I don't believe in competitive parenting, but I can spot an ace when I see it.
Two years ago, our family was initiated into the world of the high school marching band. Neither my husband nor I had participated in this activity as high schoolers. I had no idea of the customs and expectations of this subculture. Even some of the instruments were new to me.
We've supported our kids through all their various extracurricular pursuits, so naturally we showed up for halftime performances and the competitive shows on weekends. Then, I noticed that a small group of parents seemed to be doing an awful lot of work on the periphery of these events.
Apparently, they show up hours before the competitions start to load up the truck (or multiple trucks) with instruments and elaborate set props -- some of which the parents built in their garages before the season started. Then, they ride the bus filled with teenagers -- an adventure unto itself -- to the competition site. Once they arrive, they unload the trucks. They set up stations with water and snacks. They help the students make sure their uniforms are on point.
I'm tired just thinking about it to this point, but they aren't even halfway through.
When it's the band's turn to perform, they haul all the props to the field and set them up. Afterward, they break everything down, carry the stuff back to the bus, reload the trucks and ride back to school. Finally, they get to put all that stuff back into the band room or storage area. If their band plays in the finals, this could end up being a 16-hour day, or even longer.
Every tournament-style activity for kids -- from sports to public speaking -- can involve hours of spectating for the parents. But the marching band adds in physical labor and more. In the fall, most band parents block out their Fridays for football games and Saturdays for tournaments. But year-round, the core volunteers hold booster club meetings, organize and publicize fundraisers, send countless emails, and coordinate and volunteer at band camps.
God help the ones hosting a competition at their own schools.
What other high school activity requires this level of parental involvement to function?
"Parents who volunteer a lot are exhausted," said Danielle Henke, who has two high schoolers in marching band and is president of the booster club. Their band has about 135 students, and parents raise around $70,000 for show season.
"You don't know what goes on behind the scenes until you've actually done it," a recent parent recruit told her.
Like most other activities relying on volunteers, about 20% of the parents seem to be doing 80% of the work.
Unfortunately, my husband and I are not among the 20% at our son's school. Work obligations and pre-band commitments prevent us from being part of the backbone of parent operations. We're happy to be an ancillary limb.
Given how crucial these hundreds of unpaid hours are to maintaining a performing arts program, I wonder what happens in schools that don't have parents who can devote so much time and money.
I found a success story from Rancho High School in Las Vegas -- the second-largest public high school in Nevada. Its band program is one of the best in the state despite the school having one of the highest populations of homeless students in the county, with the majority of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. It took a gifted and exceptionally devoted band director, a supportive principal and dedicated students to transform a lackluster program into an excellent one. As the band became more successful, it attracted more students -- and yes, more parent volunteers.
These stories are the exception; like everything else in education, those with the most resources tend to flourish.
While we may never be able to join the ranks of the most committed band parents, we plan to volunteer and donate more this year than we did during our learning-curve year.
One parent I spoke to is in her eighth year of high-commitment band parenting. She confided that she does notice the parents who never help out, or who just show up to watch their kid and then jet.
It would be nice to feel appreciated by those parents, she said. Henke can relate to that sentiment.
"The band doesn't just get dressed and go," Henke said. "There's a huge production behind that."