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Wednesday
Nov302011

Daughters of Boudica

There is The Ohio State University Marching Band an art known as "band hair," the ability to arrange hairclips, bobby pins, rubber bands, gel, and hair Stephanie, poster girl for good and proper Band Hairnets into a concoction which allows one's cap to fit over a bun so tightly wound that it practically creates its own event horizon.  And those clips had better not be pink.  And those who have mastered this art are far better women than I could ever hope to be.

You'd think that being the product of eight consecutive years of womens' education means that I would approach life delicately, with gently rounded curves, soft tones and trailing the faint scent of gardinas.  You would be wrong. 

Eight years of womens' education means that I was well and truly conditioned to stomp into and out of various aspects of life like a particularly well-mascaraed velociraptor.   See that guy over there?   Like him?  Go talk to him.  (Unless he's oppressing you.  Then:  ATTACK.  By the short hairs.)  Don't have a job?  Make one yourself.   Is there a federal statute standing between you and the reception center for color-blind hatless famine refugees you wish to build?  Sue, or perhaps form a consciousness-raising circle until it's time for the harvest.  That is the culture of a womens' college:  Traditional female traits are to be ground beneath our stiletto heels (or hiking boots, or baseball cleats, or flipflops, or whatever we felt empowered to wear.) 

Jocelyn, sousa rock starAn interior terror of conversation with others and a stubborn fascination with sparkly lip gloss meant that I came roaring out of Saint Mary's College somewhat less roaringly than my classmates, but the programming of see-the-hill-take-the-hill-even-if-the-hill-is-in-fact-an-entire-marching-band remained.  But when various members of The Ohio State University Marching Band told me that they would not be the person they are today without this organization, I eventually found myself not nodding a "Yes, I'm sure that's the case, please don't hit me with your baritone" nod, but a "Yes, I understand-- it's changed me too," nod.

A girl can become just as effectively stompy a velociraptor within a mostly male-dominated organization, and she can do it without a single testosterone injection.

Women joined the OUSMB in the early '70's under the reforms of Title IX.  Five made the ranks; I have often heard them referred to by alums and current bandsmen (you will note the spelling of the subject there) as "The First Five."  No names.  No elevation.  No filigreed pink shrine to them in the lobby of the Band Center.  You know why? 

Because their music and marching were deemed worthy of entrance into the Band, and that's all that matters.  The physical requirements for men and women are exactly the same; not even the Marine Corps does this. There is no room for quotas, social experimentation, or up-twinkles.  You're good enough or you aren't.  And if you're good enough, people don't care if you have boobs, moobs, or Beiber fever:  You're in.  In this fashion, The Ohio State University Marching Band is absolutely the most equitable organization it has ever been my inspiration to meet.

It's a distinctly male culture, but one which allows plenty of room for female squad leaders, Script Ohio i dotters, arrangers, and Drum Majors.  And in some places and in some ways there remains a steep learning curve, but one always taken on with bare knuckles.  Shelley Graf became the first female Drum Major not long after the introduction of women into the OSUMB, and for a while nobody knew what the hell to put her in when she took the field, so at first somebody trussed her up in what was charitably described to me a "a bolero jacket." But by the time Kathryn Mitchell Prescott came along about twenty years later, the tailors just measured her up for the same uniform as her Y-chromosomed predecessors.

Ms. Sadie shows 'em how it's done on Meet the Team NightWhat kind of women does this create after one, three, five years?  Amazons, girlies playing dress up in men's uniform pants? No, darling:  Real women.

There is Sadie of A Row, who not only plays an instrument... she repairs them too.

There is Jocelyn, who, if the current seniority structure of the sousaphone players holds, will next season become the first female African-American to dot the i, and the first woman to do so during a Michigan game. 

There is Stephanie, who told me all about the Band's drop-dead rules regarding nail polish, rings, and Jersey-sized hoops, and why she likes them that way.  She begins her career as a high school band director as soon as she graduates this year.

There is Emily The Sousaphone Player, on whom I have several inches, who flings about her 35-pound horn as though it just got between her and the last chopper out of Saigon.  (An i dotter draped his sousa around my neck earlier this month.  I almost crushed them both.)

There is our own Tiggles, barely Emily's height, who the week before the Michigan game announced that she dearly hoped that she might have an excuse to indulge in physical violence.

And, my dears, there is J Row squad leader Olivia, she and her cymbals, who has given over five years of her life to this Band.  As a member of the percussion squad, she is one of the first people to hit the grass at the bottom of the ramp in Ohio Stadium.  She has long brown hair and trim little glasses and a most engaging smile, and last Saturday she screamed "LAST RAMP!  Don't be the one to screw it up because you're not paying attention!" to the rest of her row.

And later that week, as a group of bandsmen and I sat in a booth at a campus bar with two empty GLOS: Scarlet Squirrel and Tiggles, two of the Gorgeous Ladies of S Rowpitchers between us, Olivia, clad in a sweatshirt and simple ponytail, flashed back onto that ramp the moment an OSU alum approached us, saw the array of TBDBITL merchandise worn at the table, and held up a ring which proclaimed him as a five-year member of the Band.  Around the table, the members introduced themselves and their rows of origin.

"Are you with the Band?"  he asked when I remained silent.

"I'm writing a book on the Band," I said.

At this, he turned to everyone else crammed into the booth.  "You watch what you say around her," he said.  "Don't trust her.  The media will screw you."

Olivia, the only other woman in attendance and about a month and a half away from wearing one of those rings herself, leaned into him.  "She's been with us since February," she said,  "Okay?  She's with us.  She won't write (beautifully unladylike word) about us.  She's in the band."

I would say here that I then cried like a little girl, but then the point of this entire post would be undermined, so I will just tell you that I stared intently into the Yuengling for a few moments and then ran away into the ladies' room. Because no, I'm not really in the band.  But I was trusted with glimpses into its interior life, and that is a tremendous gift which I have not earned, but will certainly cherish.

Olivia and her Cymbals of Mass DestructionAnd anyway, crying at certain moments isn't considered girlypoo around these parts.  A week later, I ran into Olivia on the sidelines of the Michigan game just after the pregame performance.  She was still inhaling fast from the exertion and the rush of Big House booing, cymbals flat against her pants legs. 

"This place is like Disneyland," she said, blinking away tears, for this trip to Disneyland would be her last.

Sousaphone player Katie, who dotted the i during the 75th anniversary performace of Script Ohio, just changed her profile picture on Facebook from one of her in a gorgeous black evening gown to an image snapped just after her trip to the top of the i, cap in the air and all those pounds of brass hung about her body. Smoke from a burst of fireworks hangs in the air behind her.  The biggest day of her life, and she is virtually indistinguishable from the men of her row.  She wears no jewlery or eyeshadow. The spats on her blocky black shoes are about as feminine as a chainsaw. Her hair is slicked back like the pinchiest frau you ever met.  And she is beautiful.

For the thing about band hair is that for hours after the barettes are removed, the unrelenting pull on the hair of most women, the glue of the gel, leaves an impression.  The hair is released, but the girl herself-- she is solid, she is firmly set.  She is in this Band. 

Katie, First Lady of Punctuation at the Wisconsin game.  Photo by Ed and Karen Crockett of Crockett Photography

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