We, like so many others, bought a puppy at the beginning of the pandemic. And he’s great — ridiculously cute, reasonably well-behaved, loves our son. Everything you want in a puppy.
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But, he is still a puppy. Which means he has his … moments. One of these was at the end of last summer. He got into our fire pit area, which is sort of an oasis, with lots of flora; and among the things which I’ve managed to keep alive are two flourishing desert sage bushes. Or, were. That is, until the puppy decided that, upon breaking into the fire pit, he would zoom around, and then cool his tummy by laying down. Right on top of the desert sage.
It has never quite recovered.
I use that story to build on last week’s metaphor of planting seeds and cultivating gardens. You see, it is infinitely easier to destroy — even unintentionally — than it is to create.
There is a music program in Arvada that has run the full cycle, from barrenness, through creation, and on toward decay. And, when I said last week that bad gardening is tragic, I had this program in mind.
An instrumental music program is unique in today’s public schools in its systemic nature; that is, it is one of the few, if not the only, programs that truly encompasses the entire K-12 spectrum. And, in that, it requires a system to be in place to thrive.
In 1987, the Pomona High School Band had a total membership of 22, and it was… kinda sad. But the principal of Pomona made a commitment to build the program: he hired a veteran, proven teacher, and asked him “what do you need?” The answer was manifold, but it started with the system: “I need the staffing commitment to have time to go to the elementary and middle schools to build from the bottom.” Like a gardener looking at a dry, hard patch of land, the first step is improve the soil. And so the Principal carried through on his commitment, and helped build the systemic supports for the program. Then that director planted good seeds, was attentive to the garden as it grew, and built up the infrastructure around the garden to make sure it had the opportunity to flourish. Five years later, the Pomona Band was a state champion; ten years later it regularly numbered around 200 students and was a nationally recognized top program.
Then that director retired. The principal retired. The program continued to excel for a time, because the system was still strong. But then other principals retired; the buttresses of the system weakened; and the replacement directors struggled to prop up the system. Eventually, it came crashing down. So much so, that last spring, it was a major news story that Pomona High School did not have enough enrollment to justify having a qualified band director on staff (that situation has since been remedied).
But, that’s not the tragedy.
I recently spoke with the man who built that program. He just celebrated the marriage of his daughter … to another Pomona Band kid. He said that was, maybe, the tenth such wedding he had attended, of former students who met through music, then committed themselves to each other for life. Also, numbered among the Pomona Band alumni are an astonishing number of professional musicians and teachers, keeping the love of music alive.
The beauty of the garden is not the garden itself, but the fruit it produces. Future students of Pomona High School will not have those opportunities, because the system stopped supporting the program. That’s the tragedy.
And it’s not unique to Pomona. Music programs, athletic programs, churches, families… countries… these are all complex systems that require big thinking and focused attention to thrive and bear fruit. Decay is natural, destruction is easy — creation and nurturing is hard.
And we get to choose, every day, whether or not we’re willing to do what is hard.
(P.S. I omit the name of the director because this is about the concept, not the man; but make no mistake, the man is brilliant.)
Michael Alcorn is a former teacher and current writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His new novel, “Valkyrie’s Kiss,” a finalist in the ScreenCraft Book Competition, is available now at email@example.com. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.
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