Precision drill team learns more than just marching

April 10, 1994|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Sun Staff Writer

Donning black jeans, combat boots and a beret, 13-year-old )) Marche Morris is dressed to drill.

The Owen Brown Middle School eighth-grader is a member of the Umoja drill team, an after-school precision marching group that would make any drill master proud.

Although the group is just 3 months old, Marche and some 30 other Owen Brown middle and Dasher Green elementary students are gearing up to compete in drill team competitions against Baltimore area groups this summer. They're also polishing their steps to audition to perform at a half-time show for a Washington Bullets game. They've already performed for local students at various school-related events.

The Swahili word "Umoja" stands for unity, one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, the celebration of African heritage, but for Marche and other troop members it also stands for confidence and pride.

"It's teaching me to be disciplined," she said. "It's teaching me a lot of things I didn't know."

Parent volunteer Dianne Nelson, a Columbia resident, formed the team in January to practice routines to commemorate Black History Month in February.

"I saw so many of them had potential, and they didn't have anything to do," said Ms. Nelson, a petite woman with long flowing black hair who served for four years in the Army, some of it as a drill sergeant, but was later made a captain.

Her drill team is predominantly female and practices three days a week, including Saturdays, when students spend as much as five hours in their white-laced combat boots going over cadences and marching routines. Intermittently, they also get lessons in the history of black culture and tutoring help with their classwork.

The drill team has performed at five school-related functions, including the Black Student Achievement Program's unity breakfast and for Dasher Green Elementary School students. Although the team was supposed to be a short-lived group, students liked it so much that they urged Ms. Nelson to continue the troop. Now, the team is selling lollipops to raise money for uniforms and other expenses.

Members joined by word-of-mouth. Though any student can join, they must improve their grades and have a good attitude to stay. There are other rules: Students who talk or chew gum when they stand in formation are fined 25 cents. Attending practice or an event with a wrinkled ascot, part of their uniform, is another 50 cent fine, while wearing a wrinkled shirt or pair of pants is a $1 fine.

Students who get out of line or become disruptive are good-naturedly required to do 50 push-ups.

Members are finding that they're changing for the better, thanks to Mrs. Nelson, who works them but who also cares for them. They say that despite her tough exterior during practice, she makes them believe they can accomplish anything they set their minds to.

"I like it a lot because it gives us a sense of responsibility and leadership skills," said Brittany Washington, 12. "It also gives us a sense about the importance of school."

Thirteen-year-old Bernardstine Bethea described herself as a person who once talked back to teachers and who disrupted class. Now she says she is a more patient person.

"I had a really bad attitude, and Ms. Nelson sat me down and talked to me about it," she said.

Being a member of the drill team has taught 13-year-old Amber Day to express herself more. "It's improved my social skills a lot," she said. "I was really shy at first, and now I'm more outgoing."

Janissa Battle, 13, agreed. "It makes me feel good I can do something some people can't do," she said. "I try harder and I ask for help when I need it. I'm more aggressive."

The drill team has also taught students about teamwork -- how to work with one another. "Unity means to come together," said 13-year-old Tradis Kamara, the team's co-captain. "We all come together and step as one."

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