It was a long but inspiring morning. I sat on a small panel of folks who pretended to know what we were doing, interviewing candidates for college scholarships. Every fifteen minutes a new senior was escorted into the room to talk to us about their future goals.
There are few things more intimidating than to be led into a conference room to answer questions when you’ve been given no hint as to the subject matter. You’re seventeen or eighteen years old sitting their across the table from four adults who hold the checkbook in their hands.
Ten students dutifully walked in one after another and I suppose it went fine because nine walked out. In fact, they did more than simply show up and answer a few questions, they blew us away. Their poise, their intelligence, their sincerity, all left the judges wanting to simply toss a coin then flee the building under dark of night. We were to determine the winner on the basis of their grades, their portfolio of recommendations, and various other factors, but all those other requirements took a back seat to what we saw sitting across the desk from us that day. These kids knew how to present themselves.
What the heck was going on? Every poll in the world tells us that speaking in front of people is the number one fear of most adults and these teens handled themselves with an aplomb and assurance that would be the envy of any professional speaker. When I flipped through their files I found the answer. . . the one thing they all had in common: these kids were heavily involved in extra-curricular activities. Their accomplishments in music, art, band, chorus, speech, theatre and athletics filled their official transcripts. Sure, they made good grades but an “A” in calculus is not what enables you to conduct yourself with such composure.
Just that morning I had read the headlines noting that another school had done away with its music program. Another had discarded elementary art, and yet another had disbanded its theatre program. Times are tough and cuts were made, in many cases to the single most valuable thing a young person can learn: self-confidence. You couldn’t pay me to sit on a school board when such decisions have to be made, but I simply wonder what state legislators are thinking when they continue to choke school funding.
In the past few months I’ve worked with local artist Steven Varble who got his start in the elementary classrooms of District 117, I’ve directed dozens of young Jacksonville, Triopia, Beardstown and Meredosia kids who got their first taste of the arts in the public school system. I spend my summers floating up and down the Illinois River with a guitar player and storyteller who have told me that it was their grade school introduction to music and speech that paved the way for their livelihood today. I once had a football coach tell me, “I learned to score on the football field, but I learned to coach doing theatre.”
So again I ask myself, what are we thinking?
“An elementary school that treats the arts as the province of a few gifted children, or views them only as entertainment, is a school that needs and infusion of soul.” William Bennett, Former U.S. Secretary of Education.
“The arts significantly boost student achievement, reduce discipline problems, and increase the odds students will go on to graduate from college. “ Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education.
“It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough- – – it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us results and makes our hearts sing.” Steve Jobs.
“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” Albert Einstein.
The fifth-grade Kenny Bradbury used to dread Wednesdays, the day I’d have to trudge down to the band for my piano lesson while my buddy Paul went to baseball practice and my friend Jerry shot baskets in his back yard. They’d poke good-natured ribbing at me for being holed up banging on a piano while they had fun. Paul had to retire a few years ago from his job as a mail carrier when his knees gave out, and Jerry has struggled for years to make it selling insurance. Meanwhile I’m floating up and down the Illinois River making music.
If a school wants to ruin the chances for the success of its students, it would be quicker and easier to simply shoot itself in the foot.