The Art of Necessity

Karen - Sylmar, California
Entered on October 10, 2008

I believe that children need the arts. Visual arts, performing arts, language arts, athletic arts, cooking or decorating arts, singing or dressing up arts.

In these days of budget cuts and school districts sacrificing electives for more ‘necessary’ things; in these days of separated families and economic despair and the omnipresent media, we need the arts more than ever. In my area of Los Angeles, many families are first- or second-generation immigrants– people who scrimp and save and truly sacrifice to provide their family with the basics. We simply cannot afford to have this generation grow up without all the benefits the arts can bring to their lives. The arts can save their lives.

I think of the high school where I’ve taught for 12 years. It has an inner-city reputation even though it’s in the Valley. It’s one of the largest schools in the nation, and the population is 98% Latino. Class sizes are high; morale is low; administration turnover is high, standardized test performance is low. I think of the kids at the school: humble, quiet, angry. Some dress in dark ‘goth’ wear, while others– girls– dress in outfits so revealing it is obvious they stripped off a layer in the bathroom when they arrived on campus. Both types silently scream out their lack of self confidence, lack of any other reason to value themselves. I’ve had kids tell me they get home and just sit. Whether in front of the TV or the stereo or a video game, they just sit. Others work: at home with smaller siblings or at a job to help supplement the family income. Their lives lack spark, lack enthusiasm, and lack energy. Very few adults ever tell these kids that they are great, that they are talented or gifted or unique. These kids need the arts.

The arts provide so much that we all need in our lives.

Consider the benefits of mental focus: getting lost in the creativity of a project. Haven’t you ever been so engrossed in creating something that you literally forget where you are and who’s around you? All noise cancels out, and your surroundings fade to white. White like those big rectangular sheets of paper we all got in second grade to paint a picture of our family. Consider the therapy of this: to have the dragging and draining of one’s day fade into the background in lieu of something uplifting and creative. Something to rev up the lesser-used parts of our brains, the parts that exercise divergent thinking and appreciate a challenge. For those kids who lug their problems around with them all day like heavy textbooks in a backpack, this mental focus provides them relief, respite, and maybe even reassurance that tomorrow will be a better day, if only because they know they can take one hour out of that day to release their mind from its cares.

Consider the self-affirmation and praise from others, both peers and authority figures, which the arts provide. Being chosen by a group to speak in front of the class on their behalf, being one of a chorus whose voices ring out loud and clear and strong, being chosen to display a sculpture in the hallway display case, at Open House, or even just on the bulletin board. Being chosen for praise, whether alone or part of a group, is invaluable and so necessary. I’ve seen kids who have never been pointed to for praise shrink, and fall through the cracks of daily school life. Not that they aren’t smart, or talented. They just never got the chance to show what they could do if only given the chance, if only given that white piece of paper. Never got the chance to realize that they do have something to contribute, something others will enjoy, and appreciate.

Consider the undeniable, irreplaceable and incomparable impact of doing something you’re proud of, something few or no others can do. Catching the winning pass, executing the lay-up at the buzzer, or breaking the tape one tenth of a second before the next runner. Those moments that no one can ever, ever take away. Those moments are forever. For some kids, it’s doing their first somersault or making contact with the ball for the first time. Either way, they experience that involuntary, uncontrollable smile and that undeniable spark in their eye, a spark that is mirrored in their parents’ eye as a glistening tear, having seen their child do something they never even dreamed their son or daughter could do.

This– this spark of hope, is why we need the arts.