First days were always anxiety-inducing. It was normal to be nervous. That’s what Cicily told herself as she wiped her palms on her athletic shorts. It was her first day of practice with the Hughes State Marching Band as not only a freshman but as a witch who had never attended a magical school.
The sticky Gulf Coast air swirled past them as the students around her chatted, assembling their instruments and stretching. She stood by herself next to the rest of the low-reed cases, her section having already gone to find their place on the field. Trying to get ahold of her nerves, she had excused herself, saying she needed to get another reed from her case.
Random melodies and scales floated around the field, harmonizing and clashing with each other all at once, as some students started their own warm-ups independently.
With shaking fingers she placed her hands on the keys, fingering a favorite melody, but they were slick with sweat, so she wiped her palms off again. Her golden tenor sax hung proudly from the neck-strap around her neck, a familiar weight to ground her.
Any laughter at the sight of her, a five-foot even girl being dwarfed by such an instrument, was quickly replaced by “Ooo”s and “Aw”s by her section when they found out she owned her saxophone, an heirloom from her mother’s father. All of the other tenor and baritone saxophones played on school-issued horns. Since that revelation, they had been friendly, so she had nothing to worry about.
She had gone to a high school for the Less Favored, or “No-Majs” as the white wizarding world called them. Her parents had opted to home school her in magic over weekends and school breaks, rather than send her to Ilvermorny or even the Zora Neale Hurston Charter schools, as many Black magical parents in the South did. They felt the balance of learning with the Less Favoreds better prepared her for life as a Black woman in America.
When she graduated they had intended her to get an apprenticeship after high school like all the wizards in her family had. But she had applied to the illustrious and secretive Hughes State, one of the few wizarding higher education institutions and one of two magical HBCUs. She hadn’t dared hope to be accepted, much less sought out by Director Bailey.
If it hadn’t been for Director Bailey and the scholarship, her parents wouldn’t have let her make the nearly five-hour drive. The magical HBCUs weren’t accredited by any magical institution because they ran counter to the Statute of Secrecy. Instead, magical HBCUs hid in plain sight. Less Favoreds, especially white ones, historically paid no mind to HBCUs, so who would notice if a couple of magical schools slipped in?
“The Less Favored are getting smarter. They have social media now,” her dad had said during one of their many discussions on the matter.
“Dad I have social media, too,” she’d pointed out.
So far, since arriving at her dorm room, the experience had been commensurate with every story she had heard of Less Favored college life. She had only arrived the Friday before and had spent the time practicing in anticipation. But she had met a few of the other freshmen. They weren’t in a hurry to befriend her, the weird girl who hadn’t learned magic the same way they had.
Hurston Charter schools were small and didn’t offer any more additional learning opportunities than her aunt, who had taught her and her cousins, could provide. Not to mention that while these kids might have gone to a magical school, they were at best large enough to have small ensembles of a band, 2A or 3A tops. Yes, she had come from a Less Favorable school, but she had marched first chair in her varsity 6A band.
Still, standing in front of the practice field (grass not asphalt like the field in high school, her legs itched already), surrounded by people she didn’t know, she wished she had. Picking up her water jug, she took a sip of water. A bead of sweat dripped down her back, it had to be at least 85 already. She hid the jug behind her case, having been the only one to think like a Less Favored and bring one. They were wizards at a magical school. Everyone here was used to conjuring water. She hadn’t had that luxury in high school.
“Give it BACK!” a girl shouted.
She was chasing a trumpet player boy, who was levitating her drill book above her head. Pages fluttered to the ground and the girl huffed.
“Why do you even have this? This is last year’s drill.”
“So, I can show the newbies how it works!”
“I’m pretty sure they’ve marched before,” he said, finally lowering his wand, letting the binder sink into the girl’s outstretched hands.
“Yes, but not at the collegiate level!”
The boy rolled his eyes as he mindlessly fingered some silent tune on his trumpet, his wand now safely clipped into the strange holder on his horn that they had all been issued.
“From what I hear, Director Bailey recruited someone from a Less Favored high school. Do you think they even know how to le—?”
Tayvon was cut off by a whistle. From the far end of the field, a short Black man in plaid cargo shorts came striding into view. It was Director Bailey himself. Cicily hadn’t seen him since he’d come for dinner to convince her parents that she was the exact kind of talent they needed at Hughes (“And besides, she already knows how to march. It’s not much different with magic…”).
“Get set! Let’s go! Tubas! Where are my tubas?!”
The rest of the stragglers were scrambling onto the field. Cicily, embarrassed by her own absent-mindedness, jumped to join them, but he held up a hand.
“Freshmen to the sidelines. The band has a presentation for you.”
Some of the members on the field smirked at each other, others hooted in excitement, and Cicily saw a few others fumbling with their wands, securing them into the holders on their instruments.
Some of the freshmen she had met over the weekend walked over to her.
“I’m so excited!” Ros, the nicest girl of the bunch, exclaimed in a whisper as the director pulled the drum majors aside, giving reminders about tempo judging by how he conducted in front of them.
“I’ve seen it before,” a boy, who she believed was named Marcus, said haughtily, “I grew up next to Mississippi Southern, we went to Quidditch matches all the time. People know you really go for the band.”
“Cicily you’ve been, er, home-schooled in magic right? So you wouldn’t have seen—” Ros began politely.
“Shh don’t ruin it!” another boy said, a clarinet player.
She made no comment, instead turning to face the field, standing in check, trying to be respectful of the band’s demonstration.
Then the band director nodded to the head drum major, who was now standing on his platform, and the assistant drum majors on their platforms next to him. He nodded back, turning his face, full of concentration, to the band.
He raised his arms, baton in hand—no not a baton, his wand! The band raised their instruments, watching as he gave them the count. The blaring bright sound of the band didn’t shock her as it did some of the others. Her band in high school was 150 strong, not much smaller than this one. No, that wasn’t what surprised her at all.
“They’re FLYING!” she exclaimed despite herself.
She could feel Marcus rolling his eyes next to her. “Not flying, levitating.”
The formations she was so accustomed to seeing bands perform on the field were now happening on the field and in the air. They circled and swirled, lines crossing and shifting, sometimes landing on the ground, not losing time in between, their feet and the drumline in sync.
When Director Bailey had said that it wasn’t much different with magic, she thought that meant magical props, maybe even enchanted uniforms. Never had she imagined this! She was stunned, nerves forgotten.
Then the drum majors’ platforms began to levitate, raising the band with them as they went. They stopped conducting, turning around to face an imaginary crowd. They popped and locked, busting out choreography that seemed to be well known to the other freshmen who whooped and hollered, especially when they leaned back, defying gravity, their heads almost brushing the bottoms of their platform.
“What if they fall!” Cicily screeched, eyes wide and transfixed on their movements.
The performance crescendoed, different melodies layering on top of one another. They were near the end of the movement.
“They won’t. This isn’t some rigged Less Favored harness system. It’s magic.” Marcus said impatiently.
Ros shoved him and pointed at the drum major’s wands, then tapped hers clipped to her harness.
Before she could explain the intricacies of how the magic worked, the band ripped into the final bars of their piece.
The entire band fanned out into the air, hitting their last note with gusto. As the drum majors lowered their wands, the band drifted lightly back down. Once safely back on the grass and with the drum majors’ backs turned they cheered, high fiving each other.
She caught the eye of her section mates, who gave her an excited thumbs up which she nervously returned.
“Alright, settle down everyone. Freshmen, out to block! That’s just a little taste of what it is we do here at Hughes. For today, we’re just gonna be focusing on our movement and musicality.”
Now that was something she knew how to do. Excitedly, nerves forgotten, she jogged out onto the field to the empty spot in her section, leaving the other freshmen behind.
She was going to learn to fly!
“Levitate,” she mentally corrected herself with a smile.