Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What a Wonderful World

A fried at work shared this story with me today, and I had to share it.

This is from the Boston Times:

It was the kind of tragedy no school should have to endure. Students - young children, really - wept in the hallways Thursday as word swept through the Warren-Prescott School in Charlestown that an eighth-grader, Soheil Turner, was dead, shot that morning as he waited for his bus.

So it felt strange and not quite right the next morning as members of the school choir boarded a bus for a statewide singing contest and a trip to an amusement park. Some of the students looked sad and uncertain.

Their music teacher, Olivia Thompson, felt unsettled, too. But she offered words of reassurance: It's OK to be sad, but it's also OK to have fun.

"The music you're making is part of what's good in the world, and it's important to keep doing that," Thompson told them.

What happened later that day stunned the students, their teacher, and the school. The fledgling choir from Charlestown, the only elementary school singing group in the competition, earned the highest point total, beating a roster of larger, better-established choruses from middle and high schools. They did it with a heartfelt rendition of "What a Wonderful World," on a day that, as sixth-grader Mary Evers later said, didn't feel wonderful at all.

Judges were left in awe, audience members in tears.

The choir's unexpected triumph brought needed emotional uplift to a small, close-knit school hit hard by a violent act. It also vividly illustrated the resiliency required to be a student in many urban schools and the sheer challenge that students and teachers often face simply to achieve a sense of normalcy.

"You can feel empathy and sympathy, but you also have to do what you've been trained to do," said principal Dominic Amara, sitting in his office yesterday. "You can put a plaque on the wall or a tree in the ground, and those are nice things, but the best way to honor Soheil is to be a good kid."

Turner, 15, was shot in Roxbury. The man who killed him has not been identified. The boy had attended Warren-Prescott since first grade, and many of the 437 students knew him well.

The school - a low, brick complex sandwiched into a dense neighborhood a few blocks from the Bunker Hill Monument - offered kindergarten through sixth grade until three years ago, when it added grades seven and eight. "We get to know the kids and want to keep them," said Amara. Pots of pansies sit by the front door; students in all grades wear uniforms, matching navy-blue polo shirts. The school motto is "Persist and Prevail."

The choir members range from kindergartners to teenagers. When the group began four years ago, anyone could join; now, students must audition. Practices are held after school on Mondays, when the 39 students cram onto risers in a small room off the auditorium.

They worked for months on two songs for the Music in the Parks competition, held at the Six Flags New England theme park in Agawam. They were especially proud of "What a Wonderful World," their finale, with two student accompanists, on piano and trumpet, and a voice solo by a third-grader.

Then, the day before the trip, came news of Turner's death. Students who knew him were devastated; younger children were scared and confused.

"I didn't feel like singing," said Evers, the 12-year-old. "I said to my friend it's not such a wonderful world."

Elizabeth Pardy, another sixth-grader, sought a way to take solace in the music.

"Watching my friends lose someone was very upsetting," she said. "But then I thought, 'I'll sing for Soheil,' and that made me feel better."

The same thought came to Brandy Giles, 13.

"It was hard to see everyone crying," she said. "But I thought we shouldn't stop, that he would want us to keep going. People were expecting to hear this beautiful sound. If we didn't put our whole heart into it, it wouldn't be as joyful."

Standing onstage that morning, they said, they felt nervous, worried by the competition, which included middle school choirs from Georgetown and Tewksbury, but ready to do Soheil proud.

Watching from the audience, parent John Strachan felt swept by emotion.

"Just to think about what they were going through and to see them walk out onstage was this amazing dichotomy," he said.

The judges recorded their critique of each choir. On the tape sent home with Warren-Prescott, one judge pauses to listen, then remarks, "This is what music should be," according to Thompson.

The Charlestown choir "demonstrated a wonderful sense of discipline, as well as a true love of music-making," the judge, Frank Ward Jr., wrote in an e-mail. "It was a very satisfying and enjoyable performance from such a young group of students."

The choir took home two trophies, for best elementary and best middle school choir, and two of its soloists, Chloe Shea and Emily Ringrose, won individual prizes. When the winners were announced, "all the girls were screaming so much it hurt my ears," said choir member Declan Coleman, 9.

Yesterday, the buzz about the choir was still spreading through the school. Students passing the main office between classes bent low to brush the shiny trophies with their fingers, peering closely at a photo of the beaming choir members.

Parents plan to pitch in to fix up the school's display case for the new prizes.

"It's phenomenal what they did, and it's something special about kids," Amara said. "If you had adults in this kind of trauma, I doubt they could perform as well."

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