cold and Ellie regularly sported a thick, orange headband. In this hazy memory I must go with reddish hair rather than red as there was not much of it to see.
This memory, is it real? I recall her pulling into the driveway in a blue Volvo wagon with her 2 Irish Setters. I was 16 years old with my leg encased from my ankle up to and around my hip in crumbling four month old plaster. My mobility was severely hampered as an external fixator cut through the cast at one end and through bone and flesh at the other. With movement so difficult I question how I would have made it to the window where her Volvo would be visible.
What I do recall with absolute certainty, as only emotional memories survive the distortion of time, was that Ellie was the first person to penetrate a debris field of greasy hair, an unwashed body, a Schlitz beer mug over flowing with Camel Light cigarette butts and torn, white plastic shades turned yellow, always pulled down to prohibit light from getting in. She navigated this and reached the heart of a despondent girl. It is probable Ellie never knew the impact she had but it was the first time in years that this girl began to pull the shades up an inch or two to allow in a little bit of hope, a little bit of light.
Here is how Ellie did it. There were no acts of drama as the girl was accustomed to. Ellie showed up. For the 1 hour a day, 3 days a week that Ellie was there to tutor her, she also established trust. The girl’s father worked much of the time in Washington a day’s drive from the small Massachusetts mill town. Her mother was institutionalized in a psychiatric facility. There was a young adult sister who lived a few blocks away and stopped in occasionally and others that did not live nearby. The girl felt more at peace alone than in the presence of her relatives. With them often came an avalanche of martyrdom or narcissism, behaviors the girl inherently knew shielded these people from their own inner fears.
And then there was Ellie. She effectively tutored the girl in algebra and literature but the lesson best taught was of authenticity. She did not arrive with sweeping acts of grandeur or rescue only to then leave. Ellie always arrived when expected, she reviewed completed assignments, shared the names of her 2 Irish Setters and she gently asked questions regarding the girl’s aloneness. She noticed music was the one activity the girl engaged in and brought her a gift, the new 8 track tape of the J Geils band. Ellie showed up, paid attention to another human being, did not judge the decrepit condition of the girl and her surroundings despite an exterior of a home that appeared in order. Ellie built trust by being emotionally honest reflected in her consistent behavior, her ability to discuss academic material while processing the unspoken difficulty the girl was having and on occasion by making this remote girl laugh. Ellie eventually shared part of her life story and why she chose to work as a tutor and not a school teacher. My young self believes she did this because she understood how much it would help. Ellie was an exceptional teacher of literature and math but her greatest lesson, imparted in a way that is still not clear to me, was instilling the wisdom of meeting adversity with strength and humor. But Ellie’s story is not mine to tell so I leave it there. Ellie is my first remembrance because she reached in and provided a small glimmer of hope that comes when a human being, a sentient being feels connected to another. Ellie Bosman will certainly not remember that girl but her compassionate presence, her authenticity and her genuine kindness prevented another human being’s light from being permanently extinguished.
Author: Cathy Larkin
While in college, I spent three summers touring the country, performing in a drum and bugle corps called the Santa Clara Vanguard. The Vanguard is a professional, competitive marching ensemble heavily influenced by musical theater and dance. For most performing members it is a formative experience and I was no exception. I trace many of my values and personal habits back to this organization and the people in it. My time with the Vanguard remains the most mentally, physically, and emotionally demanding activity I have participated in. During my final year with the group, I asked myself why I chose to join in the first place.
My inspiration was one man, Dylan Thompson. Dylan came into my high school marching band as the head visual instructor my sophomore year – 1997. This was the fall after his first season teaching at the Vanguard. He was a man of contradictions.
Materially, Dylan had next to nothing, but he possessed something far greater than we middle-class, suburban marching band kids had ever seen. Dylan was dead broke. He was literally homeless for a while, and the rumors were that he slept in a small red sedan with a trunk that had been crushed in a collision – he bought it used for a discount. He was known for wearing ripped tank tops, flannel shirts, cutoff jeans, and Chuck Taylor All Stars, all of which looked as if he just pulled them out of a dumpster. If you saw him walking toward you on a sidewalk, you might cross the street to avoid him. Dylan made his career doing what he loved most, which was teaching marching bands, winter drumlines, and the Santa Clara Vanguard. This kind of job didn’t support a decent standard of living, but he didn’t seem to care much about money because teaching gave him a kind of priceless fulfillment in life. When you looked into Dylan’s eyes, you saw a kind of intense happiness that you could only begin to grasp by throwing away everything you own in your comfortable, sheltered life, starting over with nothing, and finding out what you really valued. You could see that happiness shine through most unreservedly when he watched his students perform.
Dylan was probably only about five and a half feet tall, but his presence towered over all the members. Standing face to face with him made me feel tiny though I was taller than he was. When he marched, he seemed to grow another foot, and watching Dylan march was like looking into the face of God.
Dylan loved the Vanguard as much as anyone else I know. He had two tattoos. One said “March hard” on his leg, and the other was a “V” on his forearm. Ironically, he told my high school band that, while most of the people he marched with kept their members-only corps jackets sealed in “cryogenically frozen chambers with remote controls to open them”, he kept his balled up in his closet. I couldn’t understand at the time why he would give that kind of treatment to something so symbolic (later, we were taught to treat the jacket as sacred – it must be folded a certain way or hung on a coat hanger at all times when not worn), but I now know that Dylan realized what the essence of Vanguard really is. Vanguard isn’t the things we pin to our uniforms, the corps jackets, or scores at a competition. Those things are small representations of something that you can’t hold in your hand or frame to put on your wall. Vanguard is something that resides in the soul and permeates through the eyes. Vanguard is the fulfillment I saw Dylan project. It is what made Dylan appear to stand two feet taller than he was. Vanguard is a way of life. A mellophone player I marched with named Troy once said, “Don’t march Santa Clara Vanguard. Be Santa Clara Vanguard”. Dylan embodied that and he was the first glimpse of the Vanguard that I saw.
Dylan taught us with an explicit message that what he was teaching was more than how to march. He told us that he didn’t just want us to perform our show well. Of course that was one of his goals, but he wanted to impart values that we could take with us. If we walked by a piece of garbage, he wanted us to pick it up. When we interacted with other people, he wanted us to treat them with respect. He wanted us to live our lives to the fullest, and he wanted us to leave Vanguard remembering both the good and the bad experiences because the good ones are pleasant to look back on; the bad ones are the ones you learn from, and strangely, after it’s all over, the bad memories become pleasant too.
Dylan taught us to strive for perfection in all endeavors. He said, “Never be satisfied. It’s a hard way to live, but when you roll over and die, you’ll look back at a damn well-lived life”. He told us to be the “freak in the office”, whom everyone tells to slow down because he’s making them look lazy.
In rehearsing the show, Dylan always incorporated emotion along with technical execution. When we were playing the ballad in our high school show, he told us to think about a time when we were sitting on the couch with a girlfriend/boyfriend, and we just sighed and knew we were in love. He had us recreate that feeling and share it with the audience. In my first year in the Vanguard, he added a section to our program in which he told us to turn to the person next to us and look at that person as if we’d never see him/her again. Dylan embraced the passion many people shy away from, and he inspired his students to do the same.
To the members, Dylan was more than a distant instructor. He was a close friend. The summer tour in drum and bugle corps involved traveling the country on buses for 2-3 months, sleeping on gym floors, and rehearsing every day aside from the occasional laundry day or free day. While most of the staff spent their laundry days amongst their peers, Dylan would hang out with the members. He believed in every one of us, even when most of us had given up. He went around to individuals one at a time and simply said, “You are capable of great things”. When we were falling short of our potential, he pushed us, but he always inspired us to improve rather than dragging us along, and he worked with us rather than against us.
Once in a visual rehearsal, he asked the hornline what specifically do we look for to gauge the ability of a group when watching them march. People gave the typical responses: horn angles, toe height, legs, posture, timing of feet, but nobody brought up what he was looking for: their eyes. Dylan taught us that the eyes communicate the most about any group’s ability and character, and if you ever see the Vanguard warm up at a show, in their eyes, you will see a type of passion and intensity unlike any other.
Dylan taught us to treat every apparently mundane task as a precious opportunity. During the last week of tour in 2001, he told us to “suck the marrow out of these last few days”. And on his last day as an instructor at Vanguard, he asked the members to think of one specific thing they loved about marching, a single command they particularly liked. For him, it was Vanguard’s trademark two-count parade rest. His last lesson to us was, “Find something you love about everything you do. There’s no point in doing anything if you’re not loving it”.
On Sunday, March 10th, 2002, at the end of a weekend rehearsal, Dylan held a meeting with the veterans in the hornline and drumline. He said hesitantly, “After today, I’m not coming back.” He was going to leave Vanguard to spend more time with his family in Missouri. We could see that he was torn. He said he would miss us, but the reasons were complicated. We saw tears in his eyes, and many of the members cried with him. Myron (Dylan’s mentor and a key figure in the history of the Vanguard) gave him a fatherly kiss on the forehead and bade him farewell. Dylan turned and walked away, and at once, all of the veterans in the hornline got up and followed him. It wasn’t like a fake standing ovation that you sometimes see at concerts, where one clump of people stands up and then the rest of the audience ends up standing because they don’t want to stick out or look inconsiderate. We all got up instantly in a collective reflex and gathered around to hug him one at a time and tell him goodbye. People tried to express their love and gratitude for him, condensing masses of emotion into short phrases. Mackenzie told him, “You gave me a heart”. Drew ran up to Dylan and, with a welcome interruption, said, “You’re not going yet. Let’s do some eights and eights”. So we all celebrated his departure with a simple marching exercise, which is also one of the ways members celebrate their last day in the corps. Eric Antoinette called the exercise for us. Marching those eights and eights was awful, like walking willingly to catch our death, but powerful. We cried and sniffed our way through it. Afterwards, I got to say my goodbye to Dylan. When he saw me, he said, “Man, I’ve been teaching you since high school.” I told him he was the greatest teacher I ever had, and he looked away and snickered a little bit in disbelief; then he looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you.” When the members were packing up and getting ready to head back home that day, there was a feeling of loss that weighed down on the shoulders of everyone there. Erik Brown said it was “like losing a family member”.
I told Dylan, on the day that he left, that he’d be with us forever. And to this day, he’s still with me as much as he ever was. I try to apply his advice of loving everything I do into every part of my life. He was still my inspiration for the year and a half I had left in the Vanguard after he left. When I taught high school marching band, I tried to think of what Dylan would say if he were there, and my memories became so vivid that I could almost see him standing, five and a half feet tall, unshaven, wearing chewed-up flannel rags, next to me. And I smiled to myself.
Author: Mike Eng