Friday, July 8, 2011

Step Up, Step Down

Shall I make yet another public confession? I’m very aware of my need to articulate things in language, both writing and speaking. When it works well, people often say the same thing: “You have said what I feel, but didn’t have the words for.” When it doesn’t work well, people say (or think), “When the hell are you going to shut-up?!” And sometimes both types of responses are in the same talk. That means if I listen wholly to the latter, I may miss the opportunity to touch someone in the former way. And if I listen wholly to the former, I may indeed take up too much air space.

So today, when James, Sofia and I had 90 minutes to present a portrait of the music program at The San Francisco School and the role of Orff Schulwerk in the community culture, I had 30 minutes to say my piece. I began with a 10-minute introduction to the history of the school, turned it over to James to elaborate on the Middle School Curriculum, complete with musical examples. I had 20 minutes more allotted to finish my thoughts, but our kids had come in and so Sofia suggested that she go next, since her approach was to interview the kids. Her first question was: “Can you imagine the school without the music program?” The kids’ response stunned me. Things like:

• “Without music, it would be a less welcoming place.”

• “The first thing I noticed when I came here at 5 years old was how happy everyone was. And the music was a big part of what made them happy. Or at least allowed them to express it.”

• “We wouldn’t be the same community, because music is the glue that holds us together.”

• “In music class, we have to work with lots of different people and make something up together and that really opens my eyes to kids who I normally wouldn’t hang out with.”

• “None of our celebrations would be the same without music.”

• “Our school is so different from other schools because of the way we learn and use music.”

• “Without the music program, I wouldn’t be sitting here in Salzburg!”

I was furiously scribbling and missed a lot of other gems coming from these 11-14 year old kids, but gems they were. They get it. They don’t just receive what we try to give to them, they understand its value and can articulate it. When Sofia asked them to describe the differences between their three music teachers, I grew visibly nervous. Quite a risk to take in front of 40 or 50 International teachers who already know us through direct workshops or reputation! But the kids described us to a tee—our strengths, our styles, our quirks, our foibles and they did so with great affection.

Of course, this is probably universally true. Kids are generally much more perceptive, aware and articulate than we give them credit for. Ask them someday how teachers dress or have them imitate our gestures and expressions and you’ll see what I mean. But of course, we don’t often ask them, not only because we’re afraid to see ourselves in their mirror, but also because we think we’re so dang smart and that the bulk of important information flows only from adult to child.

The punch line of this entry, my public confession, is simply this: I will always want to speak in my own style and from the confluence of the way I bring different worlds of thought together. This will probably just get worse as I age. But I do need to remember to invite others to speak the things I want said and this can be as simple as framing the right question. I never did get my promised 20 more minutes in our three-way split, but I didn’t need them because the kids had spoken most of what I would have said— and it was much more powerful and meaningful coming from them. After all, what’s the use of me claiming that music is important in the school if the students themselves don’t agree?!

My promise to myself in any situation is to wait a bit to see if anyone else might speak what needs to be said. If so, I’ll happily lower my hand. If not, I’ll happily say it. But the most important thing is that the things that need to be said at the moment are said. It doesn’t particularly matter who says them.

I did take the last five minutes to put things my own way and starting choking up as I described the profound healing impact of music, telling the story of how we sang ourselves partly through the trauma of 9/11 and equally through the joy of other notable events (the Giant’s World Series win!). After the workshop was over, one of the 14-year old boys came up to me, looked me in the eye and said, “You made me start to cry.”

People, it doesn’t get any better than that.

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