Blog Editor Alina Celeste on a powerful musical moment early in her career as a Teaching Artist.
It only took one word to change my life.
I was twenty-two. I had a degree in Musical Theater and no formal training in education, but I needed a job and Florida needed music teachers. One application and a bewildering interview later, I was hired at a school where children with special needs made up half the student body.
On my first day, in new heels and sheer tights (what I figured grown-ups wore to work), I sat in my classroom and looked at the kindergarteners in front of me. Their teacher helpfully stood over each one and silently mouthed their conditions and verbal abilities, assuming, I imagine, that I knew what they were or how to accommodate them. With each word my heart sank.
Spina Bifida, Cerebral Palsy, Downs Syndrome, Autistic, Muscular Dystrophy, non-verbal, can’t stand, can’t walk, can’t hold up her head without assistance.
I hoped that by nodding with a knowing smile I’d appear professional, like a real teacher. I resisted crawling under my desk, stopping up my ears and shouting “LA LA LA” until everyone left. I wanted to cover my head and go back to singing show tunes and talking vaguely about making the world a better place without actually having to do anything.
Instead I pulled out my guitar, ignored my sweaty palms, and did the only thing I knew how to do… I sang. I sang their names and made silly sounds; I sang about cows and birds and ice cream. To my utter amazement, they smiled and danced, and some even sang back to me.
When we were done, I waved goodbye to each one as they were pushed, guided or carried out of class. Jennifer, a tiny little girl suffering from cerebral palsy so severe her head was permanently pointed down, looked up at me from the corner of her eye and said, “Bye.”
It was the first word she’d uttered since beginning the year a week prior. Her teachers had assumed she just couldn’t speak, but thirty minutes of singing and silliness proved them wrong.
One word, and I realized that making the world a better place was a thing that I could actually do by offering up what I had: my music.
Art as a tool for connection has continued to be a strong theme in my life. Even as I pursued music for “grown-ups,” I always worked in classrooms. Eventually, the bars and clubs gave way to libraries and museums. In my writing and my work with children I have strived to uplift, educate, and provide opportunities for self-expression and connection.
Jennifer would be about seventeen now. She may not remember that day. She may not even remember me, but that doesn’t matter. Sometimes all it takes to make someone’s world a better place is one little word.
If you have a story about a powerful musical moment, please share!