Home Carrollton Carrollton High Band Shows How Inclusion Can Make Beautiful Music

Carrollton High Band Shows How Inclusion Can Make Beautiful Music

Emma’s band director, Maria Menendez, gets recommendations from Emma on what tunes to play in a performance in the CHS Amp. Courtesy of Carrollton City Schools

Parents are known to be passionate about the activities that involve their children. Sometimes this involvement can be life changing for a family. When this happens, passion is not a strong enough word to describe it.

Just ask Meredith Harris. She and her husband Barry are the parents of three children who have all been a part of the Carrollton Trojan Band for nearly a decade. 

Harris’ dedication to band is really not so much about the music, but about the relationships that have been built around her family’s involvement. To sum it up in one word, that word would be inclusion. 

A public demonstration of this reasoning happened just a couple of weeks ago at the Sept. 20 Carrollton vs. Rome football game.

The Trojan Band grew to almost 300 strong that evening because it was 8th Grade Night, the one Friday night of the football season when eighth grade band students are invited to participate with the high school band. It was a special night for the Harris family because Thomas, a senior, would get to perform with his little sister, Emma, an eighth grader. Thomas also had participated in 8th Grade Night and played with his older brother, Matthew, who has since continued his involvement in band at Georgia Tech. Now it was Thomas’ turn to be the big brother, something he had looked forward to since he was in the fourth grade. That night had finally come.

But there was one problem. Emma doesn’t play an instrument. She can’t. She has a brain malfunction called bilateral perisylvian polymicrogyria, an extremely rare neurological disorder. Her cognitive and physical abilities are severely compromised by this condition, but despite her limitations, her mother says, Emma’s heart still beats strong for band.

“As the brothers excelled in band and introduced their little sister to music and instruments, it became clear that Emma also loves music of all types,” said Harris. “Band became an outlet for our family. I love the inclusivity that is part of this culture.” 

She praised Carrollton High School Band Director Chris Carr, Carrollton Junior High School Director Maria Menendez, Carrollton Upper Elementary Director David Trumble, and CHS Assistant Band/Percussion Director Zachery Nelson for their determination to make inclusion work for the betterment of the band. She also cited several examples beyond Emma’s experience where band has been life-changing for other students with disabilities.  

“I thank them all for creating an environment that allows all students to enjoy music,” said Harris, who then confessed to have a special affinity for Menendez, who has nurtured Emma’s involvement in the band since fifth grade. Menendez started her teaching career at Carrollton at what was then Carrollton Middle School and transitioned three years ago to the junior high, allowing Emma to remain under her insightful watch the past four years, taking notice of the little things that seemed to resonate with her young charge.

“I can’t thank Ms. Menendez enough for truly understanding what inclusion can look like for a severely disabled child,” said Harris. “Emma will never play an instrument, and that doesn’t matter to her at all.”

Harris said Menendez’ classroom dismissal practice is to use the code word “swordfish” to signal to the class when it is time to pack up instruments and get ready for a class change. Noticing Emma enjoyed yelling “swordfish,” Menendez assigned her to be the one to dismiss the class each day. She also charged Emma with choosing which scale the band would play for warmups at the beginning of class.

“These are two little things that don’t mean a lot to most of us, but to Emma, these are empowering acts,” said Harris. “Ms. Menendez treats Emma with dignity and respect and sets a stellar example for everyone around her.”

Harris says music is the bonding element in her family outside of school, too. While Emma’s communication skills are limited, her infectious smile breaks out when she hears something she really likes and her brothers will go out of their way to find the music and play it for her over and again. 

“Music is where she relates to her brothers,” said Harris. “It brings a commonality to our home. For nine years she has attended their concerts, cheered on the musicians – with the occasional critique – and has been welcomed wholeheartedly by the other students and parents in addition to the band staff,” said Harris. “The boys have told me on several occasions that Emma is more popular in school than they ever were! They are so proud of their sister and for the right reasons.”

On that milestone Friday night for the Harris family, the band started performing in the CHS Amp before heading to the field for pregame. Nervous eighth graders played with their assigned upper-class mentors. Emma was front and center with her partner, trumpet player and brother Thomas. The band directors let Emma choose which stands music to play to rally the crowd before the game. When the band stopped blowing horns to yell, “Go Mighty Trojans!”, Emma cheered with them. A mother and father stood off in the distance with tears in their eyes.