by Beth Saadati
I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
On a chilly 65-degree early-October South Carolina evening—yes, chilly…my Northern blood has turned Southern—a friend leaned in close during the high-school football game. “I heard the marching band’s voice-over this week,” she said. “It’s intense. It might be hard for you to listen to.”
I gave a faint smile, assured her I’d be fine, and buried the words in the back of my brain. Why be afraid? In public—okay, pretty much anywhere, even at home unless I’m alone—my guard stays up. I don’t get emotional. I protect my heart.
The following night, however, something changed. It happened at a different high-school stadium, thirty minutes away. Scanning the scene like an anxious teenager looking around a lunchroom for any familiar face, I climbed the bleachers. The crowd contained no one I knew, but I spied an empty spot beside a friendly looking couple. With repeated excuse-me’s, I shimmied my way across a tightly-packed row of viewers and plopped down on the concrete bench.
Next to me sat an elderly white-haired man, beside him his pom-pom-waving wife. They told me they’d come to watch their grandchildren perform. My teens’ grandma has never gotten to see my kids compete, I thought. She’s eight years in the nursing home, ravaged by Alzheimer’s, unaware of who she is, being fed supper by their grandpa as we speak. I felt the familiar sting of absence but managed to utter with full sincerity, “Your grandkids sure are blessed to have you here.”
He nodded his agreement and asked, “Do you have a dollar?” An odd request to be sure, but I rummaged through my purse. He extended one hand. I gave him the bill.
Meticulously, he folded it, creased it, transformed it with care. Then the origami artist presented his creation—George Washington’s picture converted into a tiny two-inch shirt. His eyes twinkled as he inquired, “How many kids do you have?”
It shouldn’t have been hard to answer. This wasn’t calculus. But I mentally froze upon hearing the innocently asked question I HATE. My paralysis produced an awkward silence as my panicked mind pondered: Two? Or three? What should I say? Finally I lied and betrayed. “Two,” I muttered. Sometimes it’s easier not to explain.
“Girls or boys?” he asked.
Again, I lied. “One of each.”
“Give it to your daughter,” he said. “She’ll appreciate it more.” I offered a sad smile, thanked him, and promised I would.
Soon the announcer’s words belted over the gathered crowd. A hush followed as the Class 5A Mauldin High School Marching Maverick Band positioned itself on the field.
For those who haven’t recently seen marching bands compete, let me explain. It’s different than when I marched alto sax and mellophone in high school and college. It’s even different than it was fifteen years ago. Today’s eight-minute performances are laden with props, costumes, and special effects—enough to qualify as a full-blown, mini-musical-theater show.
Although the bands shine in visual creativity, marching technicality, and, of course, musicality, I equally appreciate the imagination, the behind-the-scenes service, the long hours and sweat of many people working together to achieve a common goal. But the best part? Today’s shows tell stories, which makes watching them quite delightful.
The story concepts vary and, well, some of them, though precisely and magically executed, tend to be rather strange. For example, there was a performance about top-secret Area 51 and three squirmy gray aliens the military caged (weird beyond words even though it earned first place). One about industrialization burning down the birds-of-paradise homeland. One about a pinball game—accented by an inflatable silver ball that wandered around the field (confession: I was so
distracted entranced watching it roll, I never really saw that
band’s show). And, my sorry-but-I’m-an-English-teacher favorite, a
retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and
Juliet, except, in this odd version, the characters were—wait for it—fish!
Needless to say, although the displayed artistry and musical talent delights and intrigues me, I’d never been moved by any show I’d seen. Momentarily enthralled and entertained? Definitely, and there’s value in that (as all of us who’ve been quarantined by the coronavirus pandemic now know!). But as far as life-changing takeaway goes? Not exactly my experience.
As the drum majors began their synchronized salute, I remembered what I frequently forget: I have a cell phone. Maybe I should film this since my teens march on opposite sides of the field and I can’t keep track of what both are doing or where they’re even at. I removed it from my back pocket and began to record.
A row of wooden trestle tables with wheels spanned the length of the 50-yard line. On top of the tables stood thirty color-guard girls dressed in sleeveless mauve tops and off-white circle skirts. On each side of the tables, two vertical rows of brass and woodwind players—outfitted with burgundy bicep-length gloves, black pants, and sleeveless off-white tailcoats—knelt, heads bent, in straight lines. At the front of the field one girl, holding a feather plume, wrote a letter at a table. Electronic speakers amplified the synthesizer’s scratching sound of quill pen on paper.
While the wind players moved in a ripple down the line and rose to their feet, the color guard started its ballet choreography, large feather pens in hand. Then the voice-over—prerecorded narration that intersperses short dialogue throughout a routine—of a woman’s strong alto voice reading the letter began.
To the broken:
For as long as I can remember, I hid my heart under the bed. My mother said, “If you’re not careful, someone, somewhere, is gonna break it.”
The marching band spread out in synch across the field. One guard girl, twirling a sunset-colored flag, glided down the row of tables. At the end of the row, she launched the poled fabric up into the air, spiraling it three breathtaking times before the one who’d stood writing the letter expertly caught it.
Know this: Under the bed is not a good hiding spot. I was told words can’t break your bones, but they always found a way to hurt me. I let the words of others define me so much that I found it impossible to stand up for myself. How can you stand up for yourself when you don’t even know who you are?
The opening lines from X-Ambassador’s song “Unsteady” rang out through huge speakers: “Hold on. Hold on to me. ‘Cause I’m a little unsteady. A little unsteady…” and I trembled at the piercing, heart-rendered vocals.
So this was the story behind the show’s music, the theme so similar to words my oldest daughter, Jenna, had penned seven years earlier in her suicide letter: “To the peers at school who bullied and hated on me (you know very well who you are), FYI, words are painful, in case that never occurred to you. People’s feelings are not something to be played with. Being kind, or even vaguely amiable, can literally save a life.” I recalled my friend’s gentle warning the night before. And I knew I was in trouble.
The woodwinds formed a block to the right of the long row of tables; the brass, shaped in arcs on the left, turned to face the audience. A rendition of “Unsteady” burst forth from instruments while flags spun in the sky and the band moved to the music in precisely choreographed visuals.
The brass maneuvered into a new formation, the woodwinds repositioned tables in strategic locations, the drumline made an impressive perfectly-rhythmed pass-through move across the field, and the color-guard forcefully whirled rifles into the air. Soon, the voice-over resumed:
Everyone always asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” When I said, “I’d like to be a writer,” they said, “Choose something realistic.”
They asked me what I wanted to be then told me what not to be. As their voices became more and more deafening, the flow of words ceased, and the lights of creativity turned off. I felt…broken.
In that moment, with those spoken words, my emotions frayed. Sentences from Jenna’s lengthy parting letter—formed from haunting self-lies that had whispered your life isn’t worth much—blazed before my eyes. Her sentences had included five stabbing words: “I was an insane writer.”
With a compelling story to share and the ability to tell it well. You should still be here, I silently replied. Fingernails pressed into my palms as, shaken, I tearlessly cried.
Meanwhile, the story on the field continued. First came a drumline feature, sticks dancing in quick syncopated rhythm. Woodwinds executed eighth-note runs in small blocks, clusters, and pods. Standing on table tops, the color guard tossed and caught weapons. Around them, the band spanned the field in large diagonals and performed a practiced series of leans and lunges, back marching, flutter steps and lateral slides. (No need to know the terminology to picture the scene’s splendor!)
I was stilled by the hypnotic power of sound and sight, stilled more by the quiet realization that my seventeen-year-old daughter was playing her older sister’s clarinet and my thirteen-year-old son was a month away from turning Jenna’s parting age. As my hand cradled the little origami shirt, I thought How many days of this bittersweet can a heart take?
Unfaithful. Ungraceful. Unloving. Each word somehow stings harder than the rest, like a colony of bees swarming in my chest.
Courageous we must be as we write and share our words. Fearless we must be as we let them hear our voice.
Now I wasn’t sure whose story the voice-over was telling. Despite hearing Jenna’s narrative in it, maybe the challenge belonged to my still-living teens. Or, maybe it was resonating with…me.
At the center-front of the field, my son performed an expressive section feature with the other mellophone players. Woodwinds echoed the melody. Worded banners unfurled. Pastel swing flags rose victoriously in the air like large angel wings to color the field. And the voice-over offered a hope-filled promise:
Dear unfaithful, I will teach you to be stronger.
Dear ungraceful, I will teach you to forgive one another.
Dear unloving, I will love you.
Next, free movement, the swag of a chassé, and a sideways hop preceded the glorious sound explosion of tightly clustered brass, woodwind, and percussion during the final words of the voice-over:
To the broken:
I started writing a letter to myself, but I finished writing it to you. I realized I am not broken, and neither are you. Regardless of what they say or think about us, we are worth more than their ideas.
I know this: Because I am loved, you are loved.
The truth of the words was simple.
The truth of the words was also profound.
In celebration of this epiphany moment, a clarinetist soloed, bending notes with reverb in the high altissimo register while saxophones grooved behind him. Next, the band swirled a formation which changed to lines, which morphed into a follow-the-leader waterfall pattern accompanied by a spectacular burst of sound.
I seldom say this, but literal chills swept down my spine. As the band played its final notes, five students—one of them my daughter—clutched the edge of a rolled tarp at the front of the field and hurriedly back-peddled to reveal an enormous banner that spanned twenty yards.
Six words were printed on it: To the Broken…You are Loved.
Needless to say, my protective, outwardly unemotional self was touched at its core. I swallowed hard. Then my eyes leaked loads of pent-up tears as the crowd erupted in uproarious applause.
I’ve replayed the video on my phone far more times than I can count. Maybe it’s obsessive. (Alright, it is.) But what if the message that resonated so deeply that October evening is a reminder I—or we—daily need?
· When the lying voices tell us our lives aren’t worth much.
· When we’re tempted to believe our voice doesn’t matter.
· When we receive a crushing medical diagnosis we never expected.
· When we clutch the hand of a loved one and watch them breathe their final breath.
· When we’re disappointed and betrayed.
· When all the loneliness, fear, and uncertainty of this world crashes in.
· When, in spite of this, we dare to hope and choose to face another day.
It’s my story, it’s your story, it’s ours.
We’re broken people living in a broken world, but we are loved.
Hold onto that truth, dear friends, and let it be enough.
For your viewing pleasure, here’s the phone video of the performance I’ve watched a conservatively estimated 357 times.
Also, special thanks to Mauldin High School band directors Dr. Adam Scheuch and Mr. J.P. Davis for
permission to include the beautiful voice-over transcription and photos from the “A Letter to the Broken” show.
Beth is a high school English teacher, wife, and mom to two spectacular teens. She likes to spend time with family and friends, indulge in a Chicago-style mushroom pizza or homemade blackberry pie, and, with shameful inconsistency, lace up her Nikes for a long-distance run. In the aftermath of her beloved firstborn's suicide, she shares story at bethsaadati.com to offer insight, understanding, and hope--with those who weather the storms of suicidal thoughts and suicide loss...and with those who simply know how bittersweet life can sometimes be.