THE BLOG
06/24/2013 03:43 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2013

Five Days With Frank

I am not a teacher,

but I was invited to be a guest teaching artist

at a five day songwriting-performance workshop

for 25 third grade students

at a public school

in an underserved community

in the middle of the city.

I was told about one boy,

Luis.

He's a good student who does his work,

but never speaks in class.

Day One

I take attendance.

Luis has a solemn face

with deep brown eyes

and long lashes

that are magnified

by the thick coke-bottle-like lenses

in his glasses.

I call his name.

He quietly says,

"My name is Oscar."

Perhaps this is his middle name.

I make a note.

The kids begin writing their songs.

Day Two

I take attendance.

"Oscar."

He corrects me,

"Juan."

Ah.

A game.

OK.

His face is unchanging.

He looks out the window at the playground.

The kids continue their work.

Day Three

"Luis-Oscar-Juan!"

I call out.

"Jose" he replies.

He doesn't look at me.

His eyes are fixed on the pencil in his hand.

He hasn't spoken a word in class.

No one has heard his song.

Day Four

"Frank!" I call out.

The kids glance around the room nervously for Frank.

They look back at me when they can't figure out who Frank is.

"Here!"

Luis-Oscar-Juan-Jose replies.

There was a tiny glint in his eyes.

It looked like joy.

The kids begin rehearsing their songs with music.

Frank works without accompaniment.

At noon tomorrow,

the auditorium will be filled with 100 third graders,

four guest teaching artists,

faculty members,

and about 150 parents.

I asked Frank if I could hear his song.

He politely shook his head, "No, Ms."

Day Five

I enter the classroom,

put my bag on the desk,

and a voice rings out,

"Frank. Here!"

My heart does a cartwheel.

Frank stares straight ahead,

unmoving.

We run through everyone's songs.

Frank opts out of rehearsing in front of the class.

We proceed to the auditorium.

Frank's Mom and Dad are sitting expectantly in the front row,

his little brother and sister in tow.

I gather my kids for a pre-performance talk backstage.

Frank has disappeared.

After searching everywhere,

I find him

tucked behind a gigantic papier-mâché boulder,

crying.

His coke bottle glasses are fogged up.

The words tumble out of his mouth.

"I'm afraid to sing.

Maybe my song isn't good enough

and no one will like it.

But I want to sing.

But maybe it's not as good as the other songs.

I'm afraid no one will like it."

And his small frame crumpled with sobs.

A postcard with a painting of St. Francis

surrounded by adoring animals

has been in my guitar case for years.

I got it in Assisi, Italy,

and on the back,

in miniature writing

I printed Martha Graham's letter to Agnes de Mille.

It's been like a mantra for me.

"...and because there is only one of you in all time,

this expression is unique.

And if you block it,

it will never exist through any other medium

and it will be lost.

The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is

nor how valuable

nor how it compares to other expressions.

It is your business

to keep it yours

clearly and directly..."

I understood Frank's fear.

We have no control over how our work will be received.

"Frank," I said,

"I haven't heard your song or your voice,

but I know there isn't another Frank anywhere in the world,

and there never will be.

No one observes life the way you do.

Your song is special.

It could never be written

by anyone else.

If you decide not to sing it today,

the world will not have it.

We will never have this moment again.

I know you can do this,

but it's your decision."

Frank wiped his nose and looked at me

through the one corner of his glasses

that wasn't fogged up.

The first little girl walked on stage.

Thrilled to be there,

she smiled

and waved at the audience.

She never started her song.

She just smiled and waved.

Finally,

after several minutes,

she was gently removed from the stage.

My class performed without Frank.

The principal took the microphone at the end of the performance

to thank everyone for attending.

Suddenly,

Frank appeared on stage.

He whispered something

to the principal,

and the principal turned to the audience

and said,

"Please welcome our final performer."

Frank stood very still

and surveyed the audience

for a minute.

And then he began to sing,

acappella.

He sang with such heart

it felt like rockets launching.

His melodies took sharp,

unexpected turns

down narrow

winding streets

and then suddenly

we were on a stretch of open highway

traveling

at top speed.

His Mom and Dad were clutching each other's hands.

His Mom was crying

and his Dad was choking back tears.

His little brother and sister took this opportunity

to look for candy

they had dropped on the floor.

I wanted to hug the people sitting next to me.

We were part of a great moment together.

Frank had tapped into that surprising inner resource we all possess.

No one knew the courage it took for Frank to sing his song.

No one saw him sobbing behind the papier-mâché boulder.

The world almost didn't have it.

Thank you, Frank.