New teacher diaries

Why art and music are essential

“It’s a long line today,” the school aide at the security desk observes, nodding at the parade of parents clutching their 4-year-olds, all waiting to register their children for the upcoming school year.

Our frazzled pupil accounting secretary is running in circles, trying to keep everyone organized — assigning numbers, handing out forms and wrangling translators in three or four languages.

It must be so stressful for these families, particularly for the many parents who don’t speak English fluently, to deal with all these people speaking a strange new language, asking who they are and where they live, telling them to stand here, sign this, wait for the translator. This is their first glimpse of the place where they will be relinquishing their babies for six hours a day, five days a week.

My music classroom is directly across from the office so all the waiting parents are facing my door, which I’m really glad I remembered to redecorate the previous week with some bright yellow paper and blue swirling trim.

From the window, I can see a woman in a colorfully printed shalwar kameez with her young daughter on her lap. She looks confused and somewhat anxious. The little girl has white barrettes in her curly black hair. Almost on the verge of tears, she looks even more terrified than her mother.

My classroom is always a little stuffy in the mornings, so I prop open the door to allow the air to circulate while I clean and organize materials for the next class of music students. I try to smile at the parents, show them a friendly face among the paperwork. Most of them don’t notice me, but the nervous woman in the shalwar kameez looks up and smiles back.

Her daughter points to my classroom wall, where 16 sunshine-yellow ukuleles are propped on pins. Her mother notices as well and leans forward on her chair to see further into the room. Murmuring into her daughter’s ear, she points out the guitars hanging in their cases on hooks, the carpet with its brightly colored alphabet and the various musical notes and symbols I’ve pasted around the room to show students where to sit and stand for our different games, songs and musical ensembles.

I don’t understand Bengali, but what the mother is expressing to her child is clear: Do you see? It won’t be so bad. There is music here.

A feeling of warmth rises in my chest as I straighten the violin cabinet and take out a basket of slide whistles. Everyone talks about how having the arts in school helps raise test scores, but this is why they are essential: Art and music are the things we make when we want to tell the world that we are people. And expressing our humanity through music and art is what makes everything else worth it.

When, among the reduced-price lunch forms and proof-of-address documents, parents see a sign that their children will learn in a space filled with sound and color, they know their kids will be all right. And that’s all any parent ever wants.

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