Like many small towns across America, excitement here comes in the form of community events. When you have four stoplights, you don’t get many requests from rock stars begging to hold concerts at your stadium. You also don’t get famous authors holding book signings, red carpet premiers, or museum galas. But you do get Homecoming—a real life, honest to goodness, celebration of fun and high school reunion all rolled up into one.
It all starts on Monday when every kid from pre-school to 12th grade dresses up for the first of five themed days decided by the high school student council and celebrated district wide. We’ve had some real doozies lately. For example, a few years ago we decided to have “Duct Tape Day.” Do you know how many patterns and colors of duct tape are available? Chevrons and animal prints and camouflage, oh my! Kids who hadn’t raised a pencil to take a single note since the beginning of the year stayed up all night to create one-of-a-kind duct tape ensembles. Who says kids aren't engaged in the educational process these days? The clean up of discarded silver accessories at the end of the day was well worth the laughs produced during the seven hours of sticky madness. Some kids had a harder time “disrobing” than others…it all depended on whether they had applied the tape to cloth before putting it on or decided to forgo a protective barrier altogether. Again, still worth it.
Another one of my favorite days from the past was “Fake an Injury” Day. Oh, the creativity! The hallways looked like a hospital ward. I haven’t seen that many bandages since the last episode of M.A.S.H. The smart ones milked their faux injuries and explained that they couldn’t take tests (sprained writing hand) and couldn’t run the mile warm up for gym class (on crutches due to a fractured knee). One kid even created his own doctor’s note excusing him from all educational tasks and homework for the day—too strenuous, just recovering from pretend gallbladder surgery.
But Homecoming isn’t all about dress up days. That’s just the beginning. The week is filled with float building and class competitions. The other sports teams—volleyball, tennis, and soccer—host their own home games and add to the buzz of school spirit in the air. The anticipation builds with each day, growing to a crescendo on Friday.
Starting around 9:00 a.m., the senior athletes, cheerleaders, student council and pep band make their way to the elementary and middle school buildings for the annual Traveling Pep Rally. The little kids get to meet the big kids (the REAL rock stars in their eyes) and get to experience what it means to be a part of a Herd. In our community, school pride is cultivated from the very beginning. The band snakes through the hallways and students join in line as the drum core passes their classrooms. When everyone is finally situated in the gymnasium, the spirit team leads the students in raucous cheers and the fight song and the cheerleaders twist and turn in the air to the “oohs” and “aahs” of the impressed audience. When the mascot finally makes an entrance, he or she is greeted by hundreds of screaming little Bucks—a scene reminiscent of 1964 Beatlemania. I’d be lying if I said Bucky hasn’t been knocked to the ground a time or two by a rushing crowd of adoring kindergartners anxious to pet his hair and give him a high five.
After the traveling pep rally, the busload of kids perform an impromptu “parade” on the sidewalks of the main street downtown. Cars honk and folks emerge out of downtown offices and stores to wave and clap along. This is all a precursor, of course, to the high school pep rally that takes place during the last hour of the school day. As with everything else related to school spirit, we like to go all out for this one. Our Master of Ceremony (who doubles as the gym teacher) likes to make an entrance. And let’s just say he isn’t above using fog machines and strobe lighting for affect. His costume borders on the absurd (in the best way) and continues to build on the year before, getting more outlandish every year. I can neither confirm nor deny if his plans for this Friday include real deer antlers. He comes from a long line of over the top M.C.s, however. A few years ago, our co-hosts descended down the football stadium steps perched atop inflatable pool rafts that were carried by the football team in a manner similar to the Egyptian Pharaohs. Too much? Never.
And after the last human pyramid collapses to the ground and the individual winners for the days of the week are sashed, hoards of fourteen to eighteen year olds are released for the afternoon with the instructions to meet back up in a few hours for the parade. I bet you’ve already guessed that every school kid in every grade has a float that they belong to. These homemade floats are paraded through town and end up at the stadium, with enough candy to fill the Titanic thrown to the crowd along the way. Chances are you are either riding in the parade, or sitting in a lawn chair watching someone you know pass by. it’s kind of a big deal.
Around 7:00, the main event kicks off and the next three hours are spent cheering on the team, eating salty popcorn, watching the half time show, and talking with friends you haven’t seen in years. That’s what happens at a small town Homecoming game—people actually come back home, if only for a night. For three hours, the most important team in the world is wearing maroon and white and you hold your breath every time the ball is launched into the air. Between plays, the men standing along the top of the stadium reminisce about games that were played on this same field over twenty years ago—games they can still feel in their bones. Every pass is remembered, every tackle recalled. And now, they watch their own boys out there and their eyes beam with pride.
The women—mothers and aunts and grandmothers—sit in the stands and cheer for their babies on the field or along the track. Their claps muffled by warm gloves, they will yell out phrases that they learned from years spent on aluminum bleachers. Ever so often, their minds will play tricks on them and the muscular seventeen year olds with the numbers on their backs will transform before their eyes into rocket football players with too big pads and grass stained knees. Their hearts will ache for those long ago days and they will wish for the time on the scoreboard of life to just slow down a bit.
And when the last second has ticked off the clock, the crowd will stand as one and sing the fight song, joined by the gladiators of the field, helmets held high. The throngs of fans will depart through the stadium gates and go on to celebrate another victory in the books. Many will head downtown to toast old friendships and tell old stories. Kids, who’ve been allowed to stay up long past their bedtimes, will be carried from cars to beds with sugar still on their teeth and grass stains still on their knees. The Homecoming Queen will place her crown on top of her dresser and admire the shine still emanating from the best night of her life. The town will retire to their homes, and tuck away another small town memory.
It’s just a whole lot of fun. There’s no other way to describe it. For one week out of the year, kids get to be kids and we all get to remember what it’s like to have fun. In a world dominated by high-stakes testing and the Common Core, it feels good to let kids dye their hair green and wear silly outfits to school. Deadlines get pushed aside by duct tape and bubble sheets are replaced by polka dots. And those big kids, the ones who grew up and left town years ago, they get to trade in their business suits for sweatshirts and come back home too. Who needs a gala event when you have a Homecoming Friday? I’ll take a concession stand over caviar any day of the week.