My early arts education consisted of fitful piano lessons, struggles with several wind instruments and messy attempts at painting portraits and landscapes – by numbers.
I sang nicely, sweetly, a music teacher told me in grade school. Then, as I advanced in grades and my voice started cracking, I switched to band, where I expressed my creativity by dipping my clarinet reeds in cinnamon oil.
Despite teachers’ valiant efforts, I showed little or no talent for sculpture, drawing, dance, poetry or other arts, which I regret. I have often wished I could play saxophone in the city band or step onto a community theater stage … as the hero, perhaps, in an Ibsen play.
(I did have the title role in a local play a few years ago. It was “The Dearly Departed,” about how members of a family respond to the death of the patriarch, which occurs in the opening scene. I was to slump and die of an apparent heart attack while sitting with and listening to my stage wife, soon to be widow, played nicely by Theresa Knox. My reviews were kind, if brief. I like to think I died well, if less dramatically than Terry Dullum, who took on the role another night.)
But if I did not come out of school an artist, I learned there to appreciate the arts and the people who brought them to life with talent, practice and passion. One of my clearest memories from high school has me sitting – no, standing – in the school auditorium, applauding enthusiastically for friends taking their bows at the close of “The Glass Menagerie.” Larry and Kitty were better that night than Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. I’m sure of it.
I have not followed the ins and outs of the Grand Forks School Board’s wrangling over the district budget. Having reported on many budget struggles at local and state levels, I know how difficult that can be. Good people can disagree to the point of strikes and lockouts.
But I was disappointed when, in early April, the School Board voted for a plan that would cut seven teachers, mostly in art, music and “world languages,” which I suppose is a way to avoid calling Spanish and French “foreign” languages. It also would eliminate the Artist in the Classroom program. That was part of a plan to cut $4.4 million from the budget. More cuts would have to come next year.
A furious response on social media may have been a factor in the board reversing its decision a week later. Superintendent Terry Brenner issued a statement: “Grand Forks school system administration determined that it was in the best interest of the teachers involved to not proceed with the reduction-in-force process this school year based on the discussions of the School Board in executive session.”
In the best interest of the teachers? OK, I’ll buy that, assuming – hoping – that the board has a renewed appreciation for the vital role played by those teachers.
But I’d rather hear they voted to keep the arts teachers on in the best interest of the students.
I understand taxpayers’ concerns. I accept that parents and the students themselves want practical skills and preparation that will lead to profitable careers. Those priorities are legitimate, but must they squeeze artistic opportunity from our schools, from K-12 through college – opportunities for fuller, richer lives?
When Roosevelt Elementary School prepared to close in 1983, I wrote about the final play its students put on, “The Wizard of Oz,” and quoted the young lady who played Dorothy. “It’s a good school,” said 12-year-old Lois Homewood, an ice skater and baton-twirler, a good student who played piano and flute and wanted to become a pediatrician. “It shouldn’t end.”
And it wouldn’t, I wrote, thanks to lessons she and her friends learned on that stage and in the audience. “As long as you make common cause with your fellows in distress, as long as your scarecrow values understanding – and your tin man, caring, and your lion, daring – you will be men and women of the finest type.”
That was the charge that Theodore Roosevelt himself gave to the first students entering the Grand Forks school named for him in 1910, that they become “men and women of the finest type; strong and brave, and just, and also gentle and unselfish. …”
The arts must be part of that, enriching the lives and outlooks of future engineers, accountants, nurses, heavy-equipment operators and computer programmers.
Two years after “The Wizard of Oz,” I was in the audience as seven teachers of instrumental music led a sixth-grade honor band, a combined city junior high band and a blended ensemble of the best young instrumentalists from Central and Red River. You could see pride, appreciation and astonishment in the faces of parents. The superintendent beamed and applauded, I wrote then, and younger students “studied their elders, marveling at the flair and confidence of the timpani player, the sharpness of a cornet, the unapologetic clarity of an oboe.”
Preserve and sustain the arts, in the best interest of us all.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.