Highland High School
Class Of 1965
This article appeared recently in the Alb. Journal. The class of 65 has donated $500 to the band in the memory of Ramon Huerta.
Zero hour comes early for a high school kid. The summer fades, the frost chills and the marching band season marches on. And on. And on.
They are out there, 6:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, yawning, shivering, playing, marching on a dark field for what will be the first of some 20 hours of band practice per week, including afternoon rehearsals, individual practice and playing for football games, parades and competitions.
That’s a lot of anything for a high school student – except sleeping.
These are dedicated kids, band geeks, who learn to carry a tune and sometimes a very heavy tuba.
In Southeast Albuquerque, Highland High School band teacher Josephine Gonzales sees 38 to 40 of them on the field. But that’s on a good day. And for a metropolitan high school band, that’s not a lot of kids.
“It changes every day,” she says. “We’re in a rebuilding phase.”
In a school that has seen its population drop and the poverty among its students rise, there is much to rebuild. Highland, with a student body of about 1,500, draws from a diverse blend of neighborhoods, from Ridgecrest and Nob Hill to Trumbull-La Mesa and East Central.
Older neighborhoods have older residents, fewer families. Other neighborhoods are glutted with low-rent apartments whose transient tenants come and go. Last year, one neighborhood in the Highland district had the highest teen birthrate in the city, and the school had the highest truancy rate among all high schools.
“Kids have changed,” Highland principal Scott Elder says. “There’s been a demographic shift. We have a large immigrant population, a lot of poverty. Many of our kids receive free or reduced lunch.”
But Highland, the second high school built in Albuquerque, is steeped in both tradition and tenacity. It makes the best of what it has.
And now it has Gonzales and her group of dedicated kids, who also made the best of what they have and brought home several awards from the annual Pageant of Bands, held Oct. 12 at Wilson Stadium.
Those awards included top honors in the pageant’s 2A class (though because of attrition, its band is small enough to qualify for 1A), superlative awards for soloists Mike Garcia and Jessica Sayers and outstanding percussion awards for Giuseppe DeLeers-Certo, Manuel Mendez, Mike Garcia, Jesus Flores and Kelli McQuinston.
All that despite a mix-up in school bus transportation that morning, which caused a panicked flurry of parents commandeering private vehicles to get the kids and their band equipment there on time.
That’s also despite the hardships and the shortcomings inherent in a band and a community that are rebuilding.
This is Gonzales’ second year as band instructor, her first teaching job. A year before that, she student-taught under longtime Highland band instructor Paul Blakey, who left in 2012 for the much bigger and newer Volcano Vista High School and a band staff of five.
Gonzales’ staff is her.
She knew what she was getting into. But she loved the kids, and she loves the music she knew they could play and the role music could play in their not-always-easy lives.
Most things haven’t come easy. Only two of her students own instruments, which means the others have to borrow banged-up, used school rentals. Few can pay the band fee, which at Highland is $175, nearly half the cost at other schools.
“So we held fundraisers,” Gonzales said. “Lots of them.”
Instead of buying costly outfits for the drill teams, she and her students found shiny red vests from a restaurant supply company and bowler hats from discount stores. Gonzales bought the fabric and made the drill team flags.
Some of the kids had never played an instrument, and some have played for years.
“I’d have an extremely talented student sitting next to a student who couldn’t make sound come out from her instrument and couldn’t read music,” Gonzales said.
At other schools, she would have recommended private lessons or working harder with assistant instructors. Both were impractical at Highland. So Gonzales worked with the struggling kids herself.
Her students had other challenges, too, tough ones, some that broke her heart. Like the kids who showed up hungry to practice. The kids who have to miss practice to watch their younger siblings while their parents work second jobs. The kids with holes in their shoes, holes in their hearts from the trouble at home, if there is a home. The kid who takes a city bus at 4 a.m. to get to practice each morning.
“These are just great kids,” she says. “Band is a place where they can have fun. It’s hard work, it’s challenging, but we have fun.”
Despite all the hardships, the Highland Hornets Marching Band has made the best of what it has, which turns out to be pretty great.
Before the Pageant of Bands competition, Gonzales told her kids, look, an award is just a stupid, shiny piece of plastic.
“What matters, I told them, is how they feel when they get off the field, how they feel when they know they have done their best,” she says.
And then they won. Because they did their best. Because that felt good