Jim Jenkins

The arts matter, have and will

I like the chance to take the cupcakes to the Little Guy’s school on his birthday, because it is an opportunity to thank some heroes face to face. The teachers who labor in our public schools you will see again if you’re inclined to believe in that place called Heaven, for they’ll be the ones on the fluffiest pillows inside the gates, with the spirits of the Rockefellers of long ago waiting on their every need.

In the space of a few hours, I saw teachers showing children how to organize themselves in straight lines, play and run in safety, laugh and share with one another and write and do their math in far better and more complicated subjects than I’d seen at Aldert Root Elementary some few years ago.

But the Little Guy has another subject on his mind these days: music. He’s on violin and recorder and perhaps some others, and he loves it. Offered a solo at one concert, he popped up with the biggest grin you’ve ever seen and sawed off his notes with confidence, receiving his own little ovation.

What seems like an annual threat to arts and music programs, along with some physical education, in public schools is upon us again. It’s all about budgets, of course, and somewhat about an endless argument about whether schools should provide just the basics and parents should pay for everythng else — which would, of course, eliminate poor families from any extracurricular activities. It also would leave public schools as the bare bones of education, a preposterous notion in North Carolina where public schools transformed the state over the course of 100 years.

The General Assembly ought to forget just one of its ridiculous tax cuts for the rich and write whatever check needs to be written for arts and music and P.E. programs and be done with it and allow parents and kids and the rest of us to reap the rewards of raising the horizons of our coming generations. One of them may include a virtuoso — or two or three. That horn-tooting class may light the fire in a youngster otherwise uninterested in school to become interested, to recognize that learning math and science and social studies means more time and more skill with that trumpet, more time of sheer joy.

A wealthy North Carolinian who once single handedly funded the high school band in his community, including paying the instructor, told me once: “A child who isn’t an athlete, who isn’t the strongest or the fastest, can be good at music. And every child needs the feeling of being good at something.” That quote has been shared before, because one can’t have too much wisdom — from Andy Griffith.

And P.E. invigorates kids and helps them feel better and look better. Art? A child with learning difficulties may prove an exceptional artist, a life-changing talent discovered in one of a school’s “extras.” Only they shouldn’t be regarded as extras at all.

The arts and music and other “enrichment” programs in our schools are vitals.

And so while we’re about it are the teachers. In the space of a couple of hours, I saw teachers acting as reasonable but needed disciplinarians, as triage doctors (there was a spill on the playground), as family counselors, and, oh, yes, as teachers of core subjects somehow helping the kids make it through all the distractions and traumas kids have in their lives.

Whether the Little Guy learns just “Happy Birthday” on the violin or winds up a concert master with the Philharmonic makes no difference in terms of whether his music classes and the art classes of his sisters and the phys ed classes of his cousins are to be judged worthwhile. They are, to all the kids and all the parents.

May they play on and paint on and keep running and keep singing. It is up to the rest of us to keep fighting to keep the meat on the bones and make those who represent us understand that supporting schools in full means developing kids in full, which is nothing less than they deserve. To be tone deaf to that ought to earn, on Election Day, a chorus of “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.”

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com