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I was just 14 when I joined drum corps.

By 15, I was teaching three drill teams and one drum corps, our feeder corps, the St. Mary’s Crusaders. When I was teaching the three drill teams, my Dad used to drive me to practices and drop me off around the corner so nobody would know I wasn’t old enough to drive.

At 16, I was offered the job of working with the Charlestown Navy Drill Team.

At 17, I was told by staff not to try out for Guard Captain because I was going to be named drum major.

St. Mary's Cardinals Color Guard

St. Mary’s Cardinals Color Guard

At 18, my Dad said I couldn’t go to the colleges at which I’d already been accepted because I was a girl and it was only a waste of a college education and good money. He told me I had three choices – teacher, secretary, or nurse. He made me pay for half my college tuition and stay close to home. I went to Salem State College and received my Bachelor of Science in Education. Don’t get me wrong. Salem State provided a great education and I’ll always have my degree, but the choice was not my own.

I loved teaching school, but once my children were born Mom simply said, “You’re going to stay home, right!” So I did.

At 22, I was offered the job of drill writer and instructor for a drum corps (the Danvers Blue Angels).

Truth is, I never taught the Ship Yard Drill Team. Dad wouldn’t let me. “Guys only want one thing. You can’t go.” So I didn’t. I was a good girl.

I was never drum major. The Parish Priest said, “There will never be a girl drum major in the St. Mary’s Cardinals!” And it was too late to try out for a leadership position. So I stayed in the rifle line like a good girl.

I never became the first female drill instructor in Massachusetts because, when I told management I was pregnant with my first child, the corps manager told me to “go back to the kitchen” where I belonged.

I was sexually assaulted by someone in a position of leadership when I was 15. I couldn’t speak up, or cry out, because his behavior was…accepted. Hailed as a conquest. And no one would have believed it. Or thought it was wrong. It’s just “the way it was.” I’ve carried that shame for nearly 60 years. I was a silent “good girl.”

I was offered color guard jobs across the country in the following years. I couldn’t accept them because I was married with small children, and my husband said, “No.” I stayed home and taught many local bands. I was a good Mom.

Let’s now face it. Old-time drum corps wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Church-sponsored corps and drill teams were pools of prejudice and often, intolerance. We grew up in times of gender expectations and blatant discrimination. That was the norm, and we tolerated it. Expected it. Believed it was okay and saw it as almost a rite of passage.

How very sad.

When Jay Murphy came up to the Cardinals from the Crusaders he wanted to be in the color guard. I wanted him in the guard! I’d taught him in the Crusaders and knew how talented he was! The priests wouldn’t let him because “only girls should be in the guard.” So they put him in the horn line. And he quit. How tragic. Jay was inducted into the DCI Hall of Fame this year, and rightfully so! He deserves the accolades for his genius.

Ah, yes, the good old days of “old-time drum corps,” when we knew our places and checked off all the boxes of “proper gender expectations.”

A drum corps scoreboard in Cleveland, Ohio in 1964

Cleveland, Ohio – 1964

For me, those days were filled with wonder and excitement, pride, and success, but also tainted by a measure of unfulfilled hope and sadness.

The reverberating news from DCI this past week was both encouraging and disheartening at once. Drum Corps International suspended Spirit of Atlanta for breach of the DCI Code of Conduct and Ethics and, as a result, Spirit has suspended its 2022 season in order to step back and reassess its practices regarding sexual misconduct.

Sixty years and countless egregious actions to young men and women, who were taken advantage of by people who should have known better, is too long. It wasn’t just the Cadets, or Spirit of Atlanta, or St. Mary’s Cardinals in the cycle of violation and disrespect. It was a general acceptance of, and blindness to, gender dissonance and expectation that has evolved way too slowly.

Drum Corps Awards Ceremony

I’m thrilled that drum corps has continued to evolve. That we’ve evolved as a society! I wouldn’t have traded my drum corps experience for anything, but, as a woman, the deafening silence of gender inequality and expectation was heartbreaking. I know others, so many others, are glad we’re ever-evolving as well.

I have no regrets. I’m very proud and honored by my Massachusetts Drum Corps Hall of Fame induction in 2011 and for the opportunity to have marched, and taught, and judged. And I’m proud of my family, my three wonderful children, and eight amazing grandchildren. And I’m absolutely thrilled that the next generation is able to enjoy some of the opportunities that were unavailable to so many of us in “the good old days.”

Here’s to today being better than so many of those “good old days.” Here’s to each and every one of us, no matter who we are, or how we define ourselves, for finding a place, an acceptance, and a voice. And here’s to the future. May we all continue to embrace growth, development, enrichment, and enlightenment as we witness the activity we know and love continue to evolve. That means on the field, and off!

As far as I’m concerned, “Forward March!”

Linda O'Connor

Linda O’Connor