January 28, 2005

First Person

We can’t forget how to sing

By Heriberto Escamilla

A few weeks ago, I found myself in an elementary school auditorium in Pacoima California. My assistant and I were there to present the latest results of a door-to-door survey that we have been conducting every year beginning in 2001. The auditorium was in a festive mood, with colorful Christmas decorations and children’s crayon creations taped on the ordinary gray walls that we often see in schools. As our hosts prepared the projector and screen, we passed the time by watching the children come in, most with lively eyes looking for buddies, others dragging their feet as if each step taken was the result of unrewarded effort. Some faces betrayed the anxiety characteristic of someone looking to please, while a few faces carefully hid away their wounded spirit. In a few minutes, the wooden bleachers at the base of the stage were completely filled with some fifty fidgeting brown-faced songbirds (with a few güeros here and there) ready to start their day.

Developmental psychologists tell us that what we call personality, how people relate to the world around them is pretty much set very early in life. We continue to learn throughout our lifetimes, of course. But the interaction of genetics and early environment create basic and deeply engrained approaches to life. Some of us emerge from these early years eager to reach out, explore and belong, while others have turned inward, more attentive to internal thoughts and ideas. In others, disappointment and frustration freezes our little hearts so that we see only a hostile and threatening world. Our native ancestors saw a different world. They tell us that while we are all different, each one of us has a place in the circle, a voice and something to say.

A few minutes before 9:00 o’clock, a middle-aged woman, obviously a teacher, appeared at one of the auditorium’s side doors. Her presence instantly pulled me back to my fifth grade “rhythms” class, back to Franklin Elementary in the heart of Houston’s Eastside. For a few minutes, I saw through the eyes and ears of an anxious little boy, with sweaty little palms holding a little güerita, stiffly trying to make his feet follow the notes of the Red River Valley. Or under the guidance of my own teacher, struggling to make my rendition of Old Susanna merge into the company of voices. Hard as I tried, it never quite fit in. Maybe if they would have played a little Jose Alfredo Jimenez?

But I was blessed; I had the opportunity and the patient attention of a few people who took the time to see me and listened to what I had to say.

The recently published Sound of Silence Report tells us that today our children are not as fortunate. Along with art, health and even physical education, we are also quickly losing music education in the schools. According to California Department of Education data, the percentage of California kids who have access to music courses has dropped by 50% over the last five years. Why? Well we have less money for education in general, and secondly we have become obsessed with teaching the technical aspects of language skills and with testing. Spelling and grammar are critical, yes, but let’s also think about why language serves such an important role in human experience?

Who suffers the most from this myopic view of education; which children are we leaving behind? In surveys that we have conducted across the state, Latinos and children of other minority groups invariably tell us that they participate less in school-related music and arts activities. What’s worse is that parents themselves are following along. In a survey conducted for CityLife, a Los Angeles, arts-based Charter School, Latino parents put music and arts at the bottom of their list of school education priorities. So if our children don’t learn to make music in the schools or at home, where will they learn? And why should they learn music? Come on, really think about it.

Back in Pacoima, I thought out loud to my assistant, She looks “mean”. They all look that way, observed my friend, himself an accomplished musician. “Music teachers always look mean”. On her way to the podium, the music teacher stopped to straighten a ruffled collar here, an untucked shirt there, properly positioned another, and for good measure, playfully rubbed the independent boy’s head.

After a few moments of preparation, she spoke and as she did, a wall of silence instantly descended over the students. She had their complete attention. The voice in my head, my lifelong companion confirmed my earlier impression. This woman is indeed “mean”. .

On the podium, the teacher called for and directed a series of practice notes. Every few moments, she paused, called out someone’s name, gave an instruction or two and continued. Even with my untrained ear, I began to appreciate the increased coordination, harmony, or whatever you call it (remember, I said that I had the opportunity not that I ever learned to sing well). The sounds were gradually shaped and molded into a recognizable tune. I was amazed that she was able to hear even those outliers, the ones who may have been daydreaming, thinking about lunch or whatever it is that distracts a 10 year old’s ability to pay attention. She heard the ones deviating from the sense of community she sought to create, and gently pulled them back into the fold.

After 20 minutes of this practice, the, voices, all of them, those that actively seek the company of others, the quite ones, involved with their own inner worlds and even those that aren’t quite that sure of anything, cooperated with each other. I suspect that even the wounded ones opened up a little, maybe even smiling when no one was looking. Under the direction of the teacher, these children expressed sounds capable of floating through the air, across the length of the auditorium touching and moving hearts, even those hardened by disappointment, frustration and anger. Powerful, isn’t it? Children so small capable of moving hearts, motivating and yes even teaching an old man like me.

In educating children, we invariably and automatically impose our worldview, we do what we think is best for our young. In molding behavior, we sometimes forget to really see or listen to our children. We mute their voices and injure the underlying spirit that motivates human thought and feeling, human experience. In some cases we come close to killing off their source of life. Fortunately for us, the spirit is more powerful than you or I or any other human that walks the earth with us. But our spirit needs to sing, and it thrives only when it moves between us. In thinking about our children’s education, let’s first ask ourselves this question. Of what value are words, even big words spelled correctly if the person that issues them is frozen with fear, unable to fill them with feeling? Our words are for moving, for sharing and touching other hearts and if they cannot do that, they are empty vessels. We can’t forget how to sing.

Heriberto (Beto) Escamilla, originally from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon Mexico, was raised in Houston, Texas until moving to San Diego in 1984. He received his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology-San Diego Campus.

Return to the Frontpage