Grant Union High School’s drum line is beat steady
For these kids, a chance to perform in Japan offers a world of opportunity
The cheerleaders are restless, but the kids in the Grant Union High School drum line are in the zone, caught up in their own rhythmic world: knocking sticks together—rat-a-tat-tat—driving a bass line against the floor with their feet—stomp, stomp, stomp—clapping in time to an imaginary beat—slap, slap, slap.
It’s midweek on a 104-degree day, and cheerleaders from every school in the Twin Rivers Unified School District have descended upon Rio Linda High School’s gym. The drum line is here to provide the body-shaking backline.
Everyone is practicing for a back-to-school rally that will be held for teachers and administrators later this month, but two of the squads are late. To pass the time, the cheerleaders are going through a routine but the cheer “We. Are. T.R.!” gets stuck on repeat as the cheerleaders try to figure out moves.
Stop. Start. Stop. Start.
The drum line is ready, though. Quads, snares, bass drums lined up, waiting—the kids, all dressed in their white practice uniforms, keeping the beat, ready to jump into formation at the snap of a finger.
Nearby, the squad’s leader, James Van Buren—Mr. V to the kids—keeps up his own kind of rhythm, moving quickly through the gym, stopping to talk to a kid here, confer with a teacher there.
Formed in 2008, the Grant Union High School drum line is always set to go. Over the last eight years they’ve played too many shows to count, performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and traveled to Washington, D.C., to march in the National Independence Day Parade. In June they picked up their sticks and kits at a Sacramento rally for Hillary Clinton.
Now they’re preparing for another trip—this one to Matsuyama, Japan, where they’ve been invited to perform at the end of October to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Sacramento’s sister city agreement. To get there, however, they’ll need to raise $100,000. It’s a staggering amount, but the squad, which doesn’t receive school or district funding, managed to do it once before for that Washington trip.
For Amir Reams, 17, this chance to go to Japan is big. Really big. Washington, D.C., was amazing, but Japan represents an even bigger picture, he says. It means success, opportunity, the world.
“I like to accomplish stuff,” says Reams, a polite kid with a shy smile. “When will we ever get the chance to go to Japan again?”
That’s the thing, says Van Buren. When will they outside of drum line?
Grant Union High School, after all, is located in the heart of Del Paso Heights, a tight-knit community often plagued by crime and short on opportunity.
Drum line represents big possibilities for students who might not otherwise get them, Van Buren says.
“This is the little drum line in the hood and they got to be on Jimmy Kimmel,” he says. “We’re investing into this group.”‘Our mission is to get to the top’
The cheerleaders are all finally here, lined up, chanting—“We. Are. T.R.!”—and executing moves with razor-cut precision. The girls face the drum line, which has assembled neatly into two rows and is now delivering a killer rhythm via an array of drums—booming bass kits, body-hugging quads and the simple snare.
For a few incredibly loud moments the gym swells with a cacophonous roar of noise and limbs—scissor kicks and fists pumping, drumsticks beating and hands slapping. Throughout, Van Buren darts back and forth, directing his kids with a wild wave of his arms.
This year, his squad includes several freshman and five seniors—five kids who’ll graduate and move on. The following school year he’ll cycle through another crop of freshmen.
It’s a challenge, says Van Buren, who also teaches science to special-education students at Grant.
“It takes a toll,” he says of the students who come and then, predictably, must go. “Morale, it’s low for a while, it’s a letdown, like having your better half go off.”
Still, he remains pragmatic on the subject.
“I try to not get so caught up in it; if I did, I wouldn’t be able to keep moving forward,” he says. “It’s like a parent losing a kid who is going off to college—you’re sad, but I’ve got other drummers, and you’ve got to show them that it continues.”
It doesn’t continue so much as it never seems to stop. The school year ended in early June and will commence again in just a few days. Pretty short as far as summer vacations go, but for the members of the drum line, the time off’s been nearly nonexistent. Three days a week—Monday, Wednesday and Friday—the squad meets in the band room at Grant Union High School to practice for several hours. Sometimes endless hours.
James Major, 14, is cool with giving up his free time to the drum line.
“This is important,” he says. “It’s better than staying home, watching TV.”
Ezavion Coner, 14, agrees.
“Our mission is to get to the top,” Coner says. “We may not be the best, but we’re the most active.”
For Samina Scott, 14, it’s not a chore, it’s the chance she’s been waiting for since she was a kid and the drum line visited her elementary school.
“I’d sit and watch the action, thinking ’I’m going to do that someday,’” she says.
That desire—that drive—to perform is key, Van Buren says. Drum line takes skill, but it also takes commitment.
Most of the kids who start out don’t know the first thing about drum line, Van Buren says.
“They’re newbies, and they start out playing just two days a week before they transition to drum line. Then they do some basketball games, some football games.”
Once they know the songs, they join the main drum line, the group that performs at rallies and parades, the one that travels to other cities, maybe other countries.
That’s where the fundraising comes in; $100,000 might seem like a lot of money (it is, Van Buren acknowledges, it is) but it will go fast. There are nearly 20 kids planning to make the trip—plus 10 chaperones—and plane tickets are $2,200 each. Then there’s lodging, plus the cost of shipping equipment overseas.
Van Buren is confident they’ll reach the goal; in the meantime, he’ll keep prepping them for performances. When opportunity comes, you have to be ready.
For him, it’s not just the chance to show off his kids to the world, the potential to travel. It’s about the possibility of giving them the world.
“This is history,” he says, looking around the gym. “[When they went] to Washington, D.C., they stood in the place where Martin Luther King gave his speech. They went into the Lincoln Memorial and stared up at him and read his words.”
He points to Reams, the polite senior with the sweet smile.
“He applied to lay the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C.—and he got to do it,” Van Buren says.
“That’s history,” he says again. “You can’t teach that in a classroom.”