Tyra Wiles is not always very verbal but she loves music. The senior at Austin High School has Down syndrome, which doesn't stop her from performing as a percussionist in the Packers band program. And if you saw the 160-member pep band play at the girls state basketball tournament last month – like I did -- you might have seen Tyra playing a snare drum.
I found it intriguing as well as inspiring.
"She loves to play, and there's nothing better than being on the bus and going with the other kids," said Tyra's mom, Linda Gibeau.
When Tyra started middle school, Linda asked about having her be part of the middle school band program. "I said, 'I don't care if you give her foam sticks and a foam drum, I want her in the band.' "
Watching Tyra play with the band is a real treat. Her skills have improved to the point that she can perform the national anthem perfectly. But hanging out with the other band kids and being part of the group is the best part.
"I never played a musical instrument and was never in sports," said Linda, who works as a substitute teacher in Austin, her hometown. "I live vicariously through my kid. I work the same hours as she's in school, and if the band is heading to a game in the morning I cancel my job and go. I'm the only substitute teacher at every game and I’ve got a (school employee) badge so we go for free. Wrestling, girls or boys basketball, volleyball, track meets, everything, I go."
Tyra is also a six-year member (and a captain) of the Packers adapted bowling team, which has competed at state. When a pepfest was held for the bowlers last year, Tyra entered the gym with the pep band, then put down her drum and joined the bowlers. Her mother had helped her write a speech, which went like this: “I’m Tyra Wiles, I like bowling. Go Packers!”
Another highlight of Tyra’s high school career was going to the prom with Derek Olmschenk, a 6-foot-6 hockey player who was with the Austin Bruins junior team after graduating from Cretin-Derham Hall and is now playing at the University of St. Thomas.
Band is Tyra’s only mainstream class, and Austin band director Christoph Dundas said her impact has been bigger than most people realize.
“It’s good for both Tyra and for the other students,” said Dundas, who is the parent of an elementary special needs student. “For Tyra it’s a chance to experience something that a lot of students with special needs never get to experience just because of the way life happens. And it’s good for the other students, too, because they get to experience a class with somebody they don’t see in other classes.
“Band is multi-grade, multi-age, and Austin is a big enough school that a lot of kids really don’t see kids from other grades other than in music classes. She’s impacted students three years older than she is and students who are three years younger. Tyra’s impacted seven different grades of students.”
Brad Mariska, currently a band director at Farmington High School, used to teach in Austin. In his final year there, he worked with Tyra when she was in ninth grade.
“She was involved in middle school band and had a great band director, Nino Tarara. I met with him when Tyra was in eighth grade,” Mariska said. “We asked, ‘How can we make this work at the high school level?’ We kind of brainstormed and we wanted to help her be involved as much as possible.
“It was great. She was able to be a part of the band. She comes to concert band every day, she plays in concerts. We had weekly band lessons when she and I would work one on one.”
During the 2018 football season, Dundas received an email from a member of an opposing team. The player, also a band student at his school, had noticed Tyra in the band during a game in Austin and wrote to Dundas to tell him how neat it was to see Tyra in the band.
“So Tyra even reaches students from other schools,” Dundas said.
This is Tyra’s last year as a member of the band, although she will continue attending school in a job-training program for up to three years. She will graduate with her class in June; Linda admits to shedding a few tears when she wrote a check to pay for Tyra’s cap and gown.
“She’s a cool kid,” said Mariska. “That’s why we teach. That’s why we do this.”
Dundas said, “In the grand scheme of things Tyra may not realize her impact. There can be everyday experiences that people take for granted. And she gets to take that for granted, too.”