An Art Teacher Reflects on Brilliance

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Allyssa Y. Jones, cochair of the Music Department at the Boston Arts Academy, asks: What is brilliance?

Jones makes the case for broader access to the arts by exposing the brilliance in her own students. Her comments follow.

To be brilliant is to be “distinguished by unusual mental keenness or alertness.”

Let that sink in for a second. Who do you picture? Einstein? Gardner? Gandhi? Martin Luther King? Hillary Clinton? Do you see philosophers, theologians, and world leaders?

Do you see artists? I do. They are my students. Every day they remind me about possibility, about strength forged in the fire of adversity, about hope.

To me, this is true brilliance. Students who study the arts have the opportunity to shine in a way that causes the growth of those around them. Fortunately, young people in Boston have a place where they can discover that they can succeed and, as a result, do succeed, and at rates beyond conventional expectation. This is due to a team of true colleagues who believe that every way a kid’s brain works needs to be engaged for them to be the brilliant person they’re capable of being.

Brilliance in Action

Yearly, I reflect and find myself a little more changed for the better, and to quote the musical Wicked (for in my students minds, I am often the witch), I find myself “changed for good.”

This past July, I had the honor of working with ten amazing young people in a reading and writing class. They were all rising seniors who, for one reason or another, had to take junior seminar over again–either because they missed assignments, missed too many classes, or needed enrichment over the summer to keep up. There was an actor, two visual artists, a dancer, and several musicians, both vocal and instrumental. We read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, a story about a young man on a journey toward his destiny. As we read aloud together, worked out new vocabulary words, and analyzed the themes, I realized that I wasn’t really working with performers and visual artists. I was working with a sharp-witted comedian, a passionate community activist, three poets, and an actual angel. To borrow a term from one young man, these were Artists with a capital “A”.

What does that mean, Artist with a capital “A”?

In the words of my students, it is someone who lives in the world and sees everything, considers the impact, pushes his or her opinions, and discusses it publicly through some medium. Whether that medium is the art they are learning, or something else, doesn’t matter. Artists have the courage to try on different ideas, to experiment with modes of expression, and to fight to share what they have discovered about themselves and the world.

My students are Artists no matter what they go through on a daily basis, no matter what they hear about themselves from community, media, or government. I know for a fact that at least half of my summer school class would become the statistics we are served each day were it not for the Boston Arts Academy. Instead, they will walk forth from our halls, young people on a mission to fix what is broken in the world. If that isn’t brilliance, I don’t know what is.

What’s the point?

Whether we realize it or not, whether we admit it or not, we expect excellence from some students and are surprised by excellence in others, and the dividing line is often related to circumstance not ability.

Brilliance is NOT about

  • One’s background
  • Where one lives
  • How one fares on standardized tests

Brilliance IS about two things

  • Opportunity
  • Faith

Every student can realize his or her most brilliant self if provided with an opportunity to discover a path. Students can walk their paths and achieve when their mentors have faith that brilliance is possible, thus inspiring students’ faith in themselves.

What now?

Try it! You are all Artists with a capital “A”. The next step is to push the envelope and create space for your students to become Artists, too. Can you imagine a world where Art is king, where battles are fought on canvas, where policies are inspired by movement, where community is built like a symphony orchestra? Can you imagine a world where we sing together before we raise our voices in conflict? Art produces joy because it communicates both conflict and resolution in sensory language. This is what our students learn when art is a part of their curriculum–they learn to communicate in a way that reaches people. Again I say, if this isn’t being brilliant, I don’t know what is.

Submitted on behalf of Allyssa Y. Jones by Linda Nathan, headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy and ASCD member since 1984. Edited for publication.