The boy in a sea of faces couldn't have been older than 11 although he looked much younger. My eyes were darting around the room in search of raised hands. Some simply raised their hands hoping to be called upon. The boy, though, was practically flailing and as expected, grabbed my attention.
"You have a question," I asked.
"Are you rich," he asked.
Before I respond to this question it might be helpful to know more about the scene. Last winter the Board of Trustees of the Vermont Arts Council, on which I serve, was invited to take a tour of the Integrated Arts Academy in Burlington. The school is K-5 and a scant eight years ago was in tough shape. Enrollment was down. Behavioral problems were up and concerns of closing the school known as H.O. Wheeler were on the rise.
Changes needed to be made and were made. They hired the school librarian, Bobby Riley, to serve as the new principal. That one decision has made all the difference. He and his team decided to incorporate the arts into the curriculum and to have theater; dance, visual art and music play a major role in every subject taught at the school.
For those of you who may not appreciate the impact that the arts have on all of us you need only to ask for a tour of this incredible school. Tours are cheerfully given for anyone who asks. And "cheerful" is the prevailing attitude in the halls of this now great school. Everyone appears to be having a fun time learning. Folks, this is not the school of my era; an era when if you so much as smiled at the wrong time a ruler would be cracked over your knuckles (an event that did little to endear school and learning to those who had the audacity to smile).
After my tour last winter it dawned on me that I might be able to do something for this school. I've been playing harmonica since 1969 (yes, a misspent life if there ever was one). Most people like the instrument; kids love it. In short, with a little help from a fellow VAC board member, Ed Clark, and someone from the school, I purchased 300 harmonicas; one for each kid in the school. I told Bobby Riley that I'd like to stop by and try to teach 300 kids how to play the harmonica in only 30 minutes; something I've never tried before and I doubt many others have either.
If you think about 300 kids under the age of eleven all with harmonicas in their mouths it's a little daunting. In the assembly last Friday Bobby Riley needed only to raise two fingers (the peace sign on my generation) and the room went silent instantly. The kids respect their principal not because he rules the school with an iron fist, but because he is their friend.
After the "lesson" I took a few questions: "How long have I played the harmonica?"; "Why the harmonica?"; typical questions. Then there was the flailing boy who asked if I was rich. Now, granted I'm standing up in front of all these wearing a black on black striped suit with a purple vest and matching tie and pocket silk, so although the question was appropriate it didn't make it any easier to answer.
I told the young man that if his goal is to be monetarily rich then probably the harmonica is not the best path for him to take. However, I said, wealth comes in many different forms. There is monetary wealth, which in the end is not all that rewarding. If you're looking to be rich with friends, experience and the mystery of learning an instrument that will frustrate you no end, but provide you with endless rewards then yes, I would consider myself to be the richest man alive.
— Bob Stannard is a regular Banner columnist who lives in Manchester