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Case Study: See Beyond Disabilities and Find Opportunities to Excel

Two disabled students presented unique opportunities to excel for the entire marching band at Forney High School in Texas.

On a muggy Texas evening in May 2020 during the height of the pandemic, I sat in the Diffee family’s driveway out in the country with a group of smiling new faces — the Forney (Texas) High School Band boosters.

I had just been named the school’s new Director of Bands, and there was definitely an excitement in the air regarding the band program’s potential in spite of the COVID outbreak happening around us.

Band Director Cody Newman and Micah DiffeeAs we were wrapping up the conversations regarding the logistics of operating the band program and saying our good nights, a special young man rolled up to me in his wheelchair and asked me an important and challenging question.

“Good evening, Mr. Newman,” he said. “My name is Micah, and I would like to be in the marching show next fall.”

I glanced down at Micah Diffee’s wheelchair and asked the first question that came to my mind. “That sounds great, Micah,” I started. “Have you thought about performing in the front ensemble?”

He quickly responded, “Yes sir, I did that last year and didn’t like it. I would like to be on the field with my trumpet friends.”

I didn’t think. I just responded. “Yes, we can do that, Micah.”

I said yes before I could think about how we were going to pull this off. I just knew why we were going to pull this off. The why was Micah.

The Diffee Difference

Micah marching band 2I have found all too often that my first instinct, my first response in any situation is to focus on the problem. This is all too easy to do because whenever you turn on the news, listen to the radio, open your phone, all the world’s problems come flooding in. The daily confrontation of problems is brutal.

That’s why I try to stop myself from fixating on problems every chance I get. Imagine if we taught our students an intentional and consistent approach to avoid focusing on problems and instead giving our attention to the opportunities created by the problem.

After telling Micah that he could be part of the marching band, the staff went into solution mode. Our amazing drill writer and color guard director, Casey Snead, and I met Micah on our turf performance field to see him in action. The goal was to understand how far and how fast he could move at various tempos. It became apparent after just a few minutes that Micah was incredibly strong and agile in his chair. He approached the situation with so much grit and determination — it was inspiring!

Micah’s strength and confidence grew as he participated in daily marching fundamentals with his band friends. His brother built him a trumpet stand that attached to his chair to keep his instrument secure while he was moving. Micah tweaked and refined any choreography that was part of his assignment to not only be possible in his chair, but also artistic and expressive. His efforts were uplifting.

Micah taught me that inside each obstacle lies a solution, sometimes multiple solutions! In fact, we should work to reframe all obstacles as opportunities to excel. What a missed opportunity it would have been had Micah not approached me during my first booster meeting, or if the team of directors focused only on the perceived problems instead of the incredible opportunity to excel we had in Micah.

After Micah had an incredibly successful season on the field, our team of directors celebrated his accomplishments but we also became more introspective. Were there other students in our program who may be missing out due to our fixed mindset?

Supporting Tomoki

Tomoki other soloistsTomoki Miyazaki is a year younger than Micah, an incredible flute player with perfect pitch, and he is legally blind. After hearing him shine as a performer throughout the spring of 2021, we started conversations with Tomoki about doing something he’d never considered — being part of the marching band. With his incredible playing ability in mind, our music arranger designed numerous solo moments for him throughout the 2021 show. The first time we heard him performing with the group, amplified for the world to hear, we knew we had a special performer.  With this excitement came a very unique obstacle.

Tomoki was staged atop a large prop on the front sideline with four other great soloists. They were positioned close to the 30-yard line of the field and 20 yards away from the conductor. Soloists usually take their cues from the conductor — something Tomoki could not do. However, the solution to this obstacle was already being handled by the other soloists who worked with Tomoki. Senior drum major and bassoon soloist, Brittany, and junior clarinetist, Sarah, volunteered to act as Tomoki’s eyes — while standing next to him, they would tap the tempo of the drum major on his shoulder. I was exceptionally proud of this solution because Brittany and Sarah actually identified the obstacle and created their own solution before the directors could intervene!

Isn’t this the true goal that we seek as educators? To teach our students the ability to actively solve a challenge and then to have the leadership and ownership of their performance to engage in the solution with confidence.

Tomok playing fluteMicah black and white

Accepting Opportunities to Excel

Micah and Tomoki definitely grabbed the attention of audiences around the marching band community, so much so that they were asked to talk about their participation in marching band  on The Marching Roundtable Podcast with Tim Hinton. Micah was also featured in an interview with John Pollard at the Texas UIL State Championships in 2020.

All this attention is certainly warranted and fun for these young men, but the behind-the-scenes story is the real achievement and a testament to always look for and accept opportunities to excel. Here are just a few of these opportunities that we experienced at Forney High thanks to Micah, Tomoki and the entire marching band.

  • Hearing Micah and Tomoki talk about feeling accepted as a real contributor to the group
  • Experiencing the crowd go wild as these young men performed before thousands of fans throughout Texas
  • Watching as another student in a wheelchair asked Micah with a spark of excitement and curiosity in her voice about the possibilities of her own participation in marching band at her home school
  • Seeing the proud smiles on their parents’ faces as their students embraced friends after a successful performance

And perhaps my biggest hope and grandest dream from this entire turn of events would be that the students surrounding Micah and Tomoki each day, the fans in the stands and those watching online for years to come, would rethink their initial focus on problems when they come across someone with a perceived disability. Instead, I want them to focus on the solutions to the obstacles and the opportunities to excel that are presented to them in that moment.

Our students are only limited by the constraints we place on them, so let’s all choose opportunity and choose to excel!

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