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Let Them Play On

Every time you hear about school districts having budget problems, the first thing they seem to cut is their music and arts programs. Now, I’m a guitar teacher and musician, so I’m biased. But why are these programs always the first to get cut? Why isn’t it football? Basketball? Home Economics? Typing? (Yes, I know, I’m dating myself now.)

But seriously.

I don’t think some people know how important music is. For everybody, I mean. Not only is it great for you to learn an instrument at any age, but it does amazing things to your brain, even if you can’t play brilliantly! A lot of people consider playing chess or doing sudoku puzzles as a great brain exercise, but playing an instrument is actually a full brain work out.

I’ve seen it in action. Sometimes it takes all of a person’s focus and energy to learn a new piece. They are in the zone, and the rest of the world, all of their problems, are on the other side of the closed studio door. Sometimes they are in shock when they realize the lesson is over.

Being able to play an instrument stays with you all of your life, regardless of your mental capacity. There are countless stories of people with dementia, unable to remember what they had for breakfast, but well able to play the piano or the flute as beautifully as they did when they were younger.

According to classicfm.com in their article explaining why you should take up an instrument, it enhances verbal memory, spatial reasoning and literacy skills. The science says it makes you smarter. Isn’t that what we all want?

Beyond what it does for your brain, playing an instrument can relieve stress, build confidence and can even help you improve your social life. Well, maybe not the social part right now, since we’re trying to keep physically distanced.

But why would school boards or districts even consider taking all of these positives away from their students?

Maybe some of them think playing an instrument is only for musical snobs. Or the exceptionally talented. They’ve probably never paid much attention to their school bands, like the one I played clarinet in when I was in school.

We were pretty mediocre. We occasionally entered into competitions with other high school bands in the district. But as soon as the other bands would start playing, we knew where we stood. Dead last.

Mr. Parkinson, our high school band teacher, was in the British military for a long time and did his best to keep us together playing those marches he loved. The theme to Hogan’s Heroes was my favourite. We didn’t actually march when we played, yet we still managed to have two musical left feet. But that wasn’t the point.

Because what I remember the most was the feeling of being in the middle of all of that music, especially when we had those moments where we pulled it together almost perfectly. It was not only uplifting, it was transformative. We played, we laughed, we tried again.

Some of the friends I made back then I still keep in touch with to this day. In fact, I married the snare drummer.

Both of my daughters used my clarinet when they had their turn playing in the school band. They also tried the strings program, and took private lessons in other instruments.

But not all parents can afford to send their children for private lessons, which is why the music programs in schools are so important.

It isn’t about children becoming virtuosos, it’s about giving them the chance to have a really positive experience. It’s about taking them away from their electronics for just a little while and doing something that they may very well remember for the rest of their lives. If music is not for them, that’s okay. At least they had the chance to try.

I’m hanging onto that clarinet and waiting for the day when I can pass it on to my grandkids. Let them play on!

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The Way It Is

“Said, hey little boy you can’t go where the others go,
‘Cause you don’t look like they do…”

from “The Way It Is”, by Bruce Hornsby and The Range

I grew up in a brand new subdivision of Richmond BC in the late 50’s and 60’s. Our house was a split level, one of many that were built around that time. As more families moved into the neighbourhood, new friendships were formed, especially among the youngest of us.

When the weather was good, my friends and I played outside all day, every day. In the evening, each kid’s parents would take turns yelling out the kitchen door that it was time to come home.

Right across the street from my house was the elementary school with a park, a couple of baseball diamonds, and a wading pool.

It was a great place to grow up.

Many of my neighbourhood friends were Japanese. This was mostly due to the fact that we lived quite close to the oldest subdivision in Richmond, Steveston, which included a large community of Japanese fishers and their boats. Some Japanese families were descendants of a group of immigrants who originally came to Steveston years earlier because of the fishing. Steveston borders on the Fraser River, so a lot of people I knew back then worked at the cannery, if they didn’t have a boat or a tackle shop.

I’m not sure that I paid much attention to the fact that some of my friends were Japanese. Sure, sometimes their parents would put different food on the table and decorate their dwellings with items I hadn’t seen before. As a result, the kids in my neighbourhood learned about other traditions, and ate sushi long before it was fashionable. But my house had different food too; Danish food, and flags everywhere because my parents were Danish. So “different” seemed par for the course in our ‘hood.

I got a tape recorder for my birthday once, and I was busy taping everything I could think of. I still have some of the old cassettes. On one of those recordings, my friend was over visiting and you can hear my Mom and Dad and I teaching her a Danish lullaby. Then you can hear her teaching us a Japanese song, a little song about a turtle, which we all sang together. “Moshi, moshi, kame yo!” That tape is a treasure.

Every July 1st, Steveston played host to the Salmon Festival and Parade. There was a lot of food, especially salmon, of course. There was the parade itself, and plenty of entertainment going on all day. At one of those festivals, I remember joining in with some other girls and learning a Japanese dance on the lawns of the local Buddhist church.

On another occasion a friend’s father invited me to go fishing with the family. He drove us all in his big camper to the Stanley Park seawall, where he showed us the fine art of smelt fishing. We swam out into the water, pulling ourselves along the fishing net, plucking the tiny silver fish off the net and bringing them back to shore. I got stung by a jellyfish, but all in all, it was great fun.

And then something else happened in Richmond. During the 70’s we started to see a lot of East Indian families move into our neighbourhood. That’s when I first became aware of this thing called “racism”. One East Indian family moved into a house only a block or so from where I lived. There was a boy, maybe 10 or 12 years old at the time, who lived in the house right next to them. He made sure they knew he didn’t want them there. He yelled profanities at them and threw dog excrement on their home. I felt so bad for them. Where did all that hate come from?

Recently, I watched a Frontline documentary called “A Class Divided”. The first part of the story took place in 1968, just after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., when a teacher, Jane Elliott, decided to talk with her third grade class about discrimination and racism in light of King’s death. But she soon realized that just talking with her class wasn’t really getting them anywhere. These kids came from neighbourhoods that were not very diverse, so they couldn’t really relate to the idea of discrimination.

Instead, Ms. Elliott came up with a two-day “Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes” exercise for her class, basically giving preferential treatment to the kids in the class with blue eyes on the first day. The next day, she reversed the process and the brown-eyed kids got the special treatment. The children’s reaction to each other under those circumstances was unsettling.

Frontline brought them all together years later to talk about how that exercise changed them, which it did in profound ways.

In the past few weeks, anti-Asian violence has become more prevalent, mostly against women. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it really hit home for me when one of my oldest friends, who still lives in Richmond, told me that she was fearful of going out in public, not because of COVID, but because she feared for her safety. She was starting to get dirty looks from Caucasian people, as if it was suddenly okay to treat her that way.

The truth is, of course, that racism has always been around. And we are not born with it, it is taught. Some of my childhood friends may have experienced racial insults, or worse, without ever talking about it back then. But this little blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl had been oblivious to it.

In a perfect world, kids would grow up in diverse neighbourhoods similar to mine with adults around them who encouraged their interaction with each other. I am forever grateful that I was so lucky.

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A Game Of Tag

Sometimes when I’m out on my daily walk, I find hopscotch boxes or messages drawn in chalk on the sidewalk that make me smile. In the first few weeks and months of COVID-19, there were a lot of messages, especially positive and encouraging ones. Sometimes you’d even find goofy Dad jokes. It was graffiti of the best kind.

Graffiti has been around for thousands of years, discovered on the walls of caves, in ancient Egypt and Greece and the Roman Empire. Most of it was in the form of etched inscriptions or figure drawings. In fact, the word “graffiti” comes from the Italian word “graffiato” which means “scratched”. The things you learn, eh?

Although it was also found in abandoned buildings and bombed out areas in Europe during World War II, what we think of as graffiti today was mostly born out of popular culture and the political movements of the 1960’s and 70’s.

It is not necessarily the same as street art, but the word “graffiti” is often used for both. These days, graffiti is usually word-based, where as street art is image-based. There have been wars between some street artists and graffiti artists for years, especially because street art has been accepted and even invited in certain sections of cities and towns. In most places, however, graffiti and street art are both still illegal. Some of you will recognize the name Banksy, a very famous, British-based street artist whose real identity remains unconfirmed. If you’ve never seen his documentary “Exit Through The Gift Shop”, I highly recommend it.

In and around my neighbourhood, graffiti of the not-so-great kind seems to have become more abundant lately. Tagging, which is more of a way of marking territory, is especially noticeable.

I really don’t like it. I mean, I get it. Freedom of expression and all that. But to me, it’s just plain ugly.

Tags show up on walls, street signs, utility boxes, on buses, fences and pretty much any blank surface outdoors. The tags themselves mean nothing to most of us, only to the small community of people who do it. And the illegality of it doesn’t seem to phase the taggers.

Spray paint has been their medium of choice for many years because of its portability and permanence. It is a pain in the butt to clean because it’s mainly oil-based, so painting over the graffiti is often the only way to clean it up. I’ve seen the same wall of one corner store graffitied and tagged, then painted over and repaired time and time again. It has become some sort of “game of tag”. As soon as the mess is cleaned, they’re at it again.

At one time, Canada Post boxes were one of the blank surfaces constantly targeted by taggers. But you may have noticed in the last few years that mailboxes are now plastered with a jumble of postal codes on all sides, meant to make tagging less visible. Not only that, but the postal codes are actually on an adhesive, which can be peeled off and replaced if it gets too messy. Very clever!

Utility boxes have also been a tagger temptation. But the City of Victoria has started “wrapping” these blank boxes with photos and other scenes to discourage graffiti. Box wraps have also made an appearance in the Burnside/Gorge area, with the Burnside Gorge Community Centre┬áinviting members of the public to come up with designs for utility boxes there. I’m sure this idea will soon become commonplace in most communities.

A “wrapped” utility box in the Oaklands neighbourhood of Victoria. (Irene Jackson)

Not only are the box wraps nicer than graffiti, they are also interesting. The photo on the utility box above is the 2800 Block of Scott Street here in Victoria, circa 1947, with its brand new wartime homes. A lot of those old homes are still standing!

A neighbourhood mural in the works (Irene Jackson)

In my neighbourhood, the wall of one small block of retail stores is now painted with a colourful mural depicting “What Makes A Community”. A group of neighbours started painting it last summer and it is now complete. So far, the taggers have left it alone.

And so it seems that one way to beat them at their own game is to simply be a step ahead of them.

Nothing is going to completely stop taggers from defacing property. In a perfect world, they would have a place where they can legally make their mark, and stay away from everything else. But I think taggers are far more rebellious than that.

Maybe we can convince them to try chalk?

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Has It Been A Year Already?

Well, happy anniversary everyone! We are now officially past the year mark since the W.H.O. declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. And it’s been a year like no other.

Back on March 11, 2020, we couldn’t have imagined what we were in for. COVID-19 was a mystery, and we had no idea what to expect. The phrase “new normal” suddenly became popular.

Our initial reaction to the big shut down was positive, sometimes comical. We can DO this! We hoarded toilet paper. We baked bread, made Quarantinis, and we stood outside every evening at 6pm and banged our pots and pans to honour our health care workers. We laughingly wore pajama pants during video calls. We put hearts and signs of support in our windows for our front line workers, and donated money to local charities like Rapid Relief.

Businesses that sold them, ran out of hot tubs. Gardens flourished, home renovations abounded. We found heroes in people like Dr. Bonnie Henry, whose calm and compassion gave us much comfort. A global pandemic wasn’t going to keep US down!

Then reality kicked at us a little harder. The novelty began to wear off. Day after day we somberly donned our masks, washed our hands, and kept our distance from each other. Well some of us did. Others screamed in protest. Tempers flared. And all the while, more and more people were getting sick or dying.

Our hair grew long, beards became unruly. Zoom calls that started out as great fun, began to wear on us. Living and working and learning at home got more and more boring and intolerable for many. Not being able to see or hug our family and friends was depressing us. In fact, anxiety and depression was on the rise in all age groups, but especially in young people. We were exhausted. And all of this happened before winter had even hit.

As we said goodbye with great relief to 2020, COVID continued its ominous advance. New cases and new variants sprang up everywhere when a second wave hit. Long, dark days with no end to this pandemic in sight, left us mourning and miserable.

But there were some small hints of hope. Pharmaceutical companies around the world who had been working around the clock to come up with a vaccine, started to have some success. A few countries that were initially hit hard by the pandemic, were beginning to see their COVID numbers level off, or even come down as a result of shut downs. There was just a little bit of light appearing at the end of that very long tunnel.

And now spring is almost here. As of March 12th, almost 3 million vaccines have been administered in Canada. We have, most of us, adapted to this new reality, to the shut downs, the social distancing, and the masks. Handwashing and sanitizing is more habitual. But we are so looking forward to the day when we can actually spend time together in person again, and that day comes ever closer. Still, as the expression goes, the last few miles of a marathon are the hardest.

I know, I know. Kilometers.

So what have we learned from this past year so far? I would venture to guess it will take a long time to completely assess that. Businesses, governments and communities will gather their list of lessons learned. As individuals, we will each write our own epilogues. Ultimately, you might say that we are forever changed.

But in spite of it all, babies were still being born and people were still marking milestones. All this time, life was forging ahead and hopeful. And now, here on the west coast, the trees are starting to burst new buds, robins are laying their eggs, and cherry blossoms are blooming.

And vaccines are here. At long last. Ah, spring.

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Hot Pot Politics

I don’t think I could handle being a politician. In fact, I’d guess that the majority of us couldn’t handle it. And wouldn’t want to.

All you have to do is peruse the “letters to the editor” page in any paper, or scroll through Twitter and news feeds, and you immediately see why. Many people despise politicians, and no matter what mayors or premiers or prime ministers try to do, somebody’s going to be in a rage.

These days, that vitriol seems even more intense. Some of it, I’m sure, is because we are living through an exceptionally stressful time and leaders of any sort are an easy target for that pent up frustration.

Some of it, though, is because these days it seems we have been given permission to be hateful.

Those of us who live here in Victoria, the provincial capital, are pretty close to the political action when it fires up. Many of my students and friends over the years have been government employees in one capacity or another, so I’ve heard lots of stories, good and bad, about the people who run our government.

I became involved in a campaign many years ago when someone talked me into volunteering for a political party during a provincial election. I was pretty young and naïve, and I thought it would be kind of exciting. Well, it certainly was an eye opener.

One of my first jobs was canvassing, which meant going to a designated area within the riding and knocking on every door in the neighbourhood. A lot of volunteers didn’t like canvassing, for reasons I was about to find out. But I was game.

To be fair, many people whose doorbells I rang were polite and took the leaflet I handed them with a smile. But there were others who called me every name in the book, some even slamming the door in my face. It was humiliating. And here I was, thinking I was doing something positive and helpful.

I was supposed to canvass the whole area three times during the course of the campaign, but I think I probably only managed one cycle. That was enough for me.

I also worked the telephones at campaign headquarters. One day, our candidate walked in to meet with all of the office workers and volunteers. He made the time to come up and sit by my desk, chit chat a little, and thank me for volunteering. I immediately liked him and was suddenly filled with that sense of purpose I’d been seeking. Our little chat was the best thing about the whole campaign for me.

Years later, that candidate became the Premier of B.C.

There are many good people out there who truly want to make a difference in their community, province or country. They work hard and they put in long hours, often against all odds, to effect change. They are the ones who are passionate about their work, who try to reach across the aisle and find compromise. They’re the ones who will sit down at the desk of a lowly campaign worker and sincerely thank them for their efforts.

But as sincere and as passionate as these people might be, even if they succeed at getting something done, sometimes they just can’t win. Somebody’s always going to be seething.

Maybe we should consider being a little kinder to them. We can certainly disagree, but don’t make it personal.

Oh, I know there are the bad apples too: those with a sense of entitlement who care more about themselves and their rise to the top than they do their constituents. But that will always be true, in any career.

What I really hope for is that there will be enough younger people interested in fulfilling those important rolls in the future, because we really do need them. Experience is one thing. A fresh, new outlook is another. And hopefully, they’ll have a thicker skin than I did when they go out on their first round of canvassing.

The only constituents I have to deal with these days are the members of my household. We disagree on a lot of things sometimes, but when it comes to Sunday dinner, this is an autocracy. I hold all the power.