Why the arts matter more when tragedies like the Orlando shooting happen

A few days ago, I wrote about what I say to my young son about the violence in Chicago, the city we live in.  This morning, we learned about the cruelty in an Orlando, Florida gay night club.  My 8-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son are unjustly growing up in a time when the life-damaging racism, sexism, discrimination, and inequality takes on a new ugly power–it goes unseen until it’s too late.

Sadly, we cannot protect our children and young people from knowing about these atrocities of life because just as technology revolutionized their world, it also destroyed the gradual transition into adulthood.

When I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, the racism was blatant.  Hate was blatant.  It still can be.  However, now, we also talk about micro-aggressions, those subtly abrasive forms of discrimination that are hard to identify but we know something is wrong.  Today, in a world of more opportunities for youth, hate can be subtextual.

But the arts are also blatant and subtextual.  It is the arts, music, writing, story telling, and listening that sprouts empathy in us. The arts are what changes people’s hearts and minds. And this helps us heal.

When things get ugly in life, I turn to music.  I find comfort and company in the melodies and harmonies.  I’m teaching my own children to do the same. Tonight, we watched the Tony Awards as a family.  My son and daughter got sleepy.  They were in bed but I roused them to watch the Hamilton performance.  They love this musical’s songs.

I want music to be an essential element of my children’s self-expression.  My son sings.  My daughter dances flamenco.  We all jam out to classics by Ray Charles, La Sonora Santanera, and so many others when I drive them to school each morning.  Some mornings, my son chooses smooth jazz.  Other mornings, my daughter prefers Latin jazz.  Music helps us bond.

The truth is, I do feel lost when I hear about tragedies like Orlando’s and Sandy Hook’s and Paris’s and my native city’s.  But I cannot lose faith or drown myself in anger.

All I can do is raise my children as empathic souls who remain sensitive to the lives of others and who have the confidence to be who they are and love what they love and one day love whoever they want to love–as long as that person gives them the love and respect they deserve.  As Lin-Manuel Miranda said in his Tony Award speech, “Love is love is love is love . . . ” My children know this and, one day, they will understand this on a deeper level.

As we watched the performance from Fiddler on the Roof tonight, I thought about my colleague and mentor Robin Bennett who drafted me to play the constable in the high-school’s performance when I started teaching at Jones College Prep in 2006.  “Ray,” she told me one day by the mailboxes, “you look like you’ve been on stage.  I have a part for you to play.”  I couldn’t say no.  She didn’t let me.

Working under her direction, learning lines, learning songs, interacting with amazing talented teens is an experience I still treasure.  Sadly, Robin passed away a few years after that collaboration.  Robin Bennett changed young people’s lives with the arts.

My experience with the arts has not been as rich or long lasting as I would have liked.  I sang with some trouble in high school.  But I danced easily.  During my teen years, I got to tap dance, and, in my early 20s, I performed Mexican folkloric dances on quite a few stages.  I sometimes joke, “God didn’t give me height–but he gave me rhythm.”  I loved being on the stage.  I’ve also wanted to be a DJ, and I wish I could draw.  I want my children’s experiences with the arts to be stronger and more long lived.

More children and teens–not just the rich or the suburban–need access to the arts.  So we must work to increase access to the arts in schools and communities.

But there are also arts education opportunities we can create.

Our children and young adults will see the ugliness that happens in the world on their computers and phones.  So we must fight against the unjust cruelty–the macro- and micro-agressions–by reminding the children in our lives that there is also good in the world.  As Barbara Streisand said tonight, “Art can entertain us and educate us and–at times like these–console us.”  Today’s technology allows us to expose the children and young people in our lives to amazing performances and art, and music, and poetry, and the experiences of others.

May all of us who have the opportunity to work with and influence children and young people find the courage and energy to expose them to the arts, so they can shape a world where the arts are for everyone and envision a world where everyone with a good heart has a place to live and love.

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