In school, I was known as a "gifted underachiever." I scored high on standardized tests, won writing competitions, and excelled in subjects that were considered "frills," such as music, drama, and art. But my homework was disorganized, my math and science skills rudimentary, and my grade point average mediocre at best.
Back then, no one sought to look at root causes for a student's failure; the diagnosis was laziness, and the treatment was punishment. I learned, later in life, that I was suffering from ADHD, multiple learning disabilities, and clinical depression. Instead of help, I got large doses of humiliation in front of my classmates, and was prohibited from engaging in arts activities unless I kept my other grades up. As a result, I spent much more energy (and angst) on math and science than on literature and the arts, which both added to my depression and kept me from progressing as fully as possible in areas that were of interest to me.
Some things have changed since then. My son was diagnosed fairly early with ADHD and organizational learning disabilities. He is given a yearly individualized education plan and access to a resource room teacher.
Yet the push to reserve participation in the arts as a reward for academic excellence persists. Ben is an accomplished and dedicated musician, and Bill and I have had to fight hard over the years to keep him in the school and extracurricular music programs he loves.
It's not that we don't understand the importance of traditional academic subjects or that we don't care about his school performance (though we have been accused of both) but that taking away his music would be, in effect, putting him in prison, sentencing him to hard academic labor and interrupting his progress in a field that is of paramount importance to him.
Fortunately, his school music teacher agrees with us. He noted Ben's ability and dedication early on, and backed us up in our efforts to keep him in music classes and, particularly, in the school's elite jazz band.
Roy, Ben's teacher and mentor, is a wonderful jazz saxophonist whose group, the Jazz Passengers, tours the world and features internationally renowned instrumentalists and singers.
One such singer is Deborah Harry, formerly of Blondie. Last week, this brilliant and generous performer headlined at the Times Square Hard Rock Café in a fundraiser for Ben's school. The school's jazz band backed her up, along with professional musicians. The night was a huge success.
Ms. Harry felt the evening should conclude with a student-written song, and a composition by Ben, with lyrics by his girlfriend, Tiger, was chosen. They had one-on-one rehearsal time to teach her the song, which thrilled him.
In the event, rather than perform it solo, she called Ben and Tiger up to the microphone and gave them the stage, joining the backup chorus. In introducing the song, Ben was articulate and humble in describing the importance of Roy and the band to his life—and the song itself was spectacular.
Students at Ben's school finish with their coursework the first semester of their senior year. If they pass all of their classes, which Ben has done, their last semester is spent on internships. Ben was warned repeatedly that he would never get an internship if he didn't apply himself better.
And as it turns out, he is the only senior who still reports to school every day—as Roy's intern. He is teaching music to the lower grades, helping with the sound system, and generally absorbing the life of a professional musician and teacher, and loving it.
I think he is going to be fine.