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,
He's a good student who does his work,
but never speaks in class.
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.
I take attendance.
He corrects me,
His face is unchanging.
He looks out the window at the playground.
The kids continue their work.
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.
"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.
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,
and about 150 parents.
I asked Frank if I could hear his song.
He politely shook his head, "No, Ms."
I enter the classroom,
put my bag on the desk,
and a voice rings out,
My heart does a cartwheel.
Frank stares straight ahead,
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,
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,
and waved at the audience.
She never started her song.
She just smiled and waved.
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.
Frank appeared on stage.
He whispered something
to the principal,
and the principal turned to the audience
"Please welcome our final performer."
Frank stood very still
and surveyed the audience
for a minute.
And then he began to sing,
He sang with such heart
it felt like rockets launching.
His melodies took sharp,
and then suddenly
we were on a stretch of open highway
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.