Memorial Day Reflections of an Arts Educator
The arrival of Memorial Day represents honoring the men and women who lost their lives serving our country and celebrating the unofficial start of summer with family and friends. For me, Memorial Day also marks that time of year when another school season draws to a close.
As the temperature starts to rise and thoughts of swimming pools and summer vacation dance around in our heads, Alice Cooper’s rock anthem "Schools Out" becomes a lively soundtrack for the final countdown.
Cooper was inspired to write the song when asked, "What's the greatest three minutes of your life?" After mentioning Christmas morning, Cooper responded: "the last three minutes of the last day of school when you're sitting there and it's like a slow fuse burning.” I’m in no way condoning the ideas of “school’s out forever, school’s been blown to pieces.”
I think you know where I’m going with this. It’s been a very challenging year for the arts and I will do all that I can to ensure the fuse that is arts education burns a little while longer.
People who do not understand the arts often ask, “What’s the point?” Or, “Why are you working so hard?” My personal favorite: “You should really lighten up, they’re just kids.” The work we do is not simply a hobby where we’re helping a select few be “artistic.” We’re helping children become intelligent, productive human beings who will someday contribute to society as responsible adults. Why should we “lighten up” when so much of what it means to be human – like experiencing the arts – is at risk of being blown to pieces?
How do we teach the people who ask these kinds of questions? Tell them a story, something that innately all of us can do. To speak of something real and personal, rather than just throwing out statistics and numbers, can sometimes be the most powerful and immediate tool in educating those who do not understand.
On a recent mad dash to catch a train, I was rushing down the subway platform at 145th Street in Harlem. Ahead of me was this boy staring me down with a giant smile. I remember thinking, “Why is this kid smiling at me?” My next thought, “Move kid, you’re in my way!” As I quickly brushed past I overheard him say, “Hey look ma, that’s the ballet lady. She’s the one who brings dance to my school!” All of a sudden I wasn’t in such a hurry and I found myself smiling back.
The fact that this child acknowledged me obviously meant the opportunity to experience dance at his school is very important to him. More significantly, the sense of empowerment he must have felt to share with his mom – our greatest advocate for continued arts education support – is definitely compelling.
A few weeks later I was attending PS 153’s fourth and fifth grade ballet residency culminating event with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. There, front and center on stage demonstrating Demi Plié in front of his peers was Jamal, the smiling 4th grader I passed by on the subway who loves to dance. This is an example of the greatest three minutes of my life.
With the flurry of culminating events, field trips and graduations, we count the final days until school is out for summer. But please don’t forget the reason we work in this field.
It’s easy to get so caught up in the daily routine of correspondence, pushing paper, and shuffling endless schedules and people around. The day-to-day management of “the work” sometimes over shadows the very reason why we do the work to begin with. If we’re not careful and don’t pay close attention, in a few minutes all the life changing moments the arts can bring to so many kids like Jamal, might be over in a flash.
In the tradition of summer reading assignments, here are some recent arts education articles or websites you may find interesting:
The Whitehouse Blog: Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools
U.S. House Education & the Workforce Committee: Committee Approves First Education Reform Bill
Richard Kessler's Blog: Arts Education and School Reform: An Unlikely Duo
One of Michael Kaiser's Huffington Post entries: The Future of the Arts/The Future of America