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Culture

String theory

A school where violins are windows on a wider world

MT photo: Detroitblogger John
Violin students at City Mission Academy with their teacher, Zhelin Scott.
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Published 11/11/2009

"Violins up!" says the teacher, and the kids put their instruments against their chins. Some fidgeting ensues, of course, because they're all barely 10 years old, but after a count-in they begin their song.

They start with a single note, climb higher together, then split off at the end into a short burst of harmony. Simple and charming.

Their brief performance is noteworthy not just because of their youth, but even more because the school is in their impoverished neighborhood.

These music lessons began spontaneously this summer at City Mission Academy in northwest Detroit's Brightmoor neighborhood after local violinist Zhelin Scott stopped by for lunch with a friend who works here, and happened to have her instrument with her. The staff asked her to play something for the kids, who had never heard a violin before.

"They were all pretty mesmerized," says Dana Adams, 53, the school principal. "I asked if anyone wants to learn to play violin and a bunch of hands went up — 'I do! I do!'" So Scott, 32, rented some violins and put together a class of 10 kids. It's since tripled in size.

The kids had never heard classical music at home. Their neighbors or friends don't attend the symphony. They didn't know what an orchestra was. Yet they jumped up and down with eagerness to learn how to play a violin, of all things.

"I think that just about anything that we introduce to these kids takes off because they don't get attention from anything else," Adams says. "They all want to be football players or basketball players or that, so this is a real different concept, and they like it."

A violin is as much an anomaly in these parts as City Mission, a small, private, nondenominational religious school whose philosophy is exposing students to ideas and behaviors they generally won't encounter otherwise. The theory is that giving the kids a taste of possibilities outside their world may ignite their curiosity and give them a shot at escaping a future of physical and intellectual poverty.

By any measure, the Brightmoor neighborhood is one of the city's worst. It began in the 1920s as a planned community of cheap housing for autoworkers from the South. It devolved over the years into four square miles of wasteland.

Ghetto stereotypes thrive here — broad-daylight drug dealing, pre-teen pregnancies, long-gone or never-known fathers, and houses falling apart or giving way to vacant lots. A third of its roughly 20,000 residents are under 18, and almost four out of five of them won't graduate high school. Kids grow up here seeing failure of one kind or another everywhere.

Nine years ago, Nicole Aikens opened the school here, in the neighborhood where her family grew up, after she had grown disillusioned as a social worker.

"I felt that we weren't helping people, that we weren't breaking this generational poverty that goes from the mother to the children," says Aikens, 40. "The social work field is more about handing out resources, and people knew how to play the game. What I wanted to see happen is to break that cycle."

They began with seven students and seven volunteer tutors offering a K-5 school, mentoring programs, life skills training and a family development program, as well as meals and clothing for the kids and their families. It has grown to 31 students today.

The academy teaches math, science and grammar. The life skills training shows teens the simplest of social norms: proper handshakes, eye contact, how to speak clearly instead of mumbling and staring at the floor — traits many inner-city kids go into adulthood without learning. The family development program teaches parents how to budget, how to get a GED, how to get a job. How to be a responsible adult.

But they face an entrenched culture of underachievement in which book-smarts are ridiculed, bad manners are glorified, and work is for suckers.

"It's a huge problem to do well here," says Aikens. "You have to fight that much harder. When we first started, there was a group of kids who would meet the other kids when they got off the bus, and they would be picking on, making fun of the kids coming to City Mission."

Many students are from families where nobody around them reads. Some kids have never seen a relative earn a steady living. Household income is often an assistance check in the mailbox the first of the month.

"They have come from a lifestyle that their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents have received welfare," Aikens says. Kids in these families absorb the example and expect the same in their future. "It's a huge, uphill battle because they feel they're entitled to it."

This is what the teachers struggle against. And the violin, so foreign here, is a symbol of the school's method — introducing ideas and behaviors outside the students' scope of experience. Some local schools try reaching hard-to-influence kids by relating to them through urban culture, like incorporating hip-hop into lessons or letting students express themselves through graffiti in a designated area. Not here.

"The kids can get all that on the street," says Adams. "They can get hip hop anywhere. But they can't get violin. They can't get the drama classes, the Bible study. We believe we need to teach our kids how to be middle-class if they are to survive, so they can do their street talk out there, they can have their pants hanging low, but you won't see anybody here with their pants hanging low in this building. I'm not saying middle-class culture is better, but they have to have it to succeed because most of the world operates in the middle class."

Adams and her husband Jeff not only work here, they sold their house in Rochester Hills and moved to Brightmoor so they could live in the same world as the kids they teach. "People just thought we were crazy," she says. "My parents were both very frightened by the idea. Now I can't imagine living anywhere else." The entire staff is now required to live here.

Most tuition is covered by donations, but the school asks parents to contribute something on principle — either $50 per month per family, no matter how many of their kids are students, or else volunteer at $5 per hour and work off the expense.

"We don't want to support the welfare mentality," Adams says. "So you have to care enough that your kids go to a private school, you have to do something. If you can't pay, we don't want to turn you away, but if you can't pay then you need to volunteer."

The unplanned violin class just added an unbudgeted expense to the school year. Violins aren't cheap. Most children's parents already can't pay tuition, let alone buy expensive instruments. "The parents can't even pay their heat bill," Adams says. "This is not a priority." Right now the kids use rentals, but if the school raises enough funds, it could buy some violins the kids could practice with at home.

The aspiring young musicians are still novices, but they've started doing public performances now and then. It gives them an opportunity to show off what they've learned. "We played for a lot of people in the church across the street, and my mom was there and that night I got to spend the night at my cousin's house," says 7-year-old Sierra Tousignant. She was so thrilled about demonstrating her new talent that all the night's events blended into a swirl of happy memories.

Playing violin is something few of her peers in the neighborhood can do. Or will ever get the chance to try.

"The violin is no joke to learn. It's tough," says Aikens. "To see the smile on their faces was amazing, for them to know they could do something and do it well, and to see the kids all dressed up in their suits at the recital and to be clapped upon and praised is just beautiful."

City Mission's annual fundraising gala takes place at 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14, at Silver Gardens, 24350 Southfield Rd., Southfield. For tickets or more information, see city-mission.org.

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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