Silence. Eyes. Music.

From Sistema Fellow Stephanie Lin Hsu…

We sat huddled on two metal fold-up chairs on a half-balcony while a student rehearsal ensued below, sitting close together to be able to hear one another’s words. My head was spinning with the stories that Marielianny was sharing with me, about the blessings and struggles of directing the White Hands Chorus—or Coro de Manos Blancas—at her El Sistema núcleo in Coro, Falcón, particularly in the beginning, as she was creating and directing the Chorus while simultaneously learning sign language from the very students she was teaching. Seeing the imploring and fiery look on my face as she spoke, she leaned in closer to offer some advice.

“You asked me before what you need to know to do this work,” she smiled knowingly, looking me straight in the eyes, “And it is this: everything that you do, think, and feel is transmitted through your eyes. Your eyes will never lie to your children.” I blinked a few times, focusing in on her hands as she gesticulated in her explanation. Silence suddenly rose up around us, and the imprint of her words rang between my ears. Everything that you do, think, and feel is transmitted through your eyes. Your eyes will never lie to your children. I watched her and her children in a rehearsal later that evening, as they prepared for an all Ave Maria concert with Coro’s State Orchestra and State Chorus –

– and pondered these words.

Since my return from Venezuela, I have sought much time in silence, amidst the invigoration of regular music-making and chatter, to reflect and strategize around this critical concept of nonverbal communication that is shaped more by our perceptions and experiences than by our active decisions as individuals. As a second-generation, Taiwanese-American woman from an upper-middle class family who will be working with migrant families—largely first-generation Mexican, Honduran, and Guatemalan families—in an agricultural setting, I am conscious of the opportunities and challenges that we will face together next year. I will thrilled to begin my work with next year in Yakima, WA, in conjunction with Ready by Five, an early childhood and family literacy organization, and the Yakima Symphony Orchestra, and I have no qualms about acknowledging the fact that joy already pervades the majority of our interactions together, both musical and not.

But joy as a goal must also be partnered with critical reflection—of myself as a leader, learner, and ally in this work—and so I regularly return to silence (arguably one of the most important features of music) to ponder the implications of what it means to be entrusted to teach other people’s children. Marielianny has brought back to Lisa Delpit’s seminal text by that very title—Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom—a must-read that I just can’t recommend enough. And I implore each and every one of us, educators by profession or by circumstance, to sit with the question of what it is that we signal through our eyes to the children and families and colleagues that surround us, particularly when so many of us teach in communities that differ from the ones from which we came. Harmony and dissonance can exist in each glance—intertwined with our relationship to differences in race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, culture, and ability—whether we are cognizant of this or not. And as I continue in my own struggle to better teach other people’s children, I thank Marielanny and her beautiful students for the wisdom they’ve granted me through their own eyes, and through their impactful silence.