Friday, February 27, 2015

Thanks to Waukee teachers, there's no "right" way to celebrate music

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Every child needs a place to be, a place where he/she not only feels comfortable, but owns his/her surroundings. Last night at a middle school show choir end-of-season performance in Waukee, Iowa, two teachers showed us how to make that happen.

In addition to the show choirs they direct as part of their jobs teaching middle school music, educators Shelly and Michelle started a smaller choir this year for students who wanted to do some extra performing. The group choreographed its own music and spent a lot of extra time practicing, and they performed for the crowd last night.

Front and center was a boy named Zach. Zach has obvious cognitive delays, and maybe some physical ones, too. And Zach clearly loves, and deeply feels, music.

The group performed songs from "The Lion King," and Zach knew every word, every dance move. He formed the words differently from the way the other kids formed them, and they didn't sound the same. He danced differently, too. But he matched the other kids beat for beat, and he performed joyfully, head back and eyes open wide.

He also sang loudly, so loudly that at times, we couldn't really hear the other kids. But here's the thing: The other kids didn't mind. In fact, their smiles encouraged Zach. He smiled and they smiled. They sang together, each in his or her own way.

And when it was over, Zach wasn't quite finished with his joy. He hugged every other student in the group, and every other student hugged him back. He nearly tackled one of his teacher, and she returned his enthusiasm. He clearly belonged.

I think back 39 years ago, to my own seventh-grade year. We had no classmates with cognitive or physical delays; they went to "special" schools. If I had encountered such a classmate, I'm sad to say I would have felt awkward and maybe even a little afraid.

But because districts like Waukee and teachers like Shelly and Michelle know there's no such thing as a "different" child, Zach is truly just one of the kids. He doesn't sing like everyone else, but no one makes him feel as though the way he sings is wrong. They rejoice in the sounds he makes because he so clearly loves making them.

In these sad days when middle-schoolers in other parts of the city are mourning classmates who have taken their own lives, it's all the more critical that every student find his or her place -- a place to receive acceptance and affection and affirmation. Thanks to teachers like Michelle and Shelly and districts that know the fine arts can save lives, Zach has such a place, and his classmates are that much stronger for embracing him for who he is.

I'm overjoyed that my daughter is part of such a district, learning from peers like Shelly and Michelle. Thanks, Waukee middle school vocal music teachers, for all you do, daily, for hundreds of kids. And thanks, Zach, for reminding us what music should really sound like.

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