Enjoying the future but never forgetting the past

On the 14th anniversary of her own father passing away from cancer, McCallum teacher Deirdre McGahon sat at the front of room 138 A and checked her email. She read a note from guidance counselor Mickey Folger, whose best friend Sawyer Smith recently passed away from cancer. Folger was looking for a home for her friend’s gigantic 180-pound Anatolian Shepherd.

“I just can’t let this sweet boy go into a county shelter,” Folger wrote in her email. “He is a part of my precious friend!”

Smith and Folger met around 16 years ago through mutual friends. Smith’s former husband played bass guitar with Folger’s former boyfriend, and the two became friends immediately.

“We hit it off instantly,” she said. “We had an instant chemistry. We just fell in love with each other. We had this great best friend romance going on, and she was my ride or die.”

It was evident early on in their friendship that Smith deeply cared about animals, specifically rescue dogs. In fact, her two dogs before she met Gus were both personally rescued from an abusive puppy mill.

“She’s always been a huge advocate of ‘adopt don’t shop,’” Folger said. “So, about 10 or 11 years ago, she spearheaded a group in Lubbock, Texas, to shut down puppy mills.”

Her group was successful, closing a mill that was mass breeding Labrador retrievers, where she rescued two dogs: Faith and Meredith.

“She brought them home, and they were her babies,” Folger said. “They were her girls.”

Unfortunately, both dogs passed away, leaving Smith once again searching for a new furry companion.
“She started praying for a dog,” Folger said. “She has never not had a dog, a big dog, she’s always loved big dogs.”

Luckily for Smith, her longtime friend Kelly Searles came across the perfect opportunity for a surprise. While she was at the store, Searles noticed that there was someone outside the front door giving away puppies. Knowing how much Smith loved dogs, her friend brought Gus, one of the puppies, home to her. When she first brought him home, Gus was 125 pounds and still growing.

“He was a big puppy,” Folger said. “He was her gigantic cuddle bug.”

Unfortunately, Smith and Gus’s time together was cut short. In August of 2018, a few months before adopting her fur baby, Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer. Before her health took a turn for the worse, she and Folger spent the next few months checking off things on her bucket list.

LOVED FROM THE START: Smith and Gus both smile for the last picture taken of the two of them together. Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer in August of 2018, just a few months before meeting Gus. When he arrived at her home, Gus was just a puppy, a very large puppy. They spent almost a year together before Smith passed away in September 2019. “When she passed away, the big question was ‘What about Gus?’” Folger said. “It was really important to find a good home for Gus because he kind of embodies my best friend right about now.” This picture was sent out to McCallum faculty on Oct. 23 and reposted on the Macjournalism Insta soon after. “People just started crawling out of the woodwork wanting Gus, wanting Gus and wanting Gus,” Folger said. Photo courtesy of Folger.

“When she passed away in September, the big question was ‘What about Gus?’” Folger said.

Before she passed away, Smith’s friend Neil Ard planned on taking Gus back to his home in New York, but with two dogs already, one of which was not keen on welcoming a new dog into the family, he was unable to bring Gus home. Smith’s daughter, Taylor, was unable to take in Gus because her apartment could not accommodate him, and Smith’s mother, in her 80s, wasn’t able to care for him either. So, Ard and Folger made it their mission to find the best possible home for their best friend’s baby.

“It was really important to find a good home for Gus because he kind of embodies my best friend right about now,” Folger said. “I had intended on bringing Gus home with me, but I have three dogs of my own. I just knew that we wouldn’t be able to give Gus the kind of attention and love that he needed if he came home with me.”

Folger and Ard also had to act fast. Gus was still living at home with Taylor, who was cleaning out Smith’s house, but the pair only had until the end of October until they had to move out. To speed up the process, Folger and Ard decided to send out a blast through a rescue organization specifically for Anatolian Shepherds like Gus.

Gus was her baby, literally her baby, just a piece of Sawyer.”

— Mickey Folger

“We had a few nibbles, but we were going to have to travel him and that made us nervous,” Folger said. “The fact that we would never have access to him ever again was really disconcerting for me and Neil because Gus was her baby, literally her baby, just a piece of Sawyer.”

As the Halloween deadline quickly approached, Folger decided to try a new strategy. On Oct. 23, she sent out an email blast to the McCallum faculty asking if anyone could take care of Gus. Soon after, Macjournalism reposted Gus’s story on its Instagram page.

“People just started crawling out of the woodwork wanting Gus, wanting Gus and wanting Gus,” she said.

McGahon was the first person to reply.

“[When I saw the picture of Smith and Gus] I could tell she was sick and how much love he brought, and I melted,” she said. “We thought it would be cool to get a big dog, but we were thinking more like 60 or 70 pounds. So, when we found out about Gus, we were like ‘OK, what’s 100 more pounds?’”

McGahon sent the picture to her boyfriend, Phil O’Neill, who encouraged her to get more information before jumping into anything. She quickly set up meetings with Folger to express her interest in taking Gus home. With four pets already (three cats and a frog), she and O’Neill were worried that their home might be too full to accommodate such a large dog. After talking with Folger, however, they knew that Gus belonged with them.

“We sat with one another and talked about our philosophy with pets,” Folger said. “He had to be a part of the family. He has to be [treated like] a human because he is; he’s a giant part of everything that made Sawyer.”

While they were still working out details, Taylor Smith had to return to her home in Dallas, checking Gus into a kennel on the way. He did not stay there for long. The week before Halloween, Folger drove to Smith’s mother’s house to pick up all of Gus’s earthly possessions, checked him out of the kennel and drove him to his new forever home with McGahon, O’Neill, three cats and a frog.

SNEAKING TREATS: McGahon quickly realized that Gus was tall enough to reach the counter and was prepared to use that for his advantage. “The second night he was home we made steaks,” McGahon said. “Phil and I were eating and left the third steak on the counter and we heard something. We went running over and Gus ate the entire steak in one gulp.” Photo courtesy of McGahon.

For Gus, the transition took a little bit of getting used to.

“You could see on his face that he was sad and depressed, so the two of us sat down,” McGahon said. “I talk to my animals, and we had a conversation that he’s safe and he’s home. It’s OK that he will always love Sawyer, his original mommy, and it’s OK to have love for both of us. I told him that he never has to forget her and that we’ll always love and honor her.”

Knowing how important Gus was to everyone who knew and loved Smith, McGahon created an Instagram account for him the night he arrived home.

“I made an Instagram account so that all of the people who’ve loved him before could see how he’s doing and that he’s properly taken care of and worshipped and loved,” she explained. “Plus, he’s adorable so I think everybody would want to see his big giant face.”

The account, @gusthebfd, was much appreciated.

“It’s wonderful because we get to see our boy pretty much every day,” Folger said. “He’s in Austin with someone who I have a lot of love and respect for, which means I can see him whenever I want.”

It felt like my last act of service for Sawyer,” Folger said. “She was full of love and light, just an amazing human being, and she brought all kinds of people around her.”

— Mickey Folger

Once he adjusted to the new environment, Gus’s friendly personality began to show.

“He’s loving and friendly and does not realize that he’s 180 pounds,” McGahon said. “He just wants to snuggle and sit in your lap.”

Aside from cuddling with his new family (even though his feline siblings do not appreciate his tendency to cuddle very much), Gus has gotten into a bit of mischief.

“We realized very quickly that he can reach the counter,” McGahon said. “The second night he was home we made steaks. They were big steaks, probably about a pound each. Phil and I were eating and left the third steak on the counter, and we heard something. We went running over, and Gus ate the entire steak in one gulp.”

Folger and Ard still try to be a part of Gus’s life by helping out McGahon as often as they can. When he got in trouble for digging in the trash, all three of them brainstormed ways to keep him out of the garbage.

“I think that Deirdre has the just-right personality for Gus,” Folger said. “She’s very loving, and she’s also whimsical and quirky, which is the kind of personality that Sawyer and I both have and appreciate.”

The whole process of finding Gus a home was incredibly important to her and Neil, not just because of the love they have for him.

“It felt like my last act of service for Sawyer,” Folger said. “She was full of love and light, just an amazing human being, and she brought all kinds of people around her.”

Now, with McGahon, Folger is confident that she made the right decision for Gus.

“This dog just embodies so much love, and he is so loved,” Folger said. “I think that any other place would be a mistake. I think he’s right where he’s supposed to be, and I think [Smith] would feel the same way.”

ON HIS WAY HOME: After picking him up from the kennel, Folger drove Gus and all of his belongings to his new home with McGahon. “He’s in Austin with someone who I have a lot of love and respect for,” she said. “[This] means I can see him whenever I want.” Photo courtesy of Folger.

Proust Questionnaire: Nicholas Koslan

The Shield: What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Nicholas Koslan: Perfect happiness? I guess it would be playing jazz, I like to play jazz.

TS: What is your greatest fear?

NK: Honestly, it would be dying before I get my kids set up for college.

TS: What is your current state of mind?

NK: Probably anxious. It’s just always like that, teaching is tough.

TS: On what occasions do you lie?

NK: All the time. I tell kids, “You’re gonna do fine, everything’s gonna be ok.” Yeah, all the time. I can’t really pinpoint one area where I lie the most, it mostly has to do with teaching and comforting folks. Keeping everyone nice and calm.

Perfect happiness? I guess it would be playing jazz, I like to play jazz.”

— Nicholas Koslan

TS: Which living person do you most despise?

NK: I don’t really despise anyone I know. There’s a lot of people I don’t like, but I wouldn’t say despise. It’s a very strong word. We don’t have a Pol Pot or a Stalin of today, do we? 

TS: Well, there’s the dictator of Venezuela.

NK: Yeah, he is a pretty awful person isn’t he. A lot of Venezuelan politicians are really bad.: Yeah, like I don’t like Trump but I don’t really despise him. 

TS: What is the quality you most like in another person?
NK: There’s a of lot people I do like for sure. And there’s a lot of good qualities out there. I’m trying to pinpoint the one I really like. It’s tough. Top 3? I really liked Obama in how he handled everything. He was always… composed, and never really went negative. I also liked his predecessor, George W. Bush. I know a lot of people didn’t, but I liked him. I think he had a lot of integrity. And history’s actually been fairly kind to him. He did have a lot of integrity, like he did things very opposite of the Republican party like during the recession. So I liked his integrity for things, always doing what mattered. And then the third is, I’d actually say Ronald Reagan. His ability to retract things that didn’t work. If he had a policy that didn’t work, they would stop doing it. Results driven, I guess. When you see the results, don’t say “Oh, we didn’t go far enough”. Look at the result, and let them speak for themselves.

CIRCLE OF QUESTIONS: Nicholas Koslan fields questions from junior Fiona Wyrtzen (left) as well as other students in his second period Physics I class. Photo by Tomas Marrero


TS: Which words or phrases do you overuse the most?

NK: ‘Absolutely.’ I use that a lot. Lots of superlatives, yeah. ‘Great job,’ I do that a lot when kids get it. I say ‘good answer’ a lot, especially for wrong answers I usually say ‘good answer.’ And ‘that’s fair,’ I use that one when I disagree. 

TS: When and where are you most happy?

NK: I am happy with my family all the time.

TS: Which talent would you most like to have? 

NK: I’d like to speak better. Like speech. Like articulating, it’s hard.

TS: What is your greatest Achievement?

NK: I’d have to say my work with ofibolen and calmodulin. Calmodulin is inside highly conservative cross-species. We studied ofibolen, which is a fungo-metabolite, it kills glioblastoma, brain cancer, in nano molar concentrations, really small amounts. So I worked with a team where we analyzed  the magnetism of ophiobolin A, there’s lots of ofibolens.Ofibolen A completely inhibits calmodulin. We found two lysine residues, which is inhibiting. It kills brain cancer, but it’s highly toxic. We don’t know if shutting down calmodulin is [ophiobolin A] mechanism to killing brain cancer, we just know that it does it.

I don’t think I’d want to be someone famous either, they all seem miserable. I guess just me, I wouldn’t want to be anything else”

— Nicholas Koslan

TS: If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

NK: It would probably be a person, I don’t think I’d want to be a thing. I’ve never considered that. I don’t think I’d want to be someone famous either, they all seem miserable. I guess just me, I wouldn’t want to be anything else. As a matter of fact we were talking about that the other day, if you could do photosynthesis would you and I would not.

TS: Where would you most like to live?

NK: That’s a good one. There’s lots of places I would like to live. First, anywhere with better weather. I hate the heat, and I’ve lived here all my life. I absolutely hate the heat, so anywhere with better weather. I’d like the northwest, or in Germany somewhere near the mountains.

TS: What is your most treasured possession?

NK: Well, the obvious answer would be my daughter, but that’s not all that interesting. Second to that, I have a 1939 Gibson J35. It’s highly sought after. They made them from ‘37-’42, or something like that, or ‘35-’42. I’ve had it up a couple times, I know Riley, Sam, and Liam have seen it.

At Mac, Gilbert finds a second family

Catch Gilbert Harros patrolling the hallways or conversing in the police booth and he’s quick to tell you about high school romance turned sour, dancing the cumbia or how well he can dunk a basketball. Don’t let his laid-back nature fool you though; he may refer to himself by his first name, “Gilbert,” but McCallum’s trusty new campus security guard has already found the perfect balance of seriousness and fun. This is his first year, and yet he never seems awkward or out of place, often shouting greetings to regular hallway wanderers. You might recognize him as the man flaunting rectangular glasses, a wrestling team polo and a phone full of photos of his three dogs.

Harros, oops sorry, Gilbert graduated from Crockett High School with a dream of playing college basketball. He played varsity all four years and describes the sport as “the love of his life.” Being one of the best players at Crockett got him sent to the Great American Shootout, which is just about what it sounds like, a huge tournament where players hope to get signed.

“I went and found out how bad I really was,” Gilbert says. “We lost all of our games.” He thought his dream was out the window until a Colorado college offered him a roster spot. “Boom! My chance was in front of me,” he exclaims, “but I didn’t have the grades.”

If I had just listened and paid attention in school, life could be a lot better.”

— Gilbert Harros

Next, he tried the military. The first time he took the ASVAB, he failed.

“I got such a low score that I cried,” he says. “I had to get my life together.”

Gilbert enrolled at ACC and started to get more serious about his coursework. In a moment of redemption, he returned to retake the ASVAB and made a 99, the highest score possible. Still unsatisfied, he revisited the test to make a 110 general technical score, qualifying him for advanced positions.

But misfortune struck when he neglected to announce his heart murmur to the medic, who assumed he was attempting to hide the condition and stamped him unfit for duty.

At just 19, he took a job bartending downtown.

“I met a lot of cool people. The world is so big. I met 50 Cent, Fat Joe, Johnny Manziel…” he trails off, thinking, then says, “It was a good time. So don’t bartend ever.”

Gilbert continued taking classes at ACC while waiting for the Austin Police Department to open up job applications. He describes the length of the 40-page entry form with an exaggerated gesture. He passed the written exam with an 82, sharing that he’s “smart now and studies for tests.” After painstakingly making it through the background check and board interview, for which he even bought a suit, Gilbert was accepted into the police academy. He did amazingly well until he broke his rib.

“I’ll never forget these words from my corporal, he said, ‘Son, I don’t know where you’re going, but good luck.’ Those words live with me. That’s horrible to say to someone who was dedicating their life to become something bigger than themselves.”

When asked if he would go back to the police academy, he retorted, “Have you ever been pepper-sprayed?”

As for his current job as campus security, he considers his biggest responsibility safety.

“It looks like I don’t much, but I do a lot.”

He stresses the importance of community and education and understands the struggles of a high school student.

“You have to build rapport because you have to realize who’s having a bad day, and bad days lead to bad events.”

Gilbert values family the most and says McCallum is his second family. He says family, including his dogs, is his greatest joy in life. Community is everything at McCallum, and he knows it.

It has a lot to do with family. A good home life means you’ll do good in the world.”

— Gilbert Harros

“I don’t know everyone, but I know the students who need to be known,” he comments, “and I respect the students that care. I know who I can leave alone and who needs to be talked to. A lot of students who I redirect are good about it, but if you don’t give a damn, those are the kids who get sent to the APs all the time.”

The security guard says he “values education and despises ignorance in a person.” He aims to become more educated and plans to go to ACC again to get a degree.

“If I had just listened and paid attention in school, life could be a lot better,” Gilbert ruminates. “I was so stupid.”

Gilbert can offer you many stories of the importance of education that he’s learned from his days at Crockett. He thinks that home life is extremely influential in a student’s performance.

“It has a lot to do with family. A good home life means you’ll do good in the world,” he says.

Gilbert feels sorry for his childhood friends who didn’t have the positive role models he had. Gilbert aims to bring that knowledge to McCallum by being understanding and empathetic.

Although Gilbert enjoys being a security guard, he dreams of bigger things, specifically, being a firefighter.

“Hell yeah I love this job,” Gilbert says, “but I don’t wanna be in high school forever.”

Olivia Capochiano
Gilbert Harros patrols the main hall during first period. As security guard and hall monitor, he watches for both internal and external threats. “I’m aware, but I know to pick my fights here. Some kids are having really bad days and don’t need to be in class at that moment,” Gilbert said.
Photo by Olivia Capochiano.

Meeting people outweighs paycheck

High school students need money, whether it’s to pay for something as small as gas or as big as college tuition. For working McCallum students, however, their jobs are about more than just a paycheck. four students have found a way to make work fun by finding a job that is unique and presents exciting opportunities to meet a lot of interesting people.

“I didn’t just want a basic job like working at HEB and bagging stuff or doing something that everybody does,” senior Abby Lerma said. “I wanted something that was a little more unique and cool and flexible.”

Lerma has found her unique, cool job with Big Top Candy Shop on South Congress. Alongside a fellow Mac student, Grayson Garza, she sells candy, makes sodas and scoops ice cream in this wonderland of a store. Deep in the heart of the city, these students get to meet people from all around. Even people from out of the country come to the store because of the tourist action in downtown Austin.

“I’ve had people that have come from London and all over the place because Austin’s such a cool place to visit and they’ll stop by for candy,” Lerma said. “So you get to talk with customers and hear their stories sometimes.”

One of Lerma’s favorite things about her job is the kids that come through the store, toting brown bags waiting to be filled with candy and wearing wonder-struck expressions. She likes how many kids find their paradise in this old-fashioned shop.

“Their eyes just brighten up when they walk in,” Lerma said. “I’ve had kids yell, ‘Oh, my goodness, it’s like I’m in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!’ They get so excited.”

Lerma and Garza aren’t the only ones who have the pleasure of meeting and interacting with young kids at their job. Senior Catie Mendivil works as a counselor at a summer camp in Wimberley every year. She herself is a veteran camper, and she has the pleasure of returning to her childhood getaway every summer and getting paid for it. Mendivil was inspired to come back and work as a leader by her counselors from her camping days.

I’ve been volunteering since I was 7, and after seven years, I was finally able to actually get paid.”

— Elanor Olson

“I’ve been going forever and my counselors were always super amazing,” Mendivil said. “So when I was old enough to become one, I said, ‘Yes, please.’ It’s been really fun.”

Mendivil meets a lot of kids on the job and works with a lot of age groups, too. She has learned a lot about children from this experience.

“Working with children is so humbling,” Mendivil said. “It’s really fun, I think kids are hilarious. I think people may not realize that kids can be so diverse and interesting, especially working with different age groups.”

Mendivil faces challenges that come with working with kids: the job requires hard work, and the kids need constant attention.

“It’s definitely a 24/7 job,” Mendivil said. “So it’s pretty tough, but it’s also really rewarding.”

Similar to Mendivil, Elanor Olson grew up in her place of work, the Texas Rowing Center, learning how the job is done.

“My mom is the manager there, so I grew up volunteering there,” Olson said. “I’ve been volunteering since I was 7, and after seven years, I was finally able to actually get paid.”

She assists customers with getting in and out of their watercrafts, and she also is a cashier.

Working with children is so humbling”

— Catie Mendivil

Like her fellow students Lerma and Garza, Olson works downtown where the Texas Rowing Center is located. And like Lerma and Garza, Olson has found that working downtown at a popular location in Austin is guaranteed to bring some interesting customers in.

Olson gets to meet people from all over the world, which is part of what makes the job appealing to her.

“A lot of times we have people come from out of the country because they want the experience and paddleboarding is our most popular form of boards,” Olson said. “People are really attracted to that, so you see a lot of people from Europe and China and their accents are so fun.”

Lerma, Garza and Olson do get to meet a lot of diverse people from all over the world, but they also get to interact with many Austin locals and even Mac students they know. Their popular workplaces attract all kinds of people.

“I see a lot of students at McCallum because some people go there for fun, but a lot of people row that I know,” Olson said. “I see a lot of people around McCallum wearing Texas Rowing T-shirts.”

Mendivil sees a lot of fellow Mac students working as leaders at the camp. She spends weeks meeting people from all over Texas as well as bonding with fellow students that she already knows.

“There are a lot of McCallum students who are campers or who are going through the leadership program,” Mendivil said. “There are kids from all over the area, I see a lot of people from Austin, and we get people from Houston and Dallas, so that’s really cool.”

The girls concede that working as a teenager has its challenges, but the rewards make it worth it in the end. Each job will take a unique skill set and present its own challenges, but they agree that if the worker is willing to overcome these challenges, a lot of doors will be opened for them in the future.

When asked what advice these girls would give to Mac students looking for jobs, their answer was unanimous: go out there and find something you are passionate about.

“Just keep looking. There’s a lot of cool opportunities you can find around Austin,” Olson advised. “I think there’s a lot of cool opportunities to be found if you just ask. Look around, keep your eyes open.”

Grayson Garza pours a soda at the circus-inspired Big Top Candy Shop alongside her coworker, Abby Lerma. Garza and Lerma had their hands full all afternoon with a long line at the popular store. “[Big Top is] a little retro-style store, and we have a soda bar there called Soda Jerks,” Lerma describes. “Basically, you make your own soda.” Lerma enjoys going to her job every weekend and seeing coworkers like Garza. “I genuinely love going into work and seeing those people and the little new family and community that I found.” Photo by Samantha Powers.

Spiritual summer, strenuous school

While other students spent their summer break at a job or simply enjoying some time off of school, Zach Steiner was doing something different. The McCallum senior spent two months participating in stewardship at the Lama Foundation in Taos, New Mexico, an interspiritual community in the mountains.

The Foundation has just over a dozen year-round residents, but opens their doors to visitors and retreaters in the summer. The center was built to be a community and educational space that embraces all spiritual and religious practices. The Lama Foundation respects and practices traditions from many different religions, such as Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, and Native American religions. Another core practice is sustainability, which Steiner experienced first-hand by growing and preparing food, chopping trees, cleaning the residential areas and serving the youth groups that came for camp throughout the summer.

This was not Steiner’s first stay at the Lama Foundation. If fact, he has attended summer camp there for the past five years.

“Ever since I was little I’ve gone to a non-denominational Christian church, which is kind of hippy,” he said. “The church was actually inspired by the [Lama Foundation], so for the past five years I’ve gone on five-day stays there with my church.”

Courtesy of Zach Steiner
MORNING MEDITATION: Among other interspiritual traditions, volunteers and residents at the Lama Foundation in Taos, New Mexico participate in meditation every morning, while other spiritual practices at the center fluctuate depending on the beliefs of the current residents. The center was built to be a community and educational space that embraces all spiritual and religious practices. Photo courtesy of Steiner.

Steiner explained that the main purpose of the community is to experience multitudes of world cultures and spiritualties, allowing the camp to be a safe place of understanding and independence.

“I think the independence [was] a shock,” he said. “Being surrounded by my parents and family has been a little stressful, whereas at the foundation, living [there] I was able to enjoy all that I was doing.”

The biggest thing I’ve brought back with me is the importance of community—looking out for one another instead of trudging along with an individualistic mentality.”

— senior Zach Steiner

After coming back to McCallum, Steiner found it difficult to reenter his daily life, especially when it came to preparing for college. He immediately began to feel pressure to follow a “perfect” path to college and a secure career, something that he did not experience at the Lama Foundation. The stresses of “normal life” pressure him to use others around him for self-gain. Like many seniors, Steiner feels the pressure to finish his college applications and to make everything in his academic life perfect. After his educational experience this summer, however, he has a different vision of an ideal schooling system. When asked to describe this system, Steiner paused for about a minute. He took a deep breath and then began to explain:

“The first thing that comes to mind is smaller classrooms,” he said. “I feel like the best learning opportunities I’ve had are when I’ve interacted one-on-one with a teacher. Being able to thoroughly communicate ideas [is] where I feel I learn the best, [and] small classrooms also take out a lot of the pressure.”

To take off even more of the pressure that Steiner felt returning to school, he would eliminate standardized testing and traditional grades.

“Putting names to numbers and rankings to people decreases so much morale,” he said. “If you see that you don’t do well on one assignment, it can impact how you’re going to interact with other people.”

He then went into more detail about why he feels ranking systems drive a wedge between students and could even be detrimental to one’s high school experience. He explained that certain social groups may feel forced to act a certain way because of where they stand academically compared to other students.

Steiner credits the McCallum PALS program for his ability to move past both academic and social pressure that comes along with school.

“PALS is probably my favorite class because it brings so many different people together toward one focus of service,” he said.

He also mentioned that if it was up to him, he would add an extra social support system into the schooling system. Whether it be in-depth counseling or classes focused on strengthening students’ social skills and comfort, Steiner believes in the importance of building community.

“When you serve the community, it serves everyone, not just a single person,” Steiner said. “We’re all at a volatile point in our lives and extra support can do nothing but help us as a whole.”

While he has many ideas for a more smooth and sustainable school system, Steiner admits that his experiences at the Lama Foundation did not immediately make him an expert on the subject.

“Of course, I don’t have a perfect plan because nobody really does,” he said. “But I think the biggest thing I’ve brought back with me is the importance of community—looking out for one another instead of trudging along with an individualistic mentality.”

To read more about students’ summer adventures, check out the @MacJournalism Instagram feed or scroll through the hashtag #MacSummerKnights2019.


First-time high school teacher Vandenberg is all about the fundamentals

From an audience perspective, a theatre show is almost like a movie. Lighting blends perfectly together, creating an instant mood. Microphones and audio are perfectly balanced, allowing sound to flawlessly flow through the theatre. The set, costumes and makeup are so perfectly designed, you forget the people onstage are actors. 

Backstage, however, a million and one things are going on to create this picture-perfect show. The ever-changing, ever-growing world of tech theater is hard to master and even harder to teach, but Kristin Vandenberg is more than ready to take on the job. 

The reason I wanted to come to high school instead of college is that I wanted to teach the basics. I wanted to teach the fundamentals”

— Kristin Vandenberg

Kristin Vandenberg is the new technical theatre teacher at McCallum. With years of experience under her belt, she’s ready to spread her knowledge to McCallum’s eager theater students. 

During her long, successful career as a technical theatre designer and production manager, Vandenberg worked for national tours, regional theaters and was even the event manager at 14,000-seat arena complex. Twenty years ago, she moved to Austin to open the Performing Arts Center at Texas State University, a state-of-the-art facility. 

This year marks Vandenberg’s first time teaching high-schoolers. 

“The reason I wanted to come to high school instead of college is that I wanted to teach the basics,” she said. “I wanted to teach the fundamentals.”

Over the last 10 years, there’s been substantial turnover in the job that Vandenberg now holds, leading to inconsistent education for students vying to develop their technical theatre skills. Though the range in skill sets of students may be daunting for some teachers, Vandenberg is unfazed. Her singular goal is to help her students grow.

 “I’m trying to meet them where they are and facilitate them moving forward from this point,” she said 

Alongside teaching six periods of technical theatre, Vandenberg is also assisting in the technical direction of MACTheatrer’s fall show, Jekyll and Hyde. She is responsible for coordinating the technical aspects of the show to make sure the entire process runs smoothly. 

[Supervising] is something I really enjoy, It has to do with multitasking and being able to keep different people doing different things simultaneously so nobody gets horribly bored or unproductive”

— Kristen Vandenberg

“[Supervising] is something I really enjoy,” she said. “It has to do with multitasking and being able to keep different people doing different things simultaneously so nobody gets horribly bored or unproductive.”

It’s worth noting that Vandenberg has a son at McCallum, junior Corin Vandenberg. “Everybody has been like, oh, I bet he hates it,” said Vandenberg. “I’m like, no, he’s the one who made me do this!” 

Two of Vandenberg’s children, Miranda (’17) and Corin (’21), have attended McCallum. “I think students should know she’s a very kind and loving person,” said Corin, “She’s the type of person you can always go to if you need help.”

Leaning back in her chair, a smile cracks across her face. 

“The funniest part was from the minute I took the job, I told him ‘you can’t take [technical theatre],’”she said.

Though her son was required to take the class for his dance major, Vandenberg explained that she didn’t want the “hassle” of him being in her class. However, things didn’t go quite as planned.

“I’ll be darned if the first week he doesn’t show up and they’ve moved him into my class,” Vandenberg said. “Like, really? Are you kidding me? Now you’re in my class too?”

Though her son, Corin Vandenberg, admits that it’s hard not to call Kristen Vandenburg “mom” in class, he’s genuinely happy that his mom joined the MACulty. 

“I really wanted my mom to take this job because I knew that she was a hard worker and very knowledgeable,” stated Corin. “She may seem very professional, but if you ever need anything, she’s a very kind and loving person and will always be there if you need anything.”

There are 145 days left of the school year and Vandenberg has plans to make the most out of every single one. “There’s some areas that will be more challenging for me,” Vandenberg explained, “but nobody can do everything.” Vandenberg is confident in her abilities and is thankful to be surrounded by a group of knowledgeable, supportive peers. “It’s a combination of pulling existing resources and figuring out what I can do myself,” she states. 

The school year ahead looks bright, full of new experiences and challenges. As Vandenberg and her students always say, the show must go on. 

From San Marcos to Namibia then back to high school

By the time she graduated, Jain Thompson was ready to be done with high school.

She took her diploma and went straight to work at an animal hospital, while also attending ACC classes at the North Ridge campus. She was out of high school, but Thompson knew that she still wasn’t where she was supposed to be.

I realized later that I should have gone to art school because I would have been an awesome art teacher and I would have gotten to do what I love.”

— first-year librarian Jain Thompson

“I felt I didn’t fit in,” she said. “I was failing classes until I just decided to not listen to what I was being told and [to] just take the classes I wanted to take.”

Thompson began taking classes at the ACC Rio Grande campus, declaring a major in anthropology.

“After that shift my transcript began to have more A’s on it,” she said. “It’s just amazing what that can do.”

Thompson then decided to follow her passions to San Marcos and enrolled in Texas State.

“I got grades good enough to where I could have gone to UT,” Thompson said, “but Texas State has a better anthropology program.”

Anthropology, the study of human cultures and their development, is something that fascinates Thompson.

“I focused in cultural anthropology and became obsessed with hunter-gatherers, which was just exhilarating for me and still is,” she said.

Jain Thompson issues Chromebooks on the first day of school. Photo by Nora Kadas.

Then, Thompson embarked on one of her biggest changes yet: she moved to Namibia for a year to teach English.

I just decided to not listen to what I was being told and [to] just take the classes I wanted to take.”

— librarian Jain Thompson on why she started taking college anthropology classes

“That’s what exposed me to teaching and schools,” Thompson said.

After returning from Namibia, Thompson attended the School of Information at UT, which was where received her teacher’s certificate to become a librarian.

Now, Thompson feels like she finally has found a school where she fits in.

“[McCallum is] the kind of school that I wish I had gone to,” she explained. “There’s art everywhere and I knew this was a good school.”

Thompson is all about giving students the chance she feels she didn’t get. Thinking about her younger self, Thompson had a chance to reflect on where she was in high school and how she can help students now.

“I think about my younger self, I was really interested in art, mostly painting,” she said. “Everyone around me told me not to go to art school and that I’d never get a job. I realized later that I should have gone to art school because I would have been an awesome art teacher and I would have gotten to do what I love.”

Thompson loves the arts focus that the school takes because it gives students a chance to be creative and express themselves. Working in the library, Thompson has an opportunity to expose students to just that. Thompson’s focus on art and literature makes it apparent that she is excited to help students learn in a way that only a librarian can.

Dave Winter
Jain Thompson poses a favorite book in her new digs in the Mac library.

One of the best parts of settling into the campus for Thompson is working with Jane Farmer.

“She’s a mentor,” Thompson said. “I want to be a school librarian, and she’s just showing me how to be a school librarian, so it’s great. I feel really lucky.”

Working in an inclusive, open environment is something that fits right into where Thompson wants to be.

“It all just feels perfect,” she said.

Knights before nine

6 a.m.

The McCallum Cross Country sophomores Anna McClellan and Catalina Herring and freshman Helena Finos and Owen McGuire run “Big Loops” which start with a 200 on the track, then continue around the back side of the tennis courts and around the auxiliary field, and finish back at the track. “In the morning waking up is kinda hard,” Herring said. “But once we warm up I’m all ready to go for the day and I’m energized until lunch and then I’m exhausted.” The Knights arrive at six, meaning most of the team gets up at around 5 o’clock in the morning so they can make practice on time.

It’s six in the morning, and the McCallum cross country team is just beginning to warm up for their practice that day. Some people call them crazy, getting up so early, but as Coach Susan Ashton puts it, “Most everybody that wants to come to cross country has some sort of love for running, so they already love the sport, they want to run, they like running.”

Having to get up before six o’clock everyday can be tough, especially on meet days when the team has to meet at the field house at 5:45 a.m. But, the early start time helps the runners avoid both the heat and other extracurricular activities.

The team’s warm-up consists of three laps around the track. Two hundred of those meters are spent jogging, while the remaining distance is made by backpedaling and side-shuffling for 100 meters each. They then move on to static stretches and exercises, usually consisting of squats, planks, and push-ups. After that, the team splits into groups to complete their dynamic stretches, ending with buildups: where the runners start off jogging and then build up to a sprint.

They already love the sport, they want to run, they like running.”

— Coach Susan Ashton

On Mondays and Wednesdays, the team can usually be found on a neighborhood run. Two common routes are on Arroyo Seco and the Brentwood Neighborhood and or running down Houston to the Texas Department of Health and turning towards Thundercloud Subs (no, they don’t get sandwiches). Tuesdays and Thursdays consist of track and sprint work, which might not be the team’s favorite days, but are important for building up speed. Fridays, Thursdays if there is a Friday meet, are for ice baths and breakfast tacos.

As they finish their warm-ups each day at around 6:30, the Cross-Country team can usually spot McCallum Band members heading over to the practice lot with their instruments, in their white t-shirts and colored shorts that define their sections. On sprint-work days, they get to hear the band play while they run.

6:30 a.m.

Caleb Melville
Marching Band students Nick Reedy, Beckett Randall and Will Russo practice early in the morning. The band members arrive for practice before 7 a.m. each morning and practice until 8:20. “Practice is pretty tough, but it’s fun,” Randall said. “We can see the improvement with each rehearsal.”

At 6:30 a.m., drum majors Jonah Brown (Junior) and Dexter Canning (Senior) arrive at McCallum to get ready for Marching Band practice that day.

The rest of the band arrives at approximately 6:40, then gather into their respective sections for a ten-minute warm-up, and promptly at 6:50 begin practice as a whole, rehearsing for this year’s show, Forever in Stone.

At the beginning of their rehearsal, the band practices marching, warms up together and then reviews their drills for that day. Sophomore Scarlet Frese said that there is no downtime during morning practice, the band is never unengaged. They are always marching, playing, and if they are on break, they have to hustle so time is not wasted.

After reviewing drills, they run through the show. Then later during the class periods, they are able to touch up and correct what they need.

“It’s not just marching band rehearsal in the morning, because we also keep working on it in our class periods,” head Marching Band Director, Zachary Travis said. “It’s like what are we fixing that morning, and we help reinforce it throughout the class period, or vice versa.”

On days that there are football games, Blue Brigade joins them out on the “field” (or parking lot, rather) and they will do a run-through of the halftime performance. And at 8:20 a.m., the band returns to the band hall to allow the students and directors to get ready for school. This also allows students to go in for tutoring and the directors to prepare for classes that day.

7:15 a.m.

Caleb Melville
The McCallum Blue Brigade rehearses with the band for their performance that night at the 2019 Taco Shack Bowl. Once a week, usually on game days, the Blue Brigade will go out and practice with the band to make sure they have everything down for their performance that night. “A lot of times we get a lot more out of practices before school because there is not as much distraction,” Blue Brigade Coach Nancy Honeycutt- Searle said. “When we do our after school practices their mind is all over the place, so we don’t pay as much attention to what we are trying to do.”

At 7:15, as the cross-country team is beginning to arrive back at McCallum and wind down practice, and the marching band still has a little over an hour left in their rehearsal, the McCallum Blue Brigade and Football team are arriving for their morning practice.

We get it done and out of the way”

— Blue Brigade coach Nancy Honeycutt-Searle

Blue Brigade begins their official rehearsal right at 7:30 a.m., with captains leading a group stretch.
On Mondays, the Blue Brigade learns new dances or finishes up with old ones. Tuesdays are try-out days for dances being performed that week at pep rallies and games. Wednesdays formations are made and touch-ups are made to the dances, and on Thursdays, they practice with the band. If there is a pep rally that week, they practice in the gym as well. On Fridays (or any game day) the team will either run through their dance again with the band, or they will stay inside to make final touch-ups.

“Being first thing in the morning, there is much less distraction. It’s the first thing they can think of and concentrate on,” Blue Brigade Coach Nancy Honeycutt-Searle said. “We get it done and out of the way.”
Having practice or rehearsal in the morning and getting it out of the way seemed to be a common theme among coaches and directors.

9 a.m.

By 9 o’clock, everyone has finished their practices and are in their first or fifth periods. Getting up early can be exhausting, and being able to get up and have the motivation to get out of bed early can be hard. Somehow, these kids and teachers do it.

Graphic by Anna McClellan
The Knight’s morning timeline.

First day filled with mixed emotions

Most every student can remember their first day, filled with a mix of nerves and excitement. The class of 2023 experienced their first day at McCallum on Aug. 20. While those who came before them probably would like to forget that they even had a freshman year altogether, the mixed emotions of that first day make it one that most high school students will always remember. This uneasy, nerve-wracking stressful but also wonderful day also provides a glimpse into the rest of your days in high school. To best encapsulate this feeling, one must go directly to those who recently survived it: the Class of 2023.

The first day of school I got lost everywhere. The hallways are a lot more crowded than they were in middle school, so it’s hard getting around. Some people walk so slow”

— Meliah Arias

Freshman Stephanie Sanchez had this to say about her first day: “I expected there to be not as many people as there are. I was just rolling with it, I was just trying to find my classes.”
Another freshman, Meliah Arias, agreed that the hallways were hard to navigate on the first day.

“It was confusing,” she said. “The first day of school I got lost everywhere. The hallways are a lot more crowded than they were in middle school, so it’s hard getting around. Some people walk so slow.”

While seeing so many unfamiliar faces in the hallway can be a strange and sometimes intimidating feeling, many freshmen also reported feeling a great sense of optimism for the first year of high school and beyond.

Barret Andrews, a Fine Arts Academy freshman, said that his classes afforded him opportunities he did not have as a middle school student.

“I really like my electives,” Andrews said. “I really like how I’m able to do a lot of things I couldn’t before. I wasn’t able to take a printmaking class, which is the class I’m in now. I’m really into technical theatre, and I’m able to take a legitimate class for that. Currently, I’m on the crew for Jekyll and Hyde.”

Mac upperclassmen and teachers often recommend that freshmen get involved in campus activities because it is a good way to for ninth-graders to thrive in their new environment. Getting involved in clubs, teams, organizations and extracurriculars allows freshmen to meet new people, make new friends and work together toward something the group finds important. It allows students to feel at home and enriches their high school experience.

I really like my electives, I like how I’m able to do a lot of things I couldn’t before”

— Barret Andrews

Like Andrews, Arias also found herself involved in many school activities right away. Her passion is volleyball, and she has been on a team since her days at the small private school she attended before coming to Mac. Sanchez said she too is enjoying getting involved on campus. “I was most excited for cheer,” Sanchez said, “I went to Kealing and I did cheer there, and I plan to do cheer all four years here.”

While involvement in activities is important, so is selecting the right core classes. Pre-Advanced Placement classes can put students on track toward receiving college credit and look good on future college applications but can also add a lot of work and saddle freshmen with low grade point averages or even academic probation for students in the Fine Arts Academy.

Sanchez decided to take all Pre-AP classes, a decision she credits to her father. Arias meanwhile decided against AP classes.

“I was gonna take Pre-AP classes, but I was afraid they’d be too hard and stressful for me, with a lot of homework,” Arias said. “I have volleyball all the time. I probably wouldn’t be able to do all the homework anyways. That’s one of the reasons I chose regulars.

The transition to high school, a culmination of harder classes, more extracurriculars and more expectations can create anxiety. Andrews, however, said the transition has been pretty smooth.

“[The transition] has been pretty easy. Obviously it’s the second week of school, so nothing’s been super intense. The classes have been mediocre; there’s a lot more expectations.”

And therein lies the essence of high school: stepping up the responsibilities of trying to prepare for life as an adult.

Beyond the first day, with all its nervous excitement and anxiety, lies the most important part of this story: people. A new generation coming into McCallum, looking to make their mark for the next four years and leave a legacy that will long be remembered.

Reviving joy in dance

4,899 miles. That was the distance between McCallum Youth Dance Company directors Natalie Uehara and Rachel Murray this summer. Though they were on opposite sides of the country, both discovered a new sense of artistry within themselves, artistry they are eager to spread to their dance students this year.

On one side of the country, Rachel Murray traveled to the concrete jungle of the Big Apple, learning from peers and instructors at the Dance Education Laboratory, or DEL. DEL is a conference for dance educators and students from across the country to convene and study together in New York City.

“We danced for a month together looking at ways to bring dance education back into our communities,” Murray said.

Murray has a dance background in New York City as a professional dancer, and she made many connections during that period of her life that made it possible for her to attend the DEL as an Arnhold Scholar. Throughout her life, she has worked with countless other professional dancers as well as dance educators. The relationships that she has built during her dancing career affect her to this day.

“In dance, it’s a community, so it’s all about who you know, and getting to know different people,” Murray said. She also mentioned that her work at McCallum played a significant role in her invitation to the conference.

“I didn’t have to apply, so I was invited to be a fellow for this workshop.” Murray said. “I would really say that it was based on the work that has been done that we’ve been doing here at McCallum.”
Meanwhile, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Natalie Uehara spent time in the tropical paradise of Hawaii. But she wasn’t laying on the beach with her toes in the water. Uehara was asked to choreograph the musical Matilda at Diamondhead Theatre in Honolulu.

Part of being an artist is being a student and having that chance to learn.”

— Rachel Murray

This isn’t Uehara’s first time choreographing a musical; in fact, she won the Best Choreography Award at the Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards for her choreography of McCallum’s 42nd Street. Her clientèle this summer, however, was a bit younger. The cast was made up of children around the age of nine, and the show also featured an adult cast. Uehara admitted that there are challenges that come with teaching adults and young children together.

“Some of the adults, to be quite frank, don’t have as much movement experience,” Uehara said. “So that’s challenging sometimes, and adults just learn very differently than children.”

The relationship Uehara built with the children’s cast was beneficial for both parties. While the children had the chance to develop as performers and dancers, Uehara learned a lot about the chrysalis of young dancers, realizing that the predominant force steering their evolution as dancers is joy.

“They have a lot of joy,” Uehara said. “I would like to try and bring that out in the high schoolers a little more.”

Both dance teachers developed their professional dance skills as well as their teaching skills at their respective summer programs. Uehara believes in the synthesis of a professional dance atmosphere and a safe learning environment.

“What I try to do here at McCallum is present a professional atmosphere, which is kind of what I’m used to from my work before becoming an educator,” she said. This professional dance experience helps to prepare McCallum dance students for their future as artists.

At DEL, Murray also worked in a professional environment she hopes to bring back to her classroom. “The heart of the program,” she say, “is really about bringing the professional world of dance [to] dance education when we’re working with younger people.”

The McCallum dance teachers work with students every day, helping them to learn and develop as artists, but they believe that they sometimes lose sight of their own development as dancers. Over the summer, both teachers had the opportunity to develop their own artistry and focus on themselves.

I think that if everyone can be a little bit more joyful in all of their arts classes, whether it’s dance or not, their creativity will blossom.”

— Natalie Uehara

Speaking about what she learned at DEL, Murray says, “The philosophy is that as dance educators we’re dance artists. And so, to develop as an educator you have to develop your craft as an artist.”

Through having the opportunity to take a step back from her teaching role and learn, Murray was able to gain perspective on what it’s like to be a student.

“Part of being an artist is being a student and having that chance to learn,” Murray said.

Uehara was also given the opportunity to find some peace and rest over the summer. She thinks that as a public school dance educator, her mind can get cluttered with all of the requirements that come with teaching arts at a public school. She contrasted that complicated environment with that of a choreography job.

“I was able to really focus in on one thing, and that was something that I don’t often get to do,” she said.

Although they spent their summers at opposite ends of the planet, Uehara and Murray found that they have similar takeaways from their experiences. They developed themselves as artists, cultivated their abilities to present a professional atmosphere and learned more about how to help their students flourish. Above all, the teachers want to help their students find what is constantly suppressed by stress, schoolwork, and other commitments: joy.

“I think artistic freedom comes from joy,” Uehara said. “I think that if everyone can be a little bit more joyful in all of their arts classes, whether it’s dance or not, their creativity will blossom.”

To read more about students’ summer adventures, check out the @MacJournalism Instagram feed or scroll through the hashtag #MacSummerKnights2019.


REACHING HIGHER: Rachel Murray works in New York this summer with UT Bachelor of Arts students. “As dance teachers, we’re dance artists,” Murray said. “To develop as an educator, you have to develop your craft as an artist.” Photo courtesy of Murray.

Pom poms and pep tunes

Contrary to what Taylor Swift has to say, these two girls wear both short skirts and sneakers, are cheer (captains) and on the bleachers. Doubling their experience under the Friday night lights, senior Ani Collins and junior Veronica Crist take part in both the McCallum marching band, playing snare drum and flute respectively, and cheer program—a double duty that is both physically and mentally demanding. From before the sun rises for early morning band rehearsal until just before it sets for evening cheer practice, Collins and Crist work and rehearse at MAC before they can go home to begin their homework—all to wake back up and do it again the next day.

While these average school days for the girls are long, nothing compares to football game days, especially rivalry games that also require a pep rally performance. Collins said she enjoys pep rallies “because the band can see what I’ve been missing rehearsal for,” a common consequence of the overlapping schedules. Later that same evening, they get several more opportunities to show both of their groups the other side of their lives.

“Being able to cheer on the team on the field and see everything and then being on the field with band and participating feels so good … You’re always participating—there’s really no down time. It’s a lot of fun,” Crist said. “But yeah, I’m exhausted afterwards.”

Balancing school with the two extracurriculars could seem a daunting task, but both Collins and Crist have ways of managing their workload without getting overwhelmed. Collins said that she has a specific system for handling homework.

While I’m on the band field during halftime, it’s fun to see everybody being like ‘Oh my God, you’re in both? How?!’”

— Veronica Crist

“I stay up pretty late doing (homework), and if I don’t finish, I have an off period first, so I’ll go home after band rehearsal and then go to cheer class,” she said. “Dang, saying it all makes me realize how busy I am.”

Crist has a slightly different approach to managing workload and stress.

“Right after school I start my homework, and most days on Sundays I spend my whole day doing work,” she said. “And I write a lot of the time in my journal because I like to document these moments … if I’m ever close to having a mental breakdown or something, or feeling super overwhelmed, I’ll also film myself just ranting or talking about my day so that I can go back in five years and laugh at myself.”

Despite the hectic schedules and challenges, both girls agreed that the reward of participating in both activities makes the heavier workload totally worth it.

“I feel a sense of community with everybody, and I get to learn everybody, and it’s just a lot of fun to be able to be in both,” Crist said. “Everybody in band’s like ‘Oh my God, my friend’s a cheerleader!’ Everybody knows me and cheers me on.”

Collins said that it really clicks with her lifestyle. “I’m in soccer, cheer, and band, but I know how to manage my time and take care of my body. … It’s super fun to be busy, in my opinion. I’m never sure what to do with my free time so I love staying active.”

Caleb Melville
Collins strikes a pose as part of the 2019 marching show, “Forever in Stone,” at the LBJ football game on Sept. 19 . Both girls get “no down time” at the games, as Crist puts it, because of the quick switches between cheer and band performances.

Band director Carol Nelson also feels that juggling both activities works out well for the girls: “I think it’s great. I think that they represent McCallum. … I’m proud of them. Of course, it can be a little hectic because the demands of both groups are high, but they’re able to work it out, and they both perform well in both fields,” she said. “Veronica has always been sweet and always has a great attitude… and I think of Ani as extremely capable and talented; she always does her best.”

Whether it be a crazy stunt or a new marching technique, Crist and Collins approach every challenge with the mentality of pushing through and pushing hard.

“Sometimes I feel a little overwhelmed,” Collins said, “but I just try to keep in mind that it’s only the beginning, and I’ll get the hang of it soon.”

Crist agreed that mindset is key to this lifestyle.

“I just calm myself down by breathing in,” she said, “and knowing that I just have to continue.”

And so they continue, tackling life with a pom pom in one hand, and a music binder in the other.

MAC Band’s New “Swedish Fish”

She walked into the stadium with the other flute players, not completely sure what to expect — her eyes getting wider and wider, taking it all in. The rhythmic chants of the cheerleaders bobbing up and down, laughing as they shout. Dancers smiling in red lipstick, sparkling from hat to boot. Royal blue covering every square inch, school spirit practically dripping through the stands. The piercing whistle of the coaches, the looming red countdown of the clock, the smell of nacho cheese and the cool breeze of the night — everything whirling together and the chants getting louder and louder.

“And this,” her section leader shouted to her over the roar of the crowd. “Is an American high school football game.”

For freshman Sigrid Ekelin, a lot of things are new this school year. Just three days after arriving in America from her home of south Sweden, she attended her first ever marching band rehearsal. This also happened to be the first day she had ever heard of what marching band was. Two weeks later, she began her first day of school in the USA, and, concurrently, her first day as a high school student.

 “Every day is such a big experience and I learn so much,” Ekelin stated when asked about handling all this change. “I really just want to do the most I can and just be open to everything, say yes to everything.”

Marching band members Conlin Butterman and Isobel Buffum-Robbins play alongside Ekelin in the stands at the MAC versus LBJ football game at House Park. “I love the community (at McCallum),” Ekelin said. “Everyone is very helpful and kind, and we have a lot of fun.”
Photo by Grace Van Gorder.

It was just over one year ago that Ekelin’s mother began considering to apply for a six month sabbatical in the US — and just before she would present the idea to her daughter. She stated that the question was popped while her and some of her family were out with her sister, who was trying on wedding dresses for her upcoming marriage.

“My mom wasn’t like, ‘oh okay we’re going to move now,’” she said. “My mom said, ‘Sigrid, I got an email about… a sabbatical in the US, would you like to do it? Just a thought!’” 

“I thought for five seconds, then I said yes.”

The following year was filled with interviews and procedures, and in the end, it was Ekelin’s family who packed up their things and headed for Austin, Texas.

I had never seen anything like that [marching band] at all. I got so many goosebumps, I was just like… wow.”

— Sigrid Ekelin

In Sweden, Ekelin had been privately studying and playing the flute for six years —  it was natural for her to join the marching band, other than the fact that she had never seen or even heard of what a marching band was until arriving here. 

“I feel like everything that’s new, you get nervous.” Ekelin stated. “So I was nervous, but super excited — a good nervous.”

Within the first week of her arrival, she attended Bandapalooza, the McCallum marching band’s informal premiere of the marching show for parents and community members. She began learning the music, as well as viewing a sneak peak performance of the first two movements of MAC’s show this year, Forever In Stone.

Now, almost a month later, she has jumped right in to the marching culture — from dancing in the stands at football games to the daily early morning practices. In band director Carol Nelson’s eyes, she has been very successful in embracing this new activity.

“She’s always so punctual, and she tries very hard, and it’s just a delight to have her in our band,” Nelson said. “I was not nervous (for her to start) at all — she seemed so eager and capable, and watching her,” much like how Ekelin felt the first time watching the band perform, “I just thought… wow.”

I didn’t understand most of [the game], but it was really fun to watch. I just screamed when everyone else screamed.”

— Sigrid Ekelin

Out of all of her new experiences here in Texas, Ekelin said that her most memorable one has been attending and performing at the Taco Shack Bowl, the annual football game held against Anderson to kick off the season. 

“My first reaction when I saw the football players start to begin, it was probably—” she drops her jaw dramatically and laughs. “It took like five seconds for the coach to whistle and stop, because it was just like.. a bunch of guys throwing themselves at each other, and I didn’t understand most of it, but it was really fun to watch. I just screamed when everyone else screamed.”

“Unfortunately”, Ekelin said. “I will be leaving McCallum right before Christmas.”

With the marching season finished and the first semester complete, she will return to Sweden filled with new and crazy stories to tell — the days she rehearsed for hours on end in the Texas heat, the nights she spent laughing as she screamed as loud as she could in the stands of a football game, and that very first moment she watched the band perform in August, nervous but excited. 

The good nervous.