Songs for the Struggling Artist

Dasani and the Arts
December 20, 2013, 9:06 pm
Filed under: art, education | Tags: , ,

When I saw the New York Times article about “The Invisible Child” go through my Facebook feed, I thought, “That kid could be one of my former students.” I didn’t read it, though, not at first. Given that I’ve taught thousands of young people in the last 15 years, I figured every kid looks like a former student. It wasn’t until I’d seen the article go through my feed for the fifth or sixth time that I finally clicked on the link and read it.

Turns out, the child at the heart of the piece IS, in fact, a student I taught. While she’d grown up a bit since I last saw her, it was clearly the same Dasani that I’d worked with at PS 67 in Brooklyn a couple years ago.

Like many of my friends, I found the article moving and fiercely compelling. (I stayed up well past 2am one night reading it.) It’s a remarkable piece of journalism and I felt some bittersweetness in having some experience with its subject and her narrative. But I think there’s another narrative that is hiding within this one, one about the Arts and how Dasani became the self-reliant, articulate kid that she is.

We don’t see Dasani before she goes to the Arts school in Brooklyn. We don’t see her fall in love with dance. We don’t see how she came to be the kind of kid who would figure out how to get to Harlem from Brooklyn on her own for a rehearsal. I don’t know what the links in that narrative chain are but I do know what some of the conditions were at Dasani’s elementary school that allowed those things to happen.

1) Her school, unlike MOST public schools in NYC, had a dance studio in it and Dasani had a dance teacher and a regular dance class. Additionally, her classroom teachers expressed a great deal of interest in what their students did there. They were great supporters of dance and tried to integrate their movement work into their class work.
2) Similarly, her school had a music teacher and a music room and a music class. And the students’ work there was featured in their classroom teachers’ presentations.
3) Despite the article’s suggestion that PS 67 had no resources, her school did, in fact, have a computer room and her class had regular access to it.
4) Dasani not only had a theatre residency with me, she had teachers who would take what the class learned in theatre and then integrate it into their studies. Before the grant ran out, the school had an ambition to make sure students got exposure to theatre in every grade.
5) She had teachers who gave her, and her fellow students, writing and public speaking skills, which they practiced regularly. The students also often wrote creatively and practiced articulating their feelings and analyzing them. I saw it in action.

The Arts were a major part of Dasani’s childhood and they have clearly continued to play a large role, in that she’s gone on to study dance.

Dasani is a remarkable kid. But I will say, she was in the company of dozens of remarkable kids at a remarkable elementary school. And yes, I worry about her. You couldn’t read that article and not worry about her. But I actually worry less about her than I do about all of the students in her position who didn’t have the elementary education that she did. You can probably tell from the article that Dasani has a remarkable store of self-reliance, resilience and charisma. There’s something about her that makes me feel like she’ll somehow land on her feet.

But – what about the students who never found a reason to fight to go to school, who don’t have loving relationships with teachers and administrators, whose experience of poverty doesn’t have the bright spots that Dasani encounters?

It’s funny to think of a kid living under the conditions that Dasani has endured as having some advantages but that’s weirdly how I see her. And the major advantage that she’s had, in my mind, is an arts-based education. I think Dasani’s experience of the arts probably helped her to become the sort of kid a New York Times reporter wants to write about. It helped her become a spokes-kid for others in her situation.

If you’ve ever tried to teach a kid how to think metaphorically, you know how tricky it can be. Throughout the article, Dasani uses metaphor and expressive language like a total pro. And I believe that it was her exposure to the Arts that gave her that skill. I just wish we could give that gift to more of her peers.

Sometimes in Arts Education, there is a sense that the Arts can save kids in terrible situations. I think it’s important to recognize that the Arts aren’t going to get Dasani a home or solve her family’s difficulties. But what the Arts can do is give a kid skills to look at the world creatively, to find a reason to go to school, to develop valuable passionate discipline. And The Arts can’t do that in a piecemeal sort of way. It doesn’t happen with an occasional residency with a teaching artist. It doesn’t happen with a single visit to a museum. It comes from a sustained and integrated commitment to the Arts. It comes from having dance AND music AND visual art AND theatre AND having them on a regular basis. I want that for every kid in New York City and I want it for Dasani, all the way through the rest of her education.


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