Voices in the Garden

Undersized jeans, a bowl haircut, the screech and horror of pubescent voice change – reflecting on my middle school experience often makes me shrug and sigh. Above all, I remember struggling to be comfortable in my own skin; to determine and assert the essence of. . .well, me.

That’s why I was blown away yesterday as I traveled to R. J. Kinsella Magnet School of Performing Arts in Hartford to photograph Voices in the Garden for our 2012 United Arts Campaign, take pART!, with Roger Castonguay, our usual and amazing photographer from The Defining Photo.

In partnership with the Judy Dworin Performance Project, Kinsella’s Voices in the Garden encourages students between the 5th and 8th grades to take popular music, transfuse it with personal stories and then bring those stories and songs to life with movement and dance.

“[The students] write the stories,” said Suzi Jensen, an Instructor from Judy Dworin, “to give the garden a voice [in] all forms of expression.”

As Roger, bubbly and charismatic as always, scrambled with white umbrellas to better illuminate the small gym and snap photos of each lyric, handstand and clap, I stood with my back to the blue padded back wall and watched the students’ repertoire. Each performance, regardless if it captured the exuberance of youth or the more somber realities of growing up, ultimately gave voice to “the garden,” or, abstractly in my eyes, the intangible, ever-evolving location that possesses the collective emotional experience of the group’s tales.

“[The students] don’t shy away from personal stories,” stressed Mellissa Craig, another Instructor from Judy Dworin, “they learn to trust each other.”

I discovered this dearth of shyness firsthand as I was forcibly thrust from being a fly on the wall in a lull between performances. Unlike my timid self in middle school, the students I met were comfortable coming right up to me and firing off questions ranging from how old I was to why I had a tie on. When I had the chance to get a word in, I asked them to describe what the program meant to them in one word. From responses like “freedom,” “energy,” and “self-expression,” I couldn’t help but be moved by the fact that this environment fostered each student to be entirely without reservation or shame regardless of who was around.

Perhaps the moment where I most felt this awe was when one student stepped in front of her peers to sing a song she had created with some friends. During the song, she encouraged the audience to chant, “Don’t let it stop you, girl. Don’t let it stop you” whenever she raised her hand. As she began belting out the soulful chorus, her hand reached for the sky followed by the sounds of each student echoing her empowering line back to her. And that’s a message we all can relate to everyday, regardless of age, position in life, whatever.

“Don’t let it stop you, girl. Don’t let it stop you.”

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