Monday, March 18, 2013

The Tiger's Whisker


I just spent another two days of my life doing what I seem born to do— play, sing, dance, laugh, challenge and have fun with a group of strangers, armed only with the body, voice, imagination and a few silly little rhymes. Amazing what one can do with “criss-cross applesauce,” “choco-late,” and “Johnny Whoops!” Add in a couple of simple welcome songs and dances, some small instrumentsin a circle, a 3-note tune in 7 beats, a bunch of sticks and plastic tubes and an Estonian lullaby sung with heads on each other’s backs and you got yourself a good day. Everything the news doesn’t report is present in the room. Everything the news does report is dissolved and washed away in the healing power of tone, movement and patterned vibration. Thanks to 60 lovely teachers in Munich for your beautiful singing, open minds and hearts, good ideas and moving music.

But during a discussion time, the sadness of our educational practices and policies (and remember, I was in Germany. This is a universal 'our,' with of course, many commendable exceptions) leaked in as one teacher asked what to do with young teenagers reluctant to participate, coming into class with slumped shoulders and eyes ready to roll, armored to protect themselves from shame and ridicule by peers and teachers. I’ve lived my life in the world of “get it right the first time” and it’s mostly true that the teenagers I teach are not shut down because they’ve gone to a school that takes care to know them, see them, encourage them, praise them, inspire them to take risks and creates a safe community to do so. And yes, some protection and rolled eyes as part of their initiation into young adulthood, but mostly overruled by their seasoned innocence and enthusiasm that has been left intact. But of course, I know the characters she described and know how immensely difficult it is to begin such a music program with kids at 12, 13, 14 years old.

To answer her question, I launched into a short version of the folk tale of The Tiger’s Whisker. A woman’s husband returns from a war spiritually shattered and closed down. She can’t reach him and in despair, seeks counsel from the Wise Woman. She is told that there is a magic potion, but first she has to get a whisker from a tiger to add to the brew. So she goes as close as she dares to the tiger’s cave with a bowl of food and leaves it and runs away. Each day, she puts the food a little bit closer. After a month or so, she gets to the point where she can hold the bowl while the tiger eats. And then one day, she pulls out a whisker. Returning to the Wise Woman with the whisker, she asks for the potion. “There is no potion, “the Wise Woman confesses. “But if you have had the patience and courage to pull out a tiger’s whisker, surely you can do the same for your husband. Just offer your love each day until he finally feels safe enough to open again to the world.”

So many kids have been wounded by a culture that doesn’t love them, nurture them or praise them sufficiently, but all it takes is one courageous teacher to haul them ashore to safety and give them the tools— like music, for example— to re-claim and express their heart’s vision and pleasure. As mentioned before, that hasn’t exactly been my work and frankly, I don’t know if I’m capable of it. Perhaps working with Youth at Risk or in prisons or refugee camps could be the next chapter for me. But for now, my job is to keep the doors open from the beginning and help shield the children from the slings and arrows of unthinking and often downright cruel public policy.

Meanwhile, my deepest admiration for all those who daily bring food to the tiger and find the courage to pluck the whisker.

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