Before the fall of my eighth grade year, I believed in a lot of principles that I didn't have the courage to do anything about. My Just-an-Old-Country-Lawyer father was committed to civil rights, and he taught me and my brother to value justice for ALL people. But he didn't teach me how to put those principles into practice.
I don't know whether or not our father taught my brother how to actually stand up for what he believed in, but he didn't teach me how to, perhaps because I was a girl. Girls were supposed to be seen and not heard. Girls were supposed to be nice and not make waves. I know this because my mother told me so. Repeatedly.
So until the fall of my eighth grade year, I was nice. I had principles to which I was committed, but I lacked the know how- or the courage- to do anything about them.
Then came The Day That Everything Changed.
My junior high band director, Mr. Phillip Wilson, had reserved the football field for first period so we could practice our half-time show for the game that night. The rest of the week, we practiced on the old marching practice field north of the football field. But we always practiced on the football field on game day.
When we marched out to the field, we were met by a large PE class with their fearsome teacher and monstrous student teacher. Mr. Wilson politely told the PE teachers that we had reserved the field for that morning. The fearsome teacher refused to leave and told the students not to give up the field to the band.
Mr. Wilson stormed back across the field to us like MacArthur, Montgomery, Marshall, and Patton rolled into one. Face crimson with the little patches of white he got when he was mightily riled, he shouted, "People, you are the Marshall Junior High School Band! This field is reserved for you this morning. Those people refuse to yield it to us. This field is ours, and we are going to take it!"
We woodwind players stared wide-eyed. The brass players squared their shoulders. The drummers whispered, "Hot Damn!"
Then General Wilson said, "People, you are to march straight ahead. Do not look to the right or left. Do not step to the right or left. If those people don't move, you are NOT going to march around them. You are going to march right over them. Do you understand me?"
Mr.Wilson signaled the drum major who counted us off. Then the snare drums started to roll, the bass drum shook the earth, the brasses straightened the pipes, and we woodwinds shrieked until we split the heavens. The irresistible force began marching toward the immovable object.
In an instant, I understood what I was part of. My fear evaporated, and I realized that this was a watershed moment for me. I not only believed in justice, but I was going to act on that belief for the first time. I was going to stand shoulder to shoulder with my band of brothers and sisters and confront the enemy. I was brave.
As we marched across the field, the PE students scattered, and even the fierce old PE teacher headed for the sidelines. But the monstrous, murder-in-the-eyes student teacher wasn't going to move and squared off with us. So our feisty little trombone player followed orders and plowed right into that immovable object. Then he stomped hard on the foot that was in his path and kept moving forward. He was the hero of the hour.
That day, Mr. Wilson taught the entire band that we could fight injustice. That we could be brave.
That moment was such a hallmark in my life that I have fought abusive authority ever since. That moment was the reason that decades later a respected colleague told me, "You've got brass balls, you know that?"
Yes, I knew that. Because I earned those brass balls on the football field at Marshall Junior High School as part of the Marshall Junior High School Band. I earned them because my band director, Mr. Wilson, taught us that we had brass balls by expecting us to act like we did. He taught us courage.
So I thank you, Mr. Wilson, for what you did for all of us.
But I thank you especially for what you did for me. You took me, an eighth grader who believed in justice, but who was too scared to do anything about it. And you gave me brass balls that have lasted for the rest of my life.
And for that, Sir, I am eternally grateful.