Contra Costa School of Performing Arts, Walnut Creek, CA – December 4, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Contra Costa School of Performing Arts (SPA) was quite a surprise for me.  Before speaking at a school for the first time I try to learn a bit about it – is it new or old, its enrollment, its “flavor”, etc –  by visiting its website.  However, except for the “Performing Arts” in its name and in its mission statement (“The mission of Contra Costa School of Performing Arts is to provide a distinguished, pre-professional experience in performing arts within a college and career preparatory setting. We believe in fostering a culture of excellence with the core values of rigor, relevance, resilience and relationships.”) its website did not give me many facts or feeling about the school, and many of the positive descriptives were similar to those of many other schools. (Yes, I also learned that, in addition to standard academic fare, “SPA offers pre-conservatory style training in 5 Arts Majors: Dance, Instrumental Music, Production and Design, Theatre and Vocal Music.”)    I therefore made a list of questions, even asked a few of these* when met at the entrance by Stacey Wickware, the school’s Instructional Coach (*Answers: school opened last year, so the 2017-2018 school year is only its 2nd year; current enrollment is 404), and we agreed to continue this discussion after my talk to the 10th graders.

This follow-on discussion was, for me, a fascinating eye-opener about the birth pangs of starting a charter school, for which we were joined by SPA’s founder and Exec. Director, Neil McChesney.    After several applications to the local and the county school boards, the fledging school held its first classes (6th through 10th grades) in a sub-divided gymnasium, moving into its current quarters this year, and will have its first graduating class of 23 students in June 2019.

The purpose in founding the SPA was to provide a quality educational environment aimed at students with interest & inclination in creative arts to prepare them for college and for the competitive arts world.  Because many students of performing arts have not only a personal passion but also enhanced sensitivity (which is both positive & negative), they benefit from personal mentoring to prepare them for the culture and behavior in the adult world.  This led to SPA’s focus on SHINE: Show responsibility, Have Respect, Invest in Yourself, Notice Others, Encourage Excellence.  All students get a mentor and a Chromebook to allow learning at their own pace, and each day starts with a one-hour “Spotlight” class of students/mentor interactions as needed, plus a weekly one-on-one session with the mentor.

My talk was introduced by Social Science teacher Karen Montgomery who also managed the Q&A, which I particularly appreciated because the questions were focused on my experiences and on our current society, such as “What can we as individuals do to fight indifference, hatred and racism today?” and “How can we help people with PTSD?” and “What one thing would you like us to get out of your visit today?”  Also, two small but very personal touches: immediately after the Q&A a student gave me a little card with “Thank You” and a lovely flower she drew on it, and another student asked if I like butterscotch, and when I answered “Of course” she gave me a butterscotch popsicle.  Very, very nice!

The event was arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves and organized by Stacey Wickware and Lisa Kingsbury, SPA’s Director of Curriculum and Integration, along with Karen Montgomery and English teacher, Veronica Woods.  Attending it also were SPA dance instructor, Katherine Orloff, instructional assistant, Christopher Totah, and Peg Borbely Covert, Campus Security Volunteer.

Student Letters 

A week or so after visiting SPA I received a large envelope with 48 letters from the students.  As has been our habit for years, after dinner my wife Mimi read each letter aloud as I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally. We were touched by the students’ unique sensitivity, insight and heartfelt honesty, and we felt very gratified by the thoughtful responses and the empathy with which they related to my story.  There were many statements in the letters that resonated with us, and these are excerpted below.

  • To be able to help and teach others would be my dream, and that is exactly what you are doing. Thank you.
  • The world is a pendulum that constantly rocks between cruelty and the closest thing we can call peace. People like you make a difference and allow it to swing closer to harmony.
  • Check out the “Chain reaction of kind kindness” by Rachel Scott, the first victim of Columbine shooting. (Yes!)
  • I felt like I couldn’t say anything after you talked because it was so emotionally intense.
  • I sometimes judge people for small things and what you have taught me has made me think about my actions.
  • I know that wherever you go, you will inspire others to maybe share their own story.
  • When you spoke to the class you were pulling my hear strings so much. S. You ROCK!
  • It’s me! The kid from the School of Performing Arts who gave you the butterscotch lollipop!  Keep inspiring the people around you, OK?   (signed) Butterscotch Kid
  • Thank you for being a beacon of hope for many.
  • You inspired me to stand for what I believe in and have faith. Have faith in myself, my family, friends, teachers.  You are encouraging love and hope.
  • I really thought I would choke up during your story, but as moving as it was, afterwards when you were meeting and hugging some of the students, that really got to me and made me have a lil’ cry, I have to admit. Thank you for heavily inspiring me to be better.
  • I’m a lot of things that one can possibly get killed for. It makes me scared/proud of myself.  Like you said, be true to yourself is something I hold dearly to my heard.  Thank you for telling your story.
  • You’re making the world a better place.
  • I have always been fascinated with learning and educating myself on the Holocaust, not only because I am a history buff, but also so I can educate people and help then notice signs of prejudice and put an end to it as well.
  • My family is largely Eastern European Jewish, and hearing your story inspired me to learn more about my own past.
  • Your story made me feel so many things, sad ones, happiness, fear, relief. Just thank you.  We are truly lucky to have you.
  • You told me to choose the path of love & forgiveness. You told me to chase my dreams.  I will chase my dreams for the people like you who support me.  Thank you.
  • In your story I found so much hope, especially hope in humanity. I found hope because of the families that helped you and the people who fought back.
  • I never really understood what happened and how it affected people. I wish I could go back in time and help people.
  • When things get rough for me, sometimes I question if I’m capable of doing anything good with my life. But you, sir, have shown me that with determination, you can do anything.
  • I know how hard it can be to keep everything to yourself because being vulnerable and open is a frightening thing, but with it comes cries for you, hugs, just deep compassion.
  • Have you thought that your life was more built on destiny than luck? I think you were put on this earth for a reason, Mr. Elbaum, and something/someone wanted you to live past the shed, the grenade, the Polish houses that helped to keep you here.
  • What you say is right. People who have been discouraged, discourage others, so if I want something I got to work my ass off to get it!  That’s what I connected to.  I thank you so much for coming.  Please keep doing what you are doing, sir, it makes a difference.
  • Your story impacted me in a way that all I could feel was love for you, knowing what you had been through, how you dealt with it, how you overcame it.
  • The two rules you wanted us to live by will definitely be a part of my life now. Your presentation meant the world to me.  Truly, thank you.
  • I was too shy to go up to you and say anything, but I just want you to know that your talk moved me. You talked about how it is never wrong to say something when you see a bully bullying someone.  We get told that every day, but hearing it from someone who has been through so much made it way more powerful.
  • I particularly liked when you told us to stand up to bullies. I myself have been bullied a lot through my life, but when I started to hit the weights the bullying stoped and I started to stop bullies.  My friend who is really short for his age was picked on after school and I saw it.  I pushed the bully away, grabbed my friend and walked home with him.  Thank you very much for inspiring people to do good.  (Bravo!)
  • Your talk was so inspiring. My dream is to go to Yale, and so many people say: “You can’t do it” and “give up,” but you showed me I could.
  • Your story makes me appreciate my mother a lot more for all that she has done for me, and all that she would do for me.
  • Thank you so much for inspiring me to be the change in the world that I want to see.
  • It’s so amazing how even through all of the darkness you’ve been through, you still believe in the beauty and power of sharing your story. I promise I’ll continue to follow my dreams.

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