Friday, September 23, 2011

Grading Papers While Children Learn A Handel Concerto

I'm sitting on the floor of an elementary school in Princeton, grading papers while our 15-year-old rehearses in the next room with his youth chamber music orchestra. As I grade my high school students' writing, I can't help but meditate on the sorrows many face: homelessness, tattered families, a war-injured brother, and on and on. As I grade, I can't help but hear the strains, the beginning notes of the Handel Harp Concerto that the children and teens are learning. I can hear it starting, then stopping as the maestra claps and corrects them.

When I first started teaching about a decade ago, I wondered why my students had so many challenges. Was it something about them, their schools or their towns that made their lives so tough?

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that teachers have a beautiful privilege: glimpsing into the lives of others. It's as if everyone wears a mask and only some people, some of the time, can see past the surface and into the reality of other people's lives.  I used to think I had to solve my students' struggles, rescue them from their challenges. Over time, I have come to believe I only need to be a presence to them, trying my best to reflect the love that God Himself has poured out to me so generously.

Did you know 17th century composer George Frideric Handel, who we know best for his "Messiah," had parents who actively discouraged his musical gifts? He had to practice music in secret. When he turned 14, his father died of the plague and the young man was forced to leave home and school and find a trade. As an adult, Handel had many setbacks, including bankruptcy and a stroke. He was blind the last several years of his life. And yet...his Christian faith and search for beauty, not only sustained him, and but also gave him a sense of calm and inspired his musical genius.

And so it goes, the sorrow and joy interwoven in his life, and into ours. I pray for my students; I pray they discover Beauty and that I can guide them to it as we read Beowulf and de Maupassant; Amy Tan and William Shakespeare. Tonight, my heart is full of joy and hope about that, thanks to the strains of music children are learning in the next room. Take a listen to that concerto.


  1. Joy and sorrow interwoven- how true is that. Beautiful post Allison and beautiful music!

  2. Attention and reverence is a teacher's practice for sure: I love this bit by Howard Gray

    H/T to Robin at Metanoia

  3. @Michelle: That is so beautiful; it made me cry. St. Ignatius' perspective is very much in line with what I have been working on in our School of Community (CL movement) Thank you so much! It is great to see ideas articulated far better than I could.

    @Fran: Thanks. And now I am youtubing Haydn!