“And why wouldn’t I like that line?” It’s an honest question, and I can practically hear the quizzical note in his professorial voice, indicating that he’s raising an eyebrow at me. It’s as though what he’s really asking is “Now, Julia, is there anything WRONG with having an emotional response to your letter?” I don’t respond right away trying to formulate the right response. No, it’s not that he had an emotional response, that’s what every writer wants to hear, but what he had an emotional response to. The thing is that whenever you create what ever form of art is your forte, you expect it to have a certain effect. You start to think that part a might cause the reader to roll his or her eyes, the notes on page four will make him or her laugh and maybe even that this line on page 8 will provoke a tear or two. When things don’t follow your emotional outline, it makes you pause. It’s odd that things can have an effect that you didn’t anticipate. It almost doesn’t make sense, but it also makes you feel proud that you could have an impact that you didn’t anticipate. And, this was the second time this week that I’d experienced this reaction.
The first instance: in my living room a few days after we returned from Argentina. I was cataloging trip photos that I’d received from various members of the choir. As more and more emails came in and pictures started to fit into neat categories, I paused over one set of them. Written in broken English was an email from one of the adults who helped the orchestra of underprivileged kids we’d worked with one night.
It was a simple message. Translated it essentially read: “Here are the pictures you wanted and thanks for working with us. We had fun. Good luck in the future.” The grammar wasn’t perfect and the email was simple enough that it shouldn’t have marked me in any way. And it didn’t. Nor did the pictures that accompanied it. In fact, at the time I didn’t think much of it other than it’s pretty cool to communicate with someone living in Argentina.
So what changed my mind?
Well, after hours of cataloging pictures, uploading the decent ones to Facebook so that the rest of the choir could see them, and tagging all of my friends, I started to notice something. The pictures that got the most likes were the ones featuring the kids. And the people who liked them, weren’t just the choir people but actually some of the kids that added us to their “Friends” list on Facebook. Through this simple action, it dawned on me that we really had become a part of each others lives.
To be honest, there is a part of me that questioned the idea of the service aspect of our trip. I’m not saying that working with the kids wasn’t a worthwhile experience, but going through it, I wouldn’t have paused to say “wow this is moving,” or “we’re definitely helping these people.” Yes, we could see the poverty. Yes, we knew that in some small way that we helped to make them forget some of their personal hardships. Yes, we even knew that they were not financially well off and subsequently relied upon the generosity of Argentina’s socialist party for the small room they currently rehearsed in. There was no doubt that this group was one that deserved to get something special out of the evening. But really, was what we brought them all that special? Were we more than just privileged Americans looking on at what life is like for those living in a developing nation?
Realistically, all we’d done that night was a round of vocal improv and tried to get the kids to feel comfortable with singing a few verses of John Mayer’s aptly pointed song “Waitin’ on the World to Change” with us. Both activities came from a genuine desire to do something positive with these kids. Our goals as a choir was to forge a connection, both within the music and with the students. We knew that due to budget concerns, the loss of the music they so enjoyed could be a reality for them in the near future. Our joint rehearsal and performance for and with each other was moving, but I couldn’t say that I felt like I had really made a difference or inspired any of the students.
When these same students showed up at our formal concert the next night and “Friended” some of us on Facebook, however, I couldn’t help but raise my eyebrow. They had come from hours away to see us. Us, a choir that they’d met yesterday, whom they had already heard perform, and they still came, (some spending their own meager allowances to take a long bus ride to see us). Having made an impact on them was undeniable in that respect.
Thinking back on the meal which followed out experience with the Arranque Orchestra, this should not have been a surprise to me. The voice of Holy Cross’s Study Abroad coordinator hung in the air over us: “You don’t know what you’ve done for them,” he said. “You have no idea how long the impact of something like this will last.” At first it sounded like the typical Holy Cross speech: we can all change the world if we try by living the Jesuit mission. It’s a nice thought, but it’s one that we hear so often that almost seems routine. As he continued, however, you could see that he genuinely believed in what he was saying. Maybe it’s because he looked like Jesus that I wound up buying into his speech by the end of it and remembered it a day later. Maybe it’s because on some level, I did feel moved. To be honest, I’m not quite sure. But, I will say this, whatever small thing we did for these kids, he was right, it made a difference to them. I might dread vocal improv and be less emotional than your average volunteer, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see just how much this sort of thing can mean to someone else.
So, in the present, when my friend says things like your words “were touching,” with a subtext of “Julia this really meant something. Get over it.” I’m forced to concede that while I may not have intended for him to respond the way that he did, that my gift of words, much like the choir’s gift of music, did have some sort of deep and unforseen emotional impact. Both “gifts” brought us closer to the people they were given to. It might not have been what I personally thought I had given these people, it was what they felt I did – that something small and innocent and human gave them a moment to feel loved and connected to something outside of themselves. It’s crazy how any form of “art” can have an this unforeseen powerful effect.
In the present, I put my phone aside to answer him later and instead glance at my laptop. It’s still open to the tagged picture of HCC and El Arranque in that small one room practice space. Of course, as usual, this particular friend is right. “Have whatever emotional response you want to Argentina, I’m glad that the choir I am a part of has inspired you in some way.” I for one might not cry over it, but if any of them are so moved, by all means they can cry (or don’t) for us. Argentina, we, as a choir, have given you all we had to offer either way.
– Julia Dunn '16