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True To Your Creed
The O. Perry Walker Marching Band Prepares for the Big Show
ALGIERS – During band practice earlier this month at O Perry Walker High School, a mother entered the band hall and smiled upon impact of the blaring horns. She looked around at all the kids’ faces trying to find the pair of blowing cheeks that belong to her son. But he was nowhere to be found. Instead, she looked at pictures of past bands on the wall. Two minutes before band practice was over, her son entered the band hall, skinny under a big hoodie.
The bandleader, broad-shouldered and towering in the center of the band, looked at the boy in a way that stopped the music.
“Where you coming from?” the man asked the boy.
All 120 pairs of eyes on him, the kid answered coolly. “Went for a walk,” he said.
“Well keep going. Stay out there on the streets with them hoodlums and criminals! Don’t bring any of that in here.”
The mother began to cry. She left the band hall with her head in her hands, and the other mothers who were there to watch their sons and daughters, waiting to bring them home, followed her out to console her.
The boy left too, his air deflated.
For bandleader Wilbert Rawlins Jr., there is no place in band for the street rebel. He has always made that clear.
By calling the boy out, Rawlins' forced him into a choice: the streets, or the band and his home. If he returned home with his heart-broken mother, he would have to suffer through her tears. In Rawlins’ view, it’s either that, or the streets, where crime is the only way to get ahead.
The rudder of a young mind has a hard time fighting off the tradewinds in New Orleans. Despite the cultural traditions that run deep in the streets, the lure of drugs and the easy way out is always tugging at the other side of the rope. With music at its core that kids grow up with, and a culture that elevates drum majors over quarterbacks, Rawlins believes band is the way around a life that will almost inevitably lead in and out of jail.
As Rawlins says, “If you get a kid involved in something, you save them.”
As the spectacle of Mardi Gras unfolds over the next two weeks, parade goers watch the high school bands whisk by. They will hardly think about what it takes for these kids to march all in unison, and make such a beautiful racket. For the horns to bounce together in movement and song, elbows had to remain up high for hours, every day for months. At O. Perry Walker, grades also must remain elevated. All band members are held accountable to a minimum 2.5 GPA and Mr. Rawlins’s stern worldview of discipline and hard work.
The basis of Rawlins’ philosophy is the same set of behaviors that make a student an effective member of band make an effective person in life.
“When you’re not living true to your creed, when you do stuff unbecoming of a band member, I treat you like a criminal,” Rawlins said. “You need to be in your rightful place, at the rightful time, with the right equipment, ready to concentrate – and you will be fine. That is my mantra."
Back in the band room, Rawlins knew what the boy would choose. And even if the kid continued to think he’s too old to be disciplined, Rawlins wouldn’t let the streets take him. He lost a student once before, and vowed never to allow it again.
Rawlins believes with near-religious conviction that if you give kids an environment conducive to learning, most of them will fix themselves. In reality, there's no guarantee.
Training Kids for Life
During lunchtime last week, a student collapsed in the cafeteria. He was sent to the hospital for having overdosed on pills. In the tense moments after word spread throughout the school, Rawlins ordered two of the student’s friends – Terrance Knockum and Dweldon White - into his office. All three are band members.
Terrance Knockum, a 17-year old sophomore who plays tuba, said to Rawlins, “I really don’t know why I’m here, sir. I mean I’m friends with him, but I really don’t do that sort of thing.”
“We can’t have people representing us like that,” Rawlins told the two students, speaking from behind the heavy bronze bust of Martin Luther King Jr. on his desk. “We’ve got to get to the bottom of this and help him out.”
Growing up in New Orleans, Knockum saw the parades and second lines, but he also saw the drugs and violence. Knockum now believes in band like Rawlins.
“Before band, I used to be getting in a lot of trouble,” he said. “Failing.Never listening. So when I got affiliated with the band, it kept me out of a lot of trouble, and I started to like it so much that I wanted to do it every day. So in order to stay in the band, I had to keep my grades up and do a lot of stuff at home, clean up my backyard, listen to mom. Basically, I started to change a lot to be a better person to keep doing what I really wanted to do.”
Rawlins wants to understand each student on their level, and find the reason why that individual should want to learn.
“I use band to train kids for life,” he said. “I try in every way to make it relevant to their life. Because when you graduate, when you walk across the stage, after all the fame and fortune from the parade, what do you have to take from spending all this time in the room?”
“Mr. Rawlins is a good person,” Knockum said. “Beside music, he helps you through life. Like if you’ve got personal issues and stuff, he be willing to help you reach your goal and make you a better person in the future. Other teachers, some of them try. But yeah, Mr. Rawlins tries the most.”
The other student, Dweldon White, jumped in.
“Yeah, that’s true,” he siad. “I didn’t go to school last year. But Mr. Rawlins was the main reason I came back and joined band.”
In order to keep a kid interested in and committed to band, Rawlins believes it’s hard but necessary work to understand where each kid comes from.
Rawlins didn’t always have the golden touch for keeping kids in band. It took tragedy to show him how deep the commitment must run.
A Beautiful Boy
In Rawlins’ first year of teaching at Sarah T. Reed High School, he kicked a student out of band for skipping classes.
“I felt I needed to prove something to all the rest of the kids,” Rawlins said. “I put him out of band and told him,‘You can’t be skipping class, you need to be a leader.’”
After he started going to classes, the boy asked to come back. But with all the other band members realizing the expectations upon them, Rawlins' message was getting through.
He planned to let him back in, but he was going to wait another week to make sure the boy kept going to his classes.
Two days after his talk with Rawlins, the kid was killed at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, when he would’ve been in band practice.
“Shit man. He was a beautiful boy. That haunts me every day of my life. I shouldn’t have used that child to scare the others. I know that was my fault. He would’ve never been playing a dice game at 5 o’clock if I’d have let him come back to band.”
Rawlins claims he hasn’t lost another student to the streets since. Seeing what can happen to a student’s life when the pull of the music lets them go shaped Rawlins. He now makes sure every student understands that he won't let them get away. Instead of punishing kids by kicking them out of band and making examples, he's found other ways to instill commitment.
“Some kids come from environments where someone’s always on their back – so they function on aggression,” Rawlins said. Then some of them come home and get, ‘Hey baby, how you doing? You’re so beautiful. You hungry? Want something to eat?’ - and that’s how they operate. A lot of them come from a place where there is no love. They’ve probably never been hugged and told ‘I love you.’ But inside, they’re looking for that. They may not know what that is because no one’s ever given them it before. But then when it happens, they’re like ‘Wow. I like that.’ Every now and then, they just need a hug.”
And Rawlins gives plenty of hugs. But that's not to say there isn't tough love.
A Powerful Instrument
While the older method of punishment has gone out of style in some communities, Rawlins still believes in the pine. To Rawlins, it’s not physical subordination. It’s metaphorical for the pain of what would be a life behind bars, or an eternity underground brought unnecessarily too soon. And he makes sure every student understands that.
Dweldon White, the 17-year old junior that plays the mellophone for the Chargers, didn’t always play the mellaphone, nor have the grades to be able to. But he always had the music in him. White grew up in Treme watching the second lines, and is the son of a former Rebirth Brass Band man. His father, Stafford White, grew up with Rawlins and is now an assistant for the Chargers. So when Dweldon White kept coming in the band hall after school to watch the other kids practice, Mr. Rawlins brought him into his office and showed him videos of past marches. White was convinced to join the band.
“When I was going to West Jeff, band really didn’t have any rules. All you had to do was march. But when I came here, Rawlins let me know it wasn’t going to be like that. He said I’d have to do my schoolwork too. But I didn’t believe him. So I kept messing around with classes until my teacher came to him and said I didn’t do my test. I was like, forget the test.”
“That wood is a powerful instrument,” Dweldon White said. When talking about the paddle, he and Knockum laughed like old war buddies.
“Personally, I think it’s a nice way to discipline,” Knockum said. “If you get in trouble, you feel the wood. And I don’t think you’ll be dumb enough to try the same thing twice.”
“Oh, I’ve got it a few times. About 28 times,” White said, as he chuckled. “I only got it when I first got here though. I didn’t think anyone was gonna’ give me the paddle. But it’s like, if he knows you can do better on the horn, like you’re just messing up on purpose or not really trying to concentrate, he’ll pull it out and everything comes back to mind.”
“Yeah. It helps keep the discipline of your organization,” Knockum chimed in.
“And it betters you as a person,” added White.
“…and it betters you as a person. The paddle basically is like you going to jail for doing a crime. But you’re just getting hit three times instead of going to jail,” Knockum said.
Above all the ‘fortune and fame’ Mr. Rawlins himself receives from how seamlessly talented the band sounds in the parades, Rawlins wants to give these kids something to turn to and strive for.
“I gague my success by the amount of men and women who I have taught who are now successful and productive citizens in life. Y’know, when they come to me and say, ‘Hey Mr. Rawlins. This is my wife and two kids.’ I’m like, ‘Wow, look at you man.’"
His office is full with pictures of students, family, past band marches, and departed friends. In there, Mr. Rawlins and two of his former students, Carl Barbarin of Da Misfits Brass Band and Ed “Juicy” Jackson of Hot 8, bicker playfully and meticulously over a single note in what will be the Chargers’ adaptation of the The Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes.”
The two former students, who once stood in Knockum and Dweldon’s shoes, now kid around with their old mentor about past parades, upcoming gigs, and where old troublemakers are today.
Barbarin now assists Rawlins with the Chargers, hoping to become a bandleader himself one day. At 24-years old, Jackson has traveled all over the world with his other band, TBC Brass Band. In a selfless sense of success, Mr. Rawlins smiles with pride, “Juicy’s been to more places than I ever dreamed myself.”
Catch the Charger Marching Band at the following parades:
Friday, February 25 – Oshun (Uptown), 6 p.m.
Sunday, February 27 – Alla (Algiers/Gretna), noon
Thursday, March 3 – Muses (Uptown), 6:15 pm
Friday, March 4 – Morpheus (Uptown), 7:00 pm
Saturday, March 5 – NOMTON (Algiers), 10:45 am
Sunday, March 6 – Bacchus (Uptown), 5:15 pm
Monday, March 7 – Orpheus (Uptown), 6:00 pm
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Cheryl Castjohn, Sam Nelson
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