Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Power of Music

The kids at our after-school program come from many different backgrounds, but they are all extremely under-resourced in different ways. We have a variety of refugee students and I've been learning a lot anout how hard it is to be a refugee trying to navigate the American public school system, along with everything else that's new.

We have a student from Congo, who came to America two years ago. I'll call her Elizabeth. I don't know much about her family because her grandmother (who might actually be her great-aunt) only speaks French and Swahili. Her grandmother has been very slow to trust us, which may be understandable given what she's been through and the fact that she can't communicate with us.

Elizabeth had no consistent schooling until she got to the United States two years ago, when she was put into a grade that she was too old for, because her skills in English and math were so low. The school she was attending did not give her any help and failed her at the end of the year, making her the oldest in her grade the next year by two years. She switched schools this year to the one we serve with our after-school program, which fortunately has more resources.

I went to a meeting with Elizabeth's grandmother, who had mistakenly thought that the school would be providing a translator (the school was under the impression that she was bringing a family member who could translate). The only part of the meeting that her guardian understood were the parts I typed into my Google Translate app and translated into French, but that was more than she had gotten at the previous school. We managed to get her some services for next year, and I think everyone is feeling more hopeful, although as I watched Elizabeth's elderly grandmother limp away with her cane to the two buses she has to take home, I couldn't help but wonder how she managed to keep things together for the family.

Later that week, we were able to participate in a choir performance with an Oakland-wide youth choir. Our kids were excited and overly active and bored and difficult as they rehearsed the day before and a couple of hours before the show. We knew most of the parents wouldn't come for various reasons: transportation, lack of English, etc., but we got staff and volunteers to come so that they could feel appreciated and proud of themselves.

The kids did great - they weren't sufficiently practiced and ready, they missed some transitions, they scratched their heads during their performances, and they sang with their hands in their pockets. But they were beautiful and they made absolutely beautiful music. They sang their little hearts out.

Elizabeth had said that her family was coming, but so did about half of the kids and most of them did not show up, so I wasn't expecting anything. However, at the end of the show, Elizabeth's grandmother pushed through the crowd and found me. We couldn't actually communicate with each other, but I said, "She sang so well, you must be really proud!" Her previously standoffish grandmother smiled big and hugged me. In fact, she hugged me several times. I introduced her to my boss and got another big smile from the grandmother even though she didn't understand what I was saying.

When she left, she turned around briefly and grabbed my hand. She squeezed it hard.

I am so grateful that love for a child transcends culture and language. That woman could tell that I loved her grandchild. She didn't need to understand me to understand me.