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Investing in children is never a waste of time


What can we do?” That’s the question people ask every time there’s a school shooting like we just experienced in Santee, Calif., and Williamsport, Penn.

No one has the answer to what are the roots of the rage and alienation. We cast our net: the vulgarity and callousness of the culture of TV, movies and music. Too easy access to guns. Broken homes. Latchkey kids. Lack of parental caring and responsibility. The decline of a common value system. All of those combined with the emotional turmoil of adolescence.

The same week that the two shootings occurred, Poetry Alive, a national poetry drama troupe for students, did a weeklong workshop at the Inner-City Neighborhood Art House at 10th and Holland in Erie, Penn. The Art House offers free lessons in the visual, performing and literary arts to 600 at-risk children after school and during the summer.

I’m not claiming that the solution to children’s violence is programs like Poetry Alive, but let’s look at what those five days contributed.

First, the children learned the skills of public speaking. They had to stand in front of an audience and be loud, clear and engaging. I heard in a workshop once that a study to determine what similarities, if any, existed among those who had risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust revealed this: Most of the heroic had performed publicly as children. They played the piano or recited poems or acted in plays or sang by themselves in front of many audiences as children. They learned to stand on their own two feet. They got a sense of self-accomplishment, self-awareness and self-confidence. Mahatma Gandhi, the nonviolent liberator of India, started alternative schools in his nonviolent communities. Here, too, every day of school began with the arts and with a performance of some kind by the children. Gandhi thought this was essential to building self-reliant and courageous individuals -- the type of individual who in time of conflict or crisis draws from inner resources and does not bend to peer pressure.

Second, they learned to memorize one or two poems. “You are what you think,” the Buddha said. What thoughts do you want running through your child’s heads? Which words do you think build sensitivity and self-respect? The violent, anti-woman, anti-gay lyrics of Eminem, “Shut up, bitch, you move again I’ll beat the f--- out of you,” or this from Langston Hughes:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Third, the children learned to work together. They were put in groups of four, given a poem and together had to determine the characters, the setting, the action and the script. The children disagreed, argued, but, with the pressure of performance, knew they needed one another. They practiced civility and the give-and-take of social situations. In the end it was a group victory and it built community.

Nothing earth-shattering at first glance. But what if this experience and others like it was repeated day after day? This is the philosophy behind the Neighborhood Art House: If we put art and beauty and values into the lives of children, we will reap soul.

Would children have a better chance to develop their potential if a few times a week they were exposed to a painting by Monet, Picasso or O’Keefe, not just the violent and sexually explicit images of MTV and BET?

Would their souls be richer if every day they listened to Bach and learned to play Mozart, if they heard the lyrics of Sandburg and Dickinson every day, not just DMX and Snoop Doggy Dog?

What if our children developed self-confidence and self-esteem by performing and learning to play an instrument, painting pictures from what is inside themselves and dancing to Swan Lake? What if they memorized words that were inspiring or humorous rather than violent and nihilistic? What if they learned to work with their peers for a common goal where all shared in the applause? Would this help instill compassion, empathy, tolerance? Would this dent the culture of violence?

Who knows? But I’d rather take a chance on something like an Art House than raise taxes for more juvenile detention centers.

A few days ago, one of our most talented students, 10-year-old Johnny, left us. A well-known local artist was so impressed with Johnny’s work that she was arranging private lessons for him. Johnny came to the Art House that day after school, as he’s done for four years, and in the middle of a class his father came in and told him to get his coat and collect his framed art pieces hanging on the walls -- they were leaving for Florida. Johnny started to cry. “I love it here,” he said. “Please tell everyone thank you,” he sobbed to Sr. Anne, director of Art House. “Do they have an art house in Florida?” he asked through tears as he walked out the door.

I don’t know, Johnny, but they should. There should be an Art House or its equivalent on every corner in every city.

What can you do about the shootings in Columbine, Santee, Williamsport? Let’s try this: Invest in children. Support places like the local youth centers, Boys and Girls Clubs, Big Sisters/Big Brothers, YMCA-sponsored activities for youth, and others in your city. Tithe your time; give a few hours a week to volunteering at an after-school program. Children need mentors, a person who is interested in why they do or don’t want to get up in the morning. Don’t worry about duplicating services when it comes to children. We cannot have enough safe places for children to go. “Nothing you do for children is ever wasted,” Garrison Keillor said. Let’s believe him.

One more thing about Poetry Alive: It breaks my heart to see 9- and 10-year-olds acting way beyond their years. When their conversation is filled with sexual innuendo, when their mouths are foul and violent, when they swagger and take on a pseudosophistication, I can forget that these are only children. But to see these streetwise kids get excited about elementary school poems like “Mice” by Rose Flyeman and “Sick” by Shel Silverstein and “Sometimes I Feel This Way” by John Ciardi, to hear them giggle and play, is to rediscover innocence -- theirs and mine.

“The catcher in the rye” is what 17-year-old Holden Caufield tells his little sister he wants to be, rejecting her suggestions of lawyer or scientist. Holden, the narrator and main character in J.D. Salinger’s classic novel, The Catcher in the Rye, wants to preserve innocence. He tells his sister that he imagines thousands of small children playing in a field of rye. At the edge of the field is a cliff and if the children in their play wander too close and fall, he would be there to catch them.

I confess that an adolescent Holden still lives in my 60-year-old body. I know we can’t protect children forever. But, my God, can we at least wait until they are teenagers before we leave them alone to fly off the cliffs of innocence? Can we at least try to catch them before they drop into the abyss of sex and drugs and violence? Anyone for a “catcher in the rye” movement?

Benedictine Sr. Mary Lou Kownacki is executive director of the Benedictine Sisters’ Inner-City Neighborhood Art House in Erie, Penn. Her e-mail address is marylou@erie.net

National Catholic Reporter, March 23, 2001