The talk was written predominantly for donors, so it is somewhat sugar coated. The program is gritty in good and bad ways. And those donors weren’t entirely thrilled with it when I proposed it. The grant is one that gives faculty a small amount of money to spend on interacting with their students. It’s an “honor” of the kind of my husband says I specialize in—no money or professional capital but more work. And I’m inherently mistrustful of a grant that comes with a requirement to go to two semiformal dinners, the second of which your spouse is not invited to. But it did give the resources to start something cool.
These last two photos are courtesy of John Mason
Last week we had an orientation session for the second year of the arts mentor program. This year twenty-seven students will pair up with 27 underserved kids for a variety of arts events. The students were eager to reminisce about fun and funny moments from last year. They told about relay races on the lawn with third graders outrunning college students and me landing in the mud in an unseemly mess of undergrads and kids. And they recounted with pride an African American third grader who had not heard of Shakespeare but after we saw A Midsummer Nights Dream in Stanton he went to school the next day and drew a cartoon rendition of the first act. We also remembered a bus ride from the Westhaven Community to the UVa Art Museum; where neither the kids nor the UVa students had ever been. As we drove on Rugby Road a fourth grader said “Watch out it’s really dangerous; college kids get murdered here all the time.” We all laughed uncomfortably and a music student whispered that one of his friends had told him to be careful on Hardy Drive because people get murdered there.
The students’ memories reflect some of what this program allowed me to do that’s different from what I already do as a music professor. In music departments we tend to interact with our students frequently anyway; we all make and experience music with our students, and you just can’t teach about sound without intimate engagement. I was most moved by learning with the students just how difficult community engagement can be. We were all forced out of our comfort zones but were in it together. And I was moved by learning with them how to move from righteous indignation to actually doing something.
Perhaps the most valuable thing about the program for me and the students came from those moments when we failed. When you do something new and you take risks; like taking seventeen kids who have never been to a theater where there is not a single other African American person in the audience and every other child, including my two who were with us, has a Shakespeare coloring book and a fancy dress; it’s tricky in all kinds of ways… Our students, like most of us, are used to doing well and used to coming up with innovative projects that work. But they also need to see that doing some kinds of work is very hard and uncomfortable and that it doesn’t always succeed. And it turns out that doing uncomfortable things that don’t go as planned is about as bonding as it gets.
To go back to last week’s orientation. One student said that in many ways the project had made her sad. It wasn’t seeing children living in poverty. The students who want participate in a program like this know all about that. For her it was the fact that so many of her friends simply didn’t know the community we live in. The undergrads had a poignant experience that they will take with them when they leave Grounds and that without the Mead foundation could not have happened. None of us are naive enough to think that making and experiencing Art can fix the problems, but we all found the Arts to be a powerful way to feel the dissonances and consonances between communities.