Breaking down our walls
Last week when Jenny and I were in LA, we stopped by my alma mater, Oakwood School. I am still very close with the music director/teacher there who was hired during my senior year. We entered a fancy new building which was part of a capitol campaign phase that definitely took place after I graduated. When I walked in, the 7th grade music class with about 18 students was in the middle of a diction exercise, learning how to produce consonants while singing. After the exercise was done, Rich, our music teacher, introduced me and Jenny to the students. In that moment, I felt both so much older than those kids, and also as though middle school was really fresh. All the insecurities and uncertainty I had felt at that age came flooding back as though I had been placed in a time machine. Rich asked if I could talk about my career as an Oakwood alum, and tell the students what I had done with music since graduating high school. He also asked Jenny and me to perform a couple of songs. After giving them a little bit of background, I segued into an introduction of a song for which Jenny wrote the music and I the lyrics called, "The Girl I Am.” The song was written for kids who are going through difficult times, and who need to know that things do get better. The lyrics tell the story about my own experiences of being shot down by the people I thought were friends who in a vulnerable moment were able to re-identify me and to shred my self-esteem to a pulp. The last verse comes from my experiences as an adult blessed with a great life, for whom none of the terrible things my friends predicted came true. The first thing I did when introducing the song was to ask the students, “Have any of you felt isolated, bullied, or alone”? Almost everyone in the room raised their hands. About six years ago, I had this revelation that gave me closure and healed the pain that remained left over from my middle and high school days. When my memoir was about to be published, so many of my classmates reached out to me with support. They had seen the press that was being released in advance of the publication date, and contacted me on Facebook, via my website, and by email to let me know that they too had felt alone and had been bullied. They listed numerous examples. One friend told me that she had been incessantly teased because she had neglected to take the lift ticket from a prior ski trip off her jacket. Another mentioned that one of the popular guys called her a mouse during one of our PE classes because she was one of the smallest in our grade. Meanwhile, they had never suspected that I too felt isolated because I seemed cheerful all the time, and I was constantly singing and playing the piano. Here I was thinking that I was the loser disabled kid, the only one left off the invitation list for countless Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and Birthday parties. Because we all had convinced ourselves we were the only ones, all of us put walls up and let very few people into our spheres of influence. I found myself wondering how much happier I would have been with the information that my classmates and I were all in the same boat. I explained to the seventh grade music class that what they need to do is to stop putting each other in boxes. Sure, we all know that certain kids are labeled the popular kids, some are labeled the sports kids, some are the nerds because they ace all the chemistry and math tests, and some float along without any specific labels. Boxes only provide a barrier which makes the rest of us afraid to venture into someone else’s box to make friends. The reality is that we are more similar than we are different, and that the differences we are so convinced make us completely inaccessible to each other are so minimal and insignificant. I wasn’t sure if hearing this from an adult would make them feel any better, and if they simply would have to walk that hard road my classmates and I took to reach this same conclusion. However, I challenged the students in that 7th grade music class to reach out to each other, regardless of how far this put them out of their comfort zone and pushed them beyond the walls they had built protectively around themselves, and to do everything in their power to forge friendships with those kids they had never thought they would ever be friends with. Then, Jenny and I performed, “The Girl I Am.” As the story of the song unfolded, tears began to flow, shyly at first, and then unabashedly from all the students in the room. All of them were united in the pain of middle school.
There is a certain high you get from performing, and it is a lot of fun, like the thrill you get from skiing or white water river rafting, but the thrill you get from having an impact on the younger generations is one that never dies down. I have made it my life’s work to help youth through performance. Jenny and I run a performing arts program in Hawaii for youth, and we see summer after summer how they find a safe haven where they are unconditionally accepted. I also love receiving contracts from presenters which include school presentations in addition to public concerts so that I can get out in the community and share the wisdom that one only gets from life experience beyond middle and high school to show that it does get better. Resilience, self belief, and hard work will be the stuff that gets you through all the quicksand trying to pull you down.
They say music is the language that everyone speaks. It can connect to your vulnerability across age, socioeconomic background, ethnicity, race, and so much more. I have loved my firsthand experiences witnessing this phenomenon in action. I would love to hear from all of you about the “aha” moments you have had when performing or giving an outreach presentation. Please feel free to comment below. Also, I am linking to our official music video for the song, “The Girl I Am” which Jenny and I wrote, branded under our pop duo name, PureLand.