A musical miracle in rural North Carolina


The school year is winding down, and parents, teachers, and students are caught up in a whirlwind of activity. Banquets, awards ceremonies, graduations, concerts, recitals, and parties fill practically every calendar square in May. Even little ones, decked out in caps and gowns, graduate from preschool and celebrate with year-end picnics and parties.

For parents, such celebrations are significant milestones, and we take time to attend each one. With four school-age children, I’ve been busy almost every evening at some sort of school event. As much as I try to approach each one with enthusiasm, there have been times when I’ve dreaded sitting through one more awards ceremony, listening to one more concert. Still, although I have approached them with dread, I almost always leave these events with a renewed spirit and a sense of gratitude for teachers, their students, and the talents they showcase.

Not long ago, I attended an extraordinary concert. Typical in many respects, this event took place in the school cafeteria and was attended by the usual assortment of parents, siblings, and grandparents. But this concert was unique because it showcased my 12-year-old son’s middle school handbell choir. The handbell choir, directed by a dynamic music teacher, is an elective, open to seventh-graders who express interest. Those who show promise and enthusiasm then audition to become a part of the advanced handbell choir when they reach the eighth grade. This advanced choir performs frequently throughout the community. The concert I attended included performances by both the seventh-grade novices (my son’s group) and the eighth-grade advanced choir. A total of about 50 students performed in the concert.

While I was impressed with what these middle-schoolers had accomplished musically, I was inspired by the spirit in which they and their teacher approached the performance. Not only were these public school students well-behaved, they were dressed neatly, shirts tucked in, hair combed, shoes tied. I have seen many of these same youngsters as they shuffle sloppily down the school hallways, and I was astonished by the radical transformation in their demeanor and appearance on this concert night.

It was clear they took great pride in what they had accomplished over the year and in sharing their accomplishments with their parents and other relatives. The handbell music itself was lovely, but the experience wouldn’t have been as compelling were it not for the visual effect of watching these students concentrate on chiming their bells at the precise moment. Witnessing the intense expressions on their faces was priceless … especially since these young people are at an age notorious for feigning indifference, for expressing sarcasm and cynicism. At times, when I am put off by their obnoxious ways (typical for middle-schoolers), I will remind myself of this concert and the radiance of both their music and their expressions. It was obvious that pleasing their teacher and performing well for the audience were their foremost concerns.

Attending such an event is especially heartening in a time when we can so easily become discouraged and fearful for the future of our youth. While I realize that one concert is no guarantee that good things are happening in our schools, among our youth, I also realize that extraordinary events, like this handbell concert at a public middle school in rural North Carolina, are occurring all across the country.

Much credit should be given teachers and administrators who encourage young people in such positive directions, particularly those who develop in children a strong appreciation for the arts. My experience with the schools has shown me that teaching the arts can be an even greater challenge than is typical for teachers, because of the lack of funding, large class sizes, and a tendency for many to consider the arts inferior to academics. This time of year gives us an opportunity to show our appreciation of these teachers’ talents and our gratitude for their dedication to our children. We are all enriched by their presence in our lives.

Indeed, teachers who love the arts and who are passionate about sharing this love with young people are able to perform miracles. Recently, sitting on a folding chair in a dingy middle school cafeteria, I witnessed one.

Mary Hood Hart lives in Sunset Beach, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and four children, ages 8 to 16.