The alarm went off at 5:45 am every morning followed by a shower, brushing my teeth, getting dressed and packing my bag. By 6:45 I was out of the house, standing in line in the pre-dawn darkness with the other commuters waiting for the express bus into Manhattan, ready to take on the day. In the evenings I would board the subway for a half hour to the Staten Island Ferry (another half hour), to a local city bus (30-40 minutes) to get home. Day in and day out, this was my daily commute not to a paying job, but to and from high school. I was thirteen years old when I nervously began spending several hours a week on public transportation to attend school, even though there were perfectly fine high schools minutes away from where I lived. But I knew that the school I was going to was where I needed to be, and that attending it would require some sacrifice on my end. Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music Art & the Performing Arts, the the school made famous by the movie “Fame” and the Mecca for young artists and musicians from all over New York City, had captivated my imagination in junior high school. Once I passed my audition and convinced my parents to let me go, there was nothing that could stop me.
In junior high, I was skinny with braces and a rolling backpack that my father insisted I needed to use so as not to develop scoliosis. I didn’t lack for friends but it’s safe to say, I was not cool which at that age is basically one long death sentence. My one real saving grace was that I could sing. I starred in the school musicals and became somewhat notorious as “the girl who sings”. As a consequence, I spent the majority of my lunch periods in the auditorium. With a few friends and the Drama teacher, that was the space in which I knew I made the most sense. In the formation of my nascent identity, this artistic space held a deeply important place at the core of who I was to become. And so when the eight grade rolled around, and it was time to choose high schools, LaGuardia didn’t just represent a school with a good arts program. At a time when arts education budgets were being slashed all over the country, it was hard not to receive the message that the areas in which I was particularly gifted just weren’t of as much value. LaGuardia was the school that actively seemed to counter that narrative. It was a place where kids like me were encouraged, challenged and importantly, celebrated. The arts were held in as high esteem as the academics, and being in an environment where your creative capabilities were integral to the culture of the school made an almost two hour daily commute worth it.
On top of a full academic course load, and attending at least 3 studio classes a day, it wasn’t uncommon for us to spend hours after school rehearsing for upcoming shows or putting together projects for our creative classes. Most kids can’t wait for the final bell to ring to get out of school. I don’t know of many teenagers who go out of their way to spend time in their school buildings after they had been released, but that was far from uncommon when I attended. Many of us at one point or other would forgo having a lunch period to unofficially participate in elective courses, learning to write songs in New Music Ensemble, or experiencing the other worldly release that was singing in Gospel Choir. Some of us did it because we enjoyed the work, while others knew they were practicing for their eventual professions. Either way, there was the understood feeling that our artistic contributions and efforts would matter. That there would be some recognition of our capabilities as worthy, making us more than a GPA or standardized test score.
In a week I will be attending my ten-year reunion. Unfortunately the joy I should feel at the opportunity to wander the halls of my alma-mater and reminisce about the good times I had in this place that was so integral to my development as an artist and human being has been over shadowed by the current unrest at the school. Stories about cut rehearsal hours, rejections of incredibly talented students for just barely missing the academic markers for admittance, and student trauma being treated with nothing short of callousness have left a bitter taste in my mouth. I cannot help but notice that the culture of the school I love seems to be succumbing to a wider cultural rot we are experiencing. One where art is positioned as more and more of a luxury, in juxtaposition with academic subjects as the only necessities to the well-being and growth of human beings. This is folly that we all reap the consequences of, and it speaks to a strong misunderstanding by the current administration of what the purpose of the arts is.
To the untrained eye, the arts might seem decorative, merely the icing on the cake that is life. But wiser people know that the arts are the cake themselves. They are a reflection of our humanity, the best and worst it has to offer. They elevate us, they connect us, they tell our stories. It was at LaGuardia that I would come to understand music as not just a matter of talent, but skill. It was in under the baton of exacting choir directors that I learned the importance of attention to detail. It was in voice classes where I learned to stretch the capabilities of my own voice, developing range I never would have thought possible. It was where I learned about teamwork, discipline, and how to see an idea through from the beginning until the very end. It was also where I sat alongside kids who lived in housing projects as well as kids who lived in swanky buildings on the Upper West Side. It was where I made my first friends of differing sexual orientations. And it was in those music classes that we came together across all of those lines that society would have used to divide us to create beauty together. So much of our scholastic experience up until that point had been about pitting us against each other, every student trying to out do someone else to be recognized, to be honored, to gain access to some upper echelon of academic living, with standardized test scores doing much of the ranking of you against your fellow classmates. It was in the arts classes where we were encouraged to not only work hard, but work together to create something of value. That that experience is being undervalued in a school that claims to have a dual mission is nothing short of a shame.
In my ten years since leaving high school, a lot has happened. I went to college and got my undergraduate degree in Vocal Performance. I joined the military as a musician, and have the distinct pleasure of making a living serving my country through music. In the fall I will be beginning my Master’s degree in Arts Management. There has not been one aspect of my life since my high school graduation that the arts have not touched. But I know that even if were doing something entirely different today I would be eternally indebted to the foundation that the LaGuardia I knew laid for me. The education I got at LaGuardia, one where the arts and academics were held in equanimity made me not just a better musician, but a better person. My greatest wish as an alum is that this school stays a beacon for all of the kids who spend their lunch periods in the auditorium. That they know that their commitment to their crafts also makes them brilliant, and that their value is higher than their test scores will ever be.
Thank you for your heartfelt story. I am sure that it resonates with all of us.
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