Interim Superintendent Dan Ward was right.
It was just hard to hear him over the “don’t confuse me with the facts” approach of Bill O’Reilly. Mr. Ward said on Mr. O’Reilly’s cable network program that the Mitchell High School students who were caught on tape simulating rape as part of a dance should not become the faces of the 113,000 students of Memphis City Schools.
We thought of that Friday night as we watched 20 young people dance at the “open house performance” at Dance Works in the Southwest Tennessee Community College Theater.
They danced to the music of Bartok played by the strings of the Germantown Symphony Orchestra; to Mingus played by long-time Memphis talents, keyboardist Tony Thomas and alto saxophonist Gary Topper and to an original jazz composition by Jeremy Shrader played by the composer on trumpet and Gerald Stephens on piano.
It was a 90-minute reminder about the profound impact that arts can have on students, but more precisely, it was a reminder that students are searching for – and responding to – positive and creative ways to express themselves. Friday night, they found expression in pirouettes and tendus.
It was light years from the message conveyed by the Mitchell High School video, and although the Dance Works performance was taped, it’ll never make the evening news. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be, because the performance offered timely reminders about students on so many levels.
Credit Where Credit’s Due
It also was a lesson that should be reinforced by Memphis City Schools, which, unlike many similar districts, does not give these students class credits for the hours of practice, discipline and commitment that precedes a recital like this one. That is equally true for the young ballerina who will spend her summer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and School in New York, but can’t get high school credits for her success.
It’s an egregious oversight by our city schools. If students can be earning credits during a day that includes a “rape dance” and can be earning credits for bowling, we can only hope that someone at the district will investigate ways in which students like these – and others engaged in artistic pursuits all over Memphis – can be rewarded for their extra effort.
For us, what we watched Friday night wasn’t so much students who had learned to dance as students who had a positive vision for their lives and had taken the steps – sometimes difficult and courageous – to make it happen. If public education can’t find a way to recognize them and encourage them, it is myopic and rule-bound to a degree that it suggests that its culture is incapable of change.
We know that most of the members of the board of commissioners are strongly supportive of these kinds of after-school artistic programs. We also know that most of them are unaware that other districts give credit to students engaged in similar programs. In the wake of the Mitchell High School controversy, it’s hard to imagine a better time for them to send a message about who better represents Memphis City Schools.
Our friend, George Lord, recently reminded us recently about how important the arts are, and why actions that deemphasize them are short-sighted if we are truly interested and committed to the development of fully-formed young people.
He pointed out that young people who regularly participate in comprehensive, sequential and rigorous arts programs are four times more likely to be recognized for academic performance, three times more likely to be elected to class office, four times more likely to participate in a math or science fair, three times more like to win an award for school attendance and four times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or poem.
The arts provide children with different ways to process information and express their knowledge, the ability to think creatively in areas like math and science and the ability to be independent and collaborative.
The arts also teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships, to celebrate multiple perspectives showing students that there are many ways to see and interpret the world, make it clear that the limits of our language do not define the limits of cognition and help children learn to say what cannot be said.
Yes, it’s true that we only saw about 20 students at Dance Works. But it is equally true that we can change the future of this city 20 students at a time.
A couple of weeks ago, we wrote:
“Like so many unsung people in our city, she worked with the simple nobility that seems to characterize the real heroes of Memphis – the people without titles and without celebrity – who, without regard for recognition or for headlines, day in and day out simply try to make this a better place.”
We were reminded of that kind of simple nobility at Dance Works as well.
For 21 years – 16 of them at Southwest Tennessee Community College – it has been working in the trenches of arts education to provide an accredited ballet program that has a Canadian cultural exchange program. Supported by grants from the Tennessee Arts Commission and ArtsMemphis, it is directed by Karen J. Zissoff who is assisted by Sondra Brooks Whitfield, who also qualify to be called heroes.