by Katherine Farnham
It’s funny the memories that flash through your mind sometimes. It’s funny the moments that stick with you.
It was a life changing experience to teach in the Los Angeles inner city. I’ll never forget it. A few days ago I remembered the face of a boy who was in my class years ago.
During my first few years living in LA, I taught in Los Angeles and Compton. The LA teaching site was an after school program. We provided the musical portion of the activities for the kids. Although we taught at numerous sites with different age groups (age 5 to 17) run by the same non profit, this particular one was at a middle school.
I taught the keyboard class with my co-teacher Benjamin from Paris, France. Benjamin was a brass player. He knew music theory very well and had a wonderful excitement and grace when he talked about music. He knew how to explain basic theory to the kids and make it sound interesting.
These kids learned three to four times faster than the average student! However, they had immense challenges retaining the information. There were many distractions. Many of them were dealing with problems at home, frequent moves, sometimes even shootings in their neighborhoods. They would learn sometimes, get a little excited, and then the next time we saw them again it was as if they had never been exposed to the material at all.
Soon I began reminding them gently of previous lessons and noticed that their memory would jog and we could begin to build upon the previous lessons. But it became imperative to spend a lot of time on review. They had to learn how to focus despite distractions, master previous lessons and persevere until they had gained facility with a new skill. Sometimes there were so many interruptions and heartbreaking distractions that it really seemed almost hopeless. But Benjamin and I fought hard. We did not give up. As long as the students were respectful and kept trying, we kept teaching, working and - as often as possible - laughing. I always liked to joke around to get the kids cracking up in between practice sessions.
One boy would hang around on the fringes of the classroom. He seemed to want to be there, but he also seemed shy and uncomfortable actually sitting down and participating. Benjamin seemed to have an innate sense that the boy was going through something and so he didn’t press the issue. The boy only came a few times and then disappeared. Eventually Benjamin explained to me that he had talked to him and the boy confided that his father was violent at home. He wanted to participate but was upset and tense. He would watch us and then leave.
Benjamin felt that as the male teacher he should be the one to handle the boy. So I stayed out of it and focused my attention on several other female and male students who really needed extra help. But I know he talked to the boy several times and told him that we both really cared about him and his progress. Benjamin told him, “We want you to feel comfortable. We care about what happens to you.”
Weeks went by and I do not recall seeing the boy at all. Then suddenly, after we had changed locations for our class one day I saw him standing behind the auditorium curtain. I looked up and there he was. I was surprised and almost said, “Oh hello there, welcome back!” or something like that but suddenly I saw his expression and it stopped me.
Tears were streaming down the boy’s face. He wasn’t trying to stop them. He was just standing there in front of the auditorium curtain watching us and the other keyboard students - and crying.
Benjamin immediately asked me to take over the whole class and he went backstage to talk with him. I felt concerned but I knew Benjamin knew what to say and that the boy was clearly healing in some kind of way. I remembered thinking that this was happening at the same time that another student I was working with had had a bit of a breakthrough. Both of us had been working very hard to build trust with the students and teach them some basic skills before the term was over. It was not an easy task.
We finished the class and the other students began putting the materials away.
“What on Earth did you say to him?” I asked Benjamin. “Is he ok?”
Benjamin looked flushed, tired, concerned - but a bit - joyful. “He told me that something had just clicked and so he wanted to come back to class again. He said that I kept telling him we did truly care about him and he said he just didn’t believe me at first. He said today he realized that we meant it. He realized that we cared about him. Today he believed us. It sunk in.”
At that moment, I realized that for some of these inner city kids we were the only safe people in their lives. We were the only adults who stood for solid values, a sense of fun with purpose, adults who were not going to lie to them. They might not even get a hug at home.
Then - the tears welled up in my eyes too. It hurt to think that was true. But at least we could plant a seed for them.
The boy hugged Benjamin. After that day, I don’t think we saw him again. But he had learned something about the healing power of music.
He learned that sometimes there are truly people who care - even when it seems like there aren’t.
All I can say for certain is that I did my best in the inner city to show those kids that indeed I did. I hope the love I’ve given will come back to me - when I need it most.
When love goes out into the world and then comes back to you - then I guess there is - belief.
(c) 2019-2020 Katherine Farnham
Note: If you are dealing with domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. You can also contact a Crisis Line, community center, trusted family member or friend. If you are experiencing an emergency, please go to your nearest emergency room for help.