Black and brown faces weren't unknown to me - we had a handful of minority students in my high school - but, with regard to "minority culture," my exposure would have been pretty much limited to what was then on television - "The Cosby Show" and rap videos - if it weren't for public arts programs.
Friends - I OWE MY LIFE, AND LIFE AS I KNOW IT, TO PUBLIC ARTS PROGRAMS.
First, it is no exaggeration to say that dance, chorus, and drama gave me a reason to live when my adolescent depression tried to convince me otherwise. These programs gave me friends, mentors, and a support system.
But equally as importantly - and to return to the subject of this post - public arts programs exposed me, in whatever limited ways, to cultures outside of my own.
Dance exposed me to musicians and choreography styles from around the world. I would pas de chat and arabesque to masterpieces composed centuries before my birth in lands I have yet to visit. Because instructors chose to expose me to music I would never have pursued on my own, I developed if not a-taste-for then at least a-basic-understanding-of modern musicians of various races and sexual orientations. (Turns out black people gifted the world with much more than Cosby and rap videos. Who knew? ME! Thanks, in large part, to arts programs.)
In choir, I sang selections in many languages - Spanish, French, Hebrew, Swahili, Latin. And in singing these songs and learning their English translations, I garnered (however unintentionally) some understanding about the cultures that inspired them. Choir is the reason I can tell you how to say "I love you" in Spanish, French, Russian and Hebrew. It's also where I first learned "Do Di Li," a song I asked my best friend to sing at my wedding.
Theater taught me about how other people in other cultures think. Plays, perhaps more than any other artistic medium, demanded that I look at others' motivations for actions - why is this person doing this? What does this person need from this? What cultural and societal motivations would drive a person to act in this way?
From these lessons, I learned empathy.
"Other" became not so much frightening as fascinating.
And that fascination inspired the desire for further learning.
I cannot overstress the overarching impacts these programs have had on my life, on how I treat others, on how I understand others, on how I understand and continue to shape myself.
This post - this post is about the importance of public art programs. It's about the impact that few dollars and a group of dedicated individuals can make in the life of a child. It's about how the influence of an art teacher or a single exposure to a classical composer or contemporary playwright, can literally change the course of a life.
This post is about appreciation.
But I would be remiss if I did not at least mention that this is also a post about concern.
I am concerned about the future of public art programs in the US.
Often, arts programs are the first on the chopping block when budgets are tight.
Standardized tests don't cover Monet or Mozart, and, with No Child Left Behind's emphasis on test scores for federal funding, the arts are deemed "optional," when in actuality they are anything but.
Numerous studies have shown that involvement in arts programs improve overall student performance and test scores. But these findings don't seem to sway those whose hands hold the purse strings. And with the current administration looking to defund the National Endowment For The Arts, I truly fear the dire consequences to future generations that are not fortunate, as I was, to be exposed to cultures, peoples, and belief systems I never would have sought on my own.
Much of what I hold intellectually and emotionally dear was not something I actively sought - it was dropped at my feet (and sometimes force-fed) by an art teacher who refused to let me languish in intellectual laziness.
Those teachers, though they may never know it, are the ones I credit with nearly every positive attribute I possess.
To those persons, I want to say, "Thank you." You helped shape and change me in more ways than you (and even I) could possibly know.
If you were also someone made better by public arts programs, I invite you to share this with others. Perhaps together we can all make the necessary waves to save these life-changing programs.
Thanks you. And "God bless us, every one."
And if you caught that last reference, thank an art teacher, because I know you didn't pick up Dickens on your own!