Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Presence and Absence


It’s perhaps not a profound thought to say that we are shaped by the community we grow up in—family, neighbors, schools, the media, the greater culture. Of course we are. But what we often forget is that if we want the children we imagine we deserve, we need to surround them with adults living the things we want to see in the children. In my field, that means being in the physical presence of adults who sing, adults who dance, adults who play music. Lots of them. And folks who do it often, not just in the Sunday choir or belting out off-key the mandatory Happy Birthday song. The extraordinary musicality of the children I met in Ghana came simply from their being in the constant presence of adults who play, sing and dance and do so with joy and do so often.
It’s as simple as that.

From the beginning of my life as a music educator, my dream was not just to teach inspired music classes that effectively communicated the skills, understanding and repertoire of a specialized subject called music, but to create a musical community modeled on the West African (or Irish/ Bulgarian/ Balinese/ etc.) village. I remember back at the beginning of the Samba Contest that I initiated back in the early 80’s, the elementary kids would be dancing in the music room and the preschool kids would be outside the windows dancing in the yard. That was it!

And so it happened again today, but this time the preschool kids were in the Community Center watching and truth be told, the 15 groups of 1st through 5th graders did a stellar job in choreographing in a mere four days some artful samba choreography. But it was the two preschool 3- years olds on the sideline who stole the show by dancing through all 15 routines! At the end, of course, I brought them center stage and then more started jumping in and there it was, music and dance as an infectious disease that brings ease and happiness and no special study required. And of course, when the kids went out for air while the judges conferred, many stayed back and played all the rhythms—coherently, I might add—on the drums and bells.

Want great schools? Put great teachers in them who are living happy and authentic lives. Give all the kids something worthy to do—which includes a healthy dose of the arts—and give them plenty of opportunities to share it, especially older kids modeling for the younger ones. Want intelligent kids capable of actual thought? Have them hang out with intelligent adults. Kids who are more kind than cruel? Surround them with caring and loving adults. Kids curious and eager to work toward mastery? You guessed it—keep them close to adults who are still curious and show passion without any promise of reward or punishment.

The mere presence of great older kids and adults doesn’t guarantee great younger kids, but it sure helps. But if a child is not so fortunate to land in a nurturing family, school or community, there is still hope. Turns out that we not only develop from the presence of worthy practices and values from our mother culture, but also from their absence. We have the possibility of noticing what we are missing or what we don’t like or what negative patterns we may reject and hope to break the cycle of harm.

I never danced samba as a kid or saw or heard it, never played jazz, never played children’s clapping games, never sat in meditation or heard of Buddha, never hiked or backpacked or camped, never cooked, never learned Spanish, never traveled outside of the country, all things that end up defining my entire adult life. Some part of me felt the absence of such things and when I had the good fortune to stumble into them and feel what they had to offer, I leaped at the chance. Likewise, I was barraged by TV and movie stereotypes of black folks and Latinos and Native Americans, most adults I knew reinforced those stereotypes and yet I came to firmly reject them. What drove me to notice what was missing and refuse to carry on the prejudice that surrounded me is probably not repeatable, not a formula I can pass on to another. It is a mystery that can only be shared as a story and in company with so many stories of those who refused to mindlessly accept all of which was handed to them and looked to make a larger possibility for themselves and their children.

The way we are shaped by presence, the way we are shaped by absence, the constant conversation between the two. Good things to think about for a bit. And then get up and dance samba!

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