A popular new movie is shining light on Mister Rogers and the tremendous impact he had, not only on children, but also on society and its transformation. Perhaps his most salient quality was his innate ability to affirm individuals — to see them. He communicated to every young viewer that they were important, that they mattered, and that they were worthy of love.
One of the first people to teach me these things was George Zingali.
I am one of the thousands of young people George inspired through the art of Drum and Bugle Corps. He taught us how to be passionate and precise performers. But, more importantly, he taught us how to grow into extraordinary human beings.
When you stood in front of George Zingali, whether two feet or 50 yards away, you felt seen. You felt validated.
Now, with George, it was often the case that you didn’t want to be seen by him. From 20 feet up on the scaffold, when his eyes were following the form as a whole — an amoeba moving as one — if he saw you, it meant one thing: you were not where you were supposed to be. You were out of place and, thereby, corrupting the design.
“ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!” he’d yell vehemently in his indelible East Coast accent. “So and so (usually a nickname he’d given you), what are you thinking?! You’re not supposed to be there! You’re supposed to be on the other side of the field!” I remember him reprimanding a horn player by saying: “Now you go do a thousand push-ups.” The other 119 of us stood like sentries: silent and poised to obey.
We always wanted to do everything right — to excel for George and for the audience. By the end of the season, however, we’d learned the most important lesson Drum Corps has to teach: We learned to excel for ourselves. That was George’s goal for us all along.
I think that he sometimes yelled at us for stuff we didn’t even know we were (or weren’t) supposed to do. Maybe he was thinking of drill changes in his head before he let anyone else know about them. That was the breadth of his genius in this visual and musical art known as Drum Corps. I imagine that images moved through his mind fast, and that the act of catching all those ideas was an art in itself.