When I was seven years old, my family moved from London, England back to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where I was born. We’d been living in London for two years because my father had a gig conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Moving back was a bit of a culture shock for my whole family, and just a few weeks later, I started first grade. I was in a different learning space than my peers, since my kindergarten experience in London was very different than what kids experience in the States. I had a crazy thick English accent, and I was accustomed to living in an international city. I didn’t quite fit in. And I was scared.
Those first few months at school were rocky at best, but I remember the first time things started to make sense for me. I was in the art room at Arthur Elementary, and we were working on papier-mâché projects for Halloween. Four other kids and I were working on a giant pumpkin, and as we worked, hands busy and eyes focused, they started to ask me questions. Why did I have that accent? Why did I go to a different class for math? What was London like? And I asked them questions. Did they all go to kindergarten together? Where was the best place to ride bikes? Could they pass the paste? Our work together on the art project gave us a way to talk to one another that hadn’t been possible before. And suddenly I wasn’t the weird kid – I was just another kid. All because art opened the door for new connections and building relationships.
I’m still friends with one of those kids who worked on the pumpkin with me. And while learning and creating art did so much more for me – teaching me how to tell my own stories, building my confidence, giving me a sense of purpose, offering me a way to shine – it also saved me again and again as my family continued to move across the country, following my parents’ work in the arts. Every time we moved, I was the new kid. And being the new kid can be awful. And yet, every time we moved, I was able to find school friends in fellow artists, musicians, writers, and makers. This made school not just bearable, but enjoyable, and I am forever grateful. I am certain that, if all of those school years were as lonely as they could have been, I would not be writing to you as the Executive Director of this organization, in this community, today.
Arts education is one of the most powerful empowerment tools in the world. Its academic benefits are detailed through numerous studies – kids get better grades, better SAT scores, better attendance records, and so much more. That’s important. Arts ed also teaches positive self-expression, teamwork, resilience and experimentation. That’s important, too.
But, fundamentally, I believe arts education gave me the life I have now. Without it, I would have experienced a level of isolation that is not healthy for any child. And without it, I don’t know that I would have known who and what I was meant to be in the world. Instead, here I am, in this extraordinary community, working every day to give youth the same experiences I had during some of the most important and formative years of my life.
What have the arts done for you? We’d love to hear your stories. And I hope you’ll join us at the many arts education events we have coming up this month. Who knows – maybe someday we’ll all get to work on a giant papier-mâché pumpkin together, and be friends forever.