A Hero and a Family of Hundreds
My senior year, our high school started up a marching band program, and all I heard from my friends that were part of it was about how the one school to beat was American Fork.
That was, well, a very long time ago, and today? Well, the American Fork High School marching band is still the one to beat. It's won the state title something like 19 years in a row. It's so good that it was invited to perform for George W. Bush's second inauguration and in the Macy's Day parade.
But it wasn't until our family moved into a neighborhood with many youth involved with that same marching band that I started to see just how huge the program is. Almost as soon as we got here, I was called to work with the Young Women of our ward. The marching band or color guard (which performed with the band) was a huge part of many of their lives.
They were proud of their involvement, and it was their number one priority. Even though the marching band and color guard consisted of a large number of students, they were a tight-knit group, and anyone who used to be one of them belonged.
Even though I've been here for six years now, I still didn't quite get how deeply that love and closeness among them runs until this weekend.
Many of you have probably already heard about the accident. You can read about it here, but the basic story is that the band was coming home in four buses from a first-place win at a competition in Idaho.
The driver on one bus got sick and lost consciousness. Immediately and heroically, Heather Christensen, the woodwinds instructor, jumped up and took the wheel, trying to steer the bus to safety and stop it on the side of I-15.
In spite of her attempts, the bus rolled. She was thrown from the bus and killed. Several other students were injured, but none severely (although three were helicoptered out and hospitalized for a day or so).
The first I heard about the accident was through a Facebook status of a band parent on Saturday night . . . right as my own son was heading home on a bus from the Shakespeare competition in Cedar City.
I wondered which youth I personally knew who'd been on the trip. I did know, thanks to that parent's update, that his son, who is in the Sunday School class I teach with my husband, was safe (thank heaven for cell phones). But I felt sick at heart and worried for who else was hurt. At that point, three students were still trapped in the bus.
I thought through the neighborhood, wondering who else could be on that trip, who might have been in the bus that crashed (turns out another boy in our class was on the trip but not on that bus, plus one more boy from the ward, also fine). I was relieved to remember one of my young women from the band who had graduated last year, so I knew she couldn't have been on the bus.
I went to a breaking news article online. Scared parents commented with things like, "Does anyone know if the sax players were on that bus? I haven't heard from my son." Several comments mentioned that the teacher who had died taught elementary band as well as high school band. My heart sank further. My seventh grader recently settled on the flute, but a year ago, she played clarinet.
She'd just gone to bed. I called down to her. "Who was your clarinet teacher in band last year?"
"Miss Christensen," she said. "Why?"
I closed my eyes and took a breath, hoping my voice would come out natural. "I'll tell you later," I said. "Good night."
The following morning, I knew I had to tell my daughter what had happened, before she got to church. I knew that talk of the crash would buzz through the halls and in classrooms--and I had a feeling our bishop would likely address the youth about it as well--and I knew she needed to hear it from me instead of randomly in the hall. The news was a shock to her. She cried.
That night, the high school held a remembrance for Miss Christensen. Many people I knew with old connections to the band were asking all over Facebook about when it started, what time the private band meeting was, and when the public portion began. My daughter wanted to go, even though she hadn't known Miss Christensen that long and is still in junior high. I didn't expect that. She went with a friend.
Today I discovered that Jeri at A Fickle Pickle, a former marching band member, posted a touching tribute not only to Heather but to the band HERE. She expressed the deep feelings connected to those who have played with the band and why, even though she personally didn't know Heather, she feels her death so keenly.
When I was in high school, the AF marching band was something others looked to as an example of hard work and excellence, something to aspire to (and maybe to feel a tiny bit jealous of). And sure, it is all that. But it's so much more.
My heart goes out to Heather Christensen's family and all who knew her and loved her.
And that includes the entire American Fork marching band family.