It is said that music can change lives. Ellington Bell says the same might be said for back flips. As a troubled 12-year-old in the late 1970s, Mr. Bell lived with his single mother and three younger siblings in a housing project in Kansas City, Mo. He was, in his own words, "out of control" when Willie Arthur Smith happened to drive by a playground where Bell was practicing his back-flipping skills.
Mr. Smith was the founder and leader of the Kansas City-based Marching Cobras, an internationally acclaimed drill team, and always on the lookout for talent.
After seeing Bell's acrobatic moves, Smith spoke with his mother and arranged for him to join the Marching Cobras. Bell spent the next 27 years with the group. He worked his way up from flipper to junior instructor to assistant drillmaster. He traveled widely, performing at the Cotton Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, and two inaugural parades. He also found a father figure in Smith.
"It saved my life," Bell says.
Now he's determined to make a difference in the lives of a new generation of young people. Last fall Bell started a drill team at Blenheim Elementary School, where he works as the Parent Involvement Representative. One of many needy public schools in Kansas City's urban core, Blenheim serves students from prekindergarten through seventh grade. An eighth grade will be added next school year.
"When I got to Blenheim, there were no extracurricular activities," he says in an interview during a rare quiet moment. "No basketball. No football. No gymnastics. Nothing."
Rebecca McKeel, the school's principal, enthusiastically agreed to let Bell start an after-school drill team. Blenheim had once had a drill team, years before, and Ms. McKeel was eager to have more activities available, especially for the older, middle-school-age students.
When Bell talked up his idea with students and parents, the response was immediate, almost overwhelming. Since last October, some 35 students from across all grades have attended weekly practices after school, where they work on their dancing, flipping, drumming, and cheerleading skills.
Bell is built like an Olympic gymnast and can, at an age slightly north of 40, still turn a back flip, even after a long day at school. "Firm, but fair," is the way one of his colleagues describes him. He clearly commanded both affection and respect during a recent two-hour practice in the school gymnasium. After calisthenics, he worked with the dancers and cheerleaders, while the flippers practiced on mats nearby.
For 18 years, Bell drove a school bus in Kansas City. His exceptional rapport with children and his ability to keep order on his bus, even on routes that other drivers couldn’t handle, landed him a job with the Kansas City School District four years ago.
"I don't have any problems, even with the older boys," Bell says. "I know when a child is asking for help, asking for love. I was there myself. I love these kids, but they know I mean business, too. When I come in fussing, watch out!" Bell can be tough at times, but the students on the drill team respond well to the discipline, focus, and teamwork required.
"I like the joy and excitement of it," says Byron Williams, a third-grade flipper and junior varsity drummer. "When I'm on stage and I see my brother in the audience cheering me on, I get really excited and do my best."
While Bell works with the dancers and flippers in the gym, Keisha Knox, a teacher's aide in the prekindergarten class, works with a group of the younger pompom girls in another part of the building.
In a second-floor classroom, Mick Terrizzi, a seventh-grade teacher, rehearses the drummers. A recent graduate of San Diego State University, Mr. Terrizzi has played the drums professionally with two California bands. He works with 10 of the older boys, teaching them the rudiments of playing the tom, snare, and bass drums. He also writes all the drum music for the group. "It was a real challenge," Terrizzi says. "None of them had ever played an instrument before, so just counting beats was hard at first. But they've picked it up fast, and now some of them are really playing some high-school-level music."
In just eight months, the benefits of the drill team have been felt throughout the school, with its 200 students and 45 teachers and staff. "It's been quite successful," McKeel says. "It has helped not only with discipline and behavior problems, but with academics also. The students know they must do their best work every day and obey the school rules. If they don't, they might be kept from practice that evening. They know if they miss a certain number of practices, they won't be able to perform."
Parents are enthusiastic, too. In fact, the parents of children in other schools in the district have been inquiring about having their children participate in Blenheim’s drill team.
"It's a great program," says Lavita Hawkins, whose third-grade daughter, Lakenda McTye, is a cheerleader. "It's a benefit for a lot of the kids. Not just for my daughter, but for all the kids in school."
As word of the drill team has spread, the school has received donations of drums and cash. A local businessman paid for uniforms for the entire squad. They have performed several times in school. Now properly outfitted, the Blenheim Bulldogs Drill Team is preparing for its first public appearances.
Though the drill team has been a big investment of time and energy, it's well worth it, Bell says. "I had beautiful and wonderful people raise me, like my mother and Mr. Smith," he says. "Now that I'm older, I've got to give it back to somebody. I know what these children are feeling. That's why I stepped in."