Trombones, Education, and Rural Collective Memory

by | Ryan Fowler

As the bead of sweat formed and swelled at the top of my forehead, I prepared myself for the impending discomfort I was about to experience. With a trombone clutched firmly in my hands, I stood at military-like attention, awaiting the next sign from our drum major to ignite the movement of our marching band. The anticipation was building, and so was that bead of sweat, which was now en route on its southerly migration towards my eyebrow, clearly preparing itself for its final plunge down the bridge of my nose; my mind anticipating the irritating tickle it would cause, enticing me to break my stoic form and swat it away.

But somewhere else in my mind was another voice, reminding me of my mission at that moment. I was to be steady and still, ready to whip my trombone up to playing position and blast the first note of our school fight song at the given command. No matter how much that pesky sweat bead wanted to distract my senses, I would not succumb.

Like a soldier, committed in-full to my patriotic duty, I stayed true to my task as a modestly talented trombonist in the Fayette High School marching band. In a true feat of mental fortitude, I allowed that sweat bead to inch its way down my nose without so much as a flinch or a nod. Despite the temptation spawned from that late summer Missouri humidity, I withstood the test.

And then it came. The hands of our drum major jumped emphatically to an upright position, and at nearly the same instant, the sixty other instruments in our band also snapped into place. Collectively, we lined the the street of our little town with a dramatic sense of gusto, our instruments reflecting the glaring light of the sun; our pride beaming even brighter. It was (and still is) an inspiring spectacle that gives me chills when I reflect upon it.

Seconds later, our knees were pumping like machines as we marched through our town square. The familiar cadence of the snare and base drums pounded in unified rhythm, building up the anticipation for the coming blast of the horns. And then, on the designated downbeat, we unleashed the sounds of our instruments with everything we had, catapulting our fight song into the air, bouncing off all the old buildings that comprised our town square. We probably weren't hitting all of the notes just right, and I was always just a tad out of tune (sorry Mr. V), but the acoustics of the open air and the sheer excitement of the moment seemed to hide any egregious mistakes. Besides, we knew we sounded good because we could see the smiles and cheers of our neighbors as we marched by. It seemed as though the entire town was there to watch us march. All 2,888 of them. We were playing the song of their place. And it was beautiful.

I don't know when I realized this, but it has dawned on me in my adult years, that the education I received in my rural Missouri town was something more than the patchwork of algebraic equations, band practices, or helpful literary insights into what was going on in the minds of those strange kids in Lord of the Flies. Sure, that patchwork of knowledge was an important part of the quilt that made up my education, but on their own, they were just pieces of something bigger. I've since become more keenly aware of the role that education plays in forming the collective memories of a place. Reflections on my experiences, such as my time in marching band, have reminded me of this fact. It's a mystical realization of sorts; that those experiences somehow form and sustain the collective memories of our communities, and in a way, give definition to what a community aspires to be.

Want proof?

Just make your way to the town square in Fayette, Missouri next fall on Band Day and you'll hear the same fight song that I played in those streets 18 years ago. You'll also see about 1,000 other people there, all humming along to a song that has been playing in the streets there for decades.

As someone who works in education, I know well the various statistics that can be used to tell a grim story about rural schools and their supposed demise. These data should not be ignored, for they often prove to be good reminders of the inequities that exist for many kids across our country. We should, of course, strive to challenge and counter those inequities. Yet, there is a danger in viewing our schools and our kids as mission fields, in need of rescue. That mode of thinking doesn't sustain motivation for very long and it often blinds us to the beauty and the assets that do exist in our communities. We see the effects of this in the increasing burnout and attrition of rural (and urban) teachers, many of whom entered the profession with an aspirational desire to rescue kids from the ever-illusive "achievement gap." This is not to discredit those motivations, for I believe they are indeed noble. Yet, I also believe that the idea of rescue and escape simply can't compete with the more fulfilling and meaningful commitments of joining and remaining.

As we look to the future in rural education, maybe there should be a different point of focus for attracting educators to rural communities. It is a simple, yet deeply rewarding invitation: Join us. Join us in creating and experiencing the collective memories of our small communities. Help build an education for our rural kids that inspires them to understand their value and importance in the context of their own local place. As the great Wendell Berry once wrote; "If the word community is to mean or amount to anything, it must refer to a place (in its natural integrity) and its people. It must refer to a placed people."

There is something uniquely powerful about the collective memory of a small place. It runs deep in the life of a rural community. It shows up in conversations at the grocery store and at the post office. It echoes down the gravel roads and through the halls of the local school. And ultimately, it shows back up 18 years after you've graduated high school and reminds you of that indescribable feeling of community as you marched down the street playing music for your neighbors.

Ryan Fowler lives in Columbia, TN and works for TNTP, a national non-profit supporting public schools. Together with the National Rural Education Association (NREA) and the Rural Schools Collaborative, they are building a national effort to inspire more educators to find meaningful careers and lives amidst our diverse rural communities.

If you teach or live in a rural community, we would love you to share your thoughts in a brief survey to help inform this effort. To learn more, just visit:

Survey of rural schools and communities
  • Twitter - White Circle
  • Facebook - White Circle