June 11, 2021
My mom answered the phone, “Hi, Ms. Miller”. Oh no. Was I in trouble for drawing on the back of my teacher’s desk with white-out brush that I attached to the end of a long pencil? Or was it the golf course I made out of silly putty and the club I fashioned from my pen clip? Not this time. Apparently, I was frequently getting out of my seat and sometimes wandering the halls during class. The school demanded action. My pediatrician diagnosed me with ADHD and put me on Ritalin.
I can’t lie. Ritalin certainly helped. I became a much more calculating class clown. I was able to pull off jokes, entertain my friends, and keep my teachers happy, most of the time. But my real problem was flying under the radar unnoticed. I was way behind grade level especially in reading, writing, and verbal literacy, and I became more and more frustrated in school. And then it happened.
During the summer before 5th grade, my friend from Kindergarten moved across the street, and with him came his piano. He taught me how to play the duet “Heart and Soul”. We would play it ad nauseum until his mother enforced a rule that we couldn’t play that tune anymore. No matter. I quickly learned how to pluck out tunes with my right hand and then started added chords and bass notes with my left. One day, my mom came looking for me and saw me playing the piano. She was shocked, and ecstatically so. After a conversation with my dad, we were shopping for a piano and lessons.
Music opened up a whole new world. It felt as if my prayers were answered — although I was probably praying for a BB gun or gas-powered Go-Kart at the time. Music was always there, waiting for me after school and it was the one thing that kept me focused. My grades improved in school and most importantly, I found my calling. In sixth grade, I started to meet other musicians and fell in love with “prog” rock and later, many other styles of music. Many of those guys became lifelong friends — actually, I played a New Orleans-style traditional jazz concert for the Enoch Pratt library system a couple weeks ago with the drummer from my high school rock band!
With the help from a specialist at Johns Hopkins, I stopped taking Ritalin in high school and developed strategies to stay focused. I picked up several other instruments and started learning how to sketch. My class notes often became elaborate diagrams and stories, with cartoon characters, captions and lyrics, accompanied by a soundtrack in my head. This really helped me retain information, especially in subject areas that did not interest me. And like many other adolescents, I had bouts of depression. Some people preferred talking it out with a therapist or friends. I preferred the piano.
I’ll never forget my first day on the job as a social worker in a Baltimore City middle school. A teacher brought a boy to my office and just said, “fix him!” Those words triggered me. He had a hard time opening up so I decided to take him to the piano after a few sessions. I laid down a simple jazzy chord and gave him three notes to play. He was intimidated. I simply told him to listen and just play what you feel. It worked like a charm, as it had with me. Somehow the word got out and many students began visiting my office after school, begging me to play music with them. It turned into an organized program and at the end of the year, the students put together their own talent show which included original songs, spoken word, dance, and a circus act. Beyond the impact that music had on my clients, it was painfully clear that Baltimore students were starved for arts education — opportunities to create and outlets to release their feelings and explore their interests.
As a public education policy advocate for the ACLU of Maryland, one of my core duties is to secure adequate school funding, as guaranteed by the constitution — this includes full Fine Arts programming. I often wonder how many children in Baltimore lack opportunities to grow, or perhaps find their calling, through the arts. I wonder how many children are labeled as “problems”, without ever realizing or nurturing their assets. I wonder how a cultural arts program could help Baltimore children develop a strong sense of identity and purpose through the processing of their history, racism, and current day challenges in their own communities.
Despite the efforts of many, the $4 billion “sweeping” education reform bill, “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future” (aka “Kirwan”), that was just passed by the legislature does not guarantee full Fine Arts programming for all of Maryland’s public schoolchildren. It’s time to double up on our efforts!