Thoughts from a passionate teacher
It was Halloween and my 4-year old son Areg was excited to go to school wearing his new shirt with a picture of a skeleton on the front. The most fascinating feature of this shirt was the fact that the skeleton could actually light up in the dark. Areg kept babbling about it and couldn’t wait to show the shirt to everyone. But he knew that during the day, no one would be able to know that the skeleton could actually light up. So he needed to share that information with his new preschool friends. The only problem was: he couldn’t express himself in English. You see, my husband and I decided to raise our children speaking only our language in the house until they went to school and learned English. That way, we knew, they would become truly bilingual (well, in our case, trilingual). So when Areg started interacting with his new friends in school, his English was extremely limited to pretty much what he’s learned from watching the cartoons.
That morning, he asked me: Mom, how do you say in English: “Скелет светится ночью”? I answered: “The skeleton lights up at night”. So as he walked to school, holding hands with his dad, he kept repeating over and over: “The skeleton lights up at night”, “The skeleton lights up at night”.... As soon as he walked into his classroom, he shouted: “The skeleton lights up at night”!
A few weeks later, we were invited to a parent-teacher conference. Areg’s teacher discussed some of the school rules and classroom procedures, but then suddenly, looked at us cautiously and shared what seemed to be bothering her all that time - that Areg may have a learning disability. “How can that be? We haven’t noticed anything alarming,” we asked anxiously. Well, she hesitated, he is having difficulty completing his work. I asked, “Have you considered that he may not understand the directions or requirements?” “What do you mean?” she replied. “See, Areg doesn’t speak English yet”. She was speechless. Since Areg was never identified as an ESL student, there was no question in her mind that he would have a language barrier. In fact, Areg worked really hard to hide from everyone that he was an English language learner. I must admit, he was able to fool everyone around him and make them believe that he could actually speak English. How did he do it? He developed a database of memorized phrases and expressions he’s heard on TV or the radio and then was able to use them at the the appropriate times at school - just like he memorized the phrase about the skeleton and fooled everyone that that he knew what he was talking about!
That parent/teacher conference was an incredible revelation for me. At that time, I was a first year teacher, struggling to connect with my students and in fact doubting that teaching was for me. Suddenly, I realized that getting to know my students must be my priority. I wondered how many "Aregs" I had in my class, struggling but not willing to share, even working hard on hiding something? I may not have had many immigrant students but I knew that every student in my class had his or her own story. It was my job to listen, understand and connect.
I must admit: as a child, I never thought I would become a teacher. In my childhood scrapbook next to what I wanna be when I grow up, you would not find the word “teacher”. After immigrating to America, I worked numerous jobs, including being an insurance agent, an interpreter, freelance and church musician, arranger, and I even had a short stint as a financial advisor on Wall Street. It wasn’t until I had an opportunity to help a student get accepted into the school of her dreams after her father tragically died during 9/11 that I knew I wanted to teach. Still, my calling was not “cultivated” yet. My first days as a teacher were terrifying. Scary. My music theory class was full of senior rebellious boys. Some dreamt of becoming rock band drummers showing long and at times hardly washed hairdos; others could not wait for their senior year to end while yawning non-stop during the first period; rest of them were just hitching a ride in hopes for an easy grade…Not surprisingly, it did not take long before one of the boys found a way to disrupt my class and, as luck would have it, in front of my observing supervisor… The incident sucked the air out of the room. I was not experienced enough to revive the class as my CPR skills have not yet developed… I felt absolutely powerless. My son’s parent/teacher conference taught me of the importance of understanding my students, but I didn’t have a clue as to how to connect to these boys.
Then, something unexpected happened. I learned of their interests and life aspirations. listened to their stories…. and grew a passion… for working with these students. Students who cultivated a calling that I didn’t know I had. TO BE A TEACHER. Students like Matt who came from a broken family and preferred staying after school rather than going home, spending hours with me discussing the staccato riffs by Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” or the remarkable chord progression in The Eagle’s “Hotel California”. Students like Stephanie, a strong young woman who had to work to support her family and take care of her little brother because her dad was in prison. Students like Sam - a transgender student who was bullied in the middle school and almost committed suicide. Or exceptional students like Dan who, despite many difficulties and obstacles, decided to pursue a career in music education. I grew to love these kids. And they loved me in return. Suddenly, quitting was not the option. These kids needed me.
My journey as a refugee revealed the three most important values that I need to teach my students: love, courage, and hope. Let's face it: there are not enough of these values in our world today. But we have an honor and responsibility of motivating our students to become the best ethical and responsible global citizens they can be, to spread love and understanding in the world where, unfortunately, hatred and bigotry are taking place. I still remember the powerful, excruciating pain when I received the horrifying news about my husband’s cousin being brutally murdered in front of his family, because of hatred. I still remember the feeling of yearning to speak up but feeling ignored and unimportant. Waking up at night, fearing for the safety of my family and longing for freedom. Carrying my newborn daughter as I was going through the airport security, with $30 in my pocket, fleeing to the US with my husband, in the hopes for a better future. Disturbing vivid memories of horror and fear – the feelings I know all too well.
Hans Christian Andersen once said: where words fail, music speaks. I use music to teach my students how to be truly human, and that’s my calling.
Because music has the power to make the world a better place.
Because music education can be a tool for social justice.
Because through music, I can empower my students to stand up for themselves and create change.
Because through music, my students recognize beauty, have more love, compassion, respect, integrity and understanding.