By Robert Bush
My parents thought I had lost my mind. They made certain that I had every opportunity, including seeing me complete my M.A. in community education and securing a teaching position at a school for at-risk youth, so they couldn’t fathom how I could toss all of that work aside. After four years of teaching language arts and outdoor skills (whitewater, back packing and rock climbing), I quit.
It wasn’t that I didn’t love teaching – I still do – but the opportunity to be the executive director of a local arts council was too much to resist. After all, I was trading a traditional classroom of kids for a county full of people and a cultural classroom that contained museums and theatres, libraries and science centers, a symphony and chorales. What I did not know is the extent to which my next 33 years would be filled with classroom moments of wonder, awe and inspiration as I watched children and youth encounter the arts, science and history in real ways. That’s what I want to share in this letter – two stories of how chance encounters made faces light up and perhaps changed a life’s path.
I expect that like me, you believe arts in education is important. Did you know 86% of Charlotte-Mecklenburg residents agree that arts, music, drama and dance education programs in schools are important in helping children do better in other academic subjects?
I could fill the rest of this letter with numbers that show the importance of making the arts core to the education of every child. Some are very compelling. For example, a student involved in the arts is:
- Four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement;
- Four times more likely to participate in a math or science fair; and
- Three times more likely to win an award for school attendance.
- Low-income students who are highly engaged in the arts are more than twice as likely to graduate from college as their peers with no arts education;
- 72% of business leaders say that creativity is the number one skill they are seeking when hiring; and
- Students who take four years of art and music classes average almost 100 points better on their SAT scores than students that take only one-half a year or less.
But back to the stories…
I don’t remember his name, but I can see him sitting alone in the school multipurpose room – a nice looking young man of about 10 or 11, but his visual and physical impairments were obvious.
John, the artist-in-residence that I had brought with me to visit the school, was a Juilliard trained pianist, a charismatic performer who could charm any audience with his easy approach to making classical music approachable. John sat down at the piano, the children got quiet and he began to play. I believe it was a Chopin Étude, and immediately, the young man I spotted previously sat up in his chair, clearly responding to music.
At the end of the performance, the young man’s teacher brought him up to meet John. She told us he had never spoken. John spoke to him and asked if he liked the piano, the young man immediately nodded his head. John asked him to sit on the piano bench next to him and began to play. He played a musical phrase, stopped and without hesitation, the young man played the phrase back to him on the piano. This went on for almost 30 minutes before it was time to go.
I learned a tremendous lesson that afternoon – the power of art to connect human beings and the power of musical language to transcend all language and communication barriers.
I experienced a similarly profound moment during my time at the Mint Museum. A young African American woman was visiting the museum during her 7th grade field trip with other CMS students, and I happened to come upon the group in the European Art Gallery.
The young woman was examining every inch of the coronation portrait of Queen Charlotte by Sir Allan Ramsay. She got close and looked, and then, she stepped back. Her concentration was on her hair and her regal attire. She shook her head and nodded knowingly as she took a final step back and announced to her classmates, “Don’t tell me she isn’t a sista.”
The docent quickly told the students that, in fact, their fellow classmate was very perceptive, and Queen Charlotte’s lineage did, indeed, included Moors from the Portuguese royal family, and she quite possibly was biracial.
I learned, during that brief encounter with a school group, the power to see yourself in a work of art that might seem so foreign to your condition, and how that connection can positively influence your aspirations and goals.
When I left my formal classroom years ago, I didn’t fully understand how I would continue to experience the joy of teaching – not as the teacher, but as part of organizations that help make teaching moments tangible through arts and culture. I’ve witnessed children enthralled by Opera Carolina’s performance of The Three Little Pigs; seen teenagers come face-to-face with the history of our city at the Levine Museum of the New South; watched pre-school classrooms light up with the mere presence of a storyteller; experienced sheer delight with middle school students during their first time working in a science lab at Discovery Place; and sat with proud parents as their sons and daughters performed in the Winterfield Elementary School Orchestra.
Those were just a few of the thousands of young faces I’ve seen touched by the power of the arts, science and history, and they’ve completely validated the moment I shocked my parents many years ago. But even more important, I want everyone that has donated to ASC (or one of our cultural partners) to understand that you are a part of those young people’s experiences. Your actions set up the table for wonder!
Help ASC keep those moments of wonder in motion by enabling even more arts, science and history experiences for the next generation. By supporting their cultural growth and well-being, we ensure our community’s well-being.
ASC is You & Me – now and in the future.