“You are ‘peach’ perfect!” – I exclaimed, moved by the emotionally fulfilling rendition of one of the choral pieces at my recent rehearsal. Loud giggling echoed throughout the walls of our school auditorium and I realized, once again, how “imperfect” my pronunciation was. “Oh, no…” I thought, and quickly recovered to hide my slip of the tongue: “Yes! It was peachy!”
As I continued my rehearsal, I marveled at the sound of my students’ voices. I imagined a beautiful mosaic where each student represented a special color that made the entire artwork unique and cohesive. Nabhitha, an Indian girl who struggled to maintain her individuality while staying connected with her culture. Alex, a transgender student who had suffered from bullying in middle school. Elena, a Russian immigrant student whose mother died when she was twelve… This mosaic included different cultural and life experiences of my students, highlighting each of their identity. I thought about my own identity, the one I struggled to maintain, trying to fit in and to be “just like everybody else.”
As a first-year immigrant teacher for whom English was a third language, at times I felt insecure and flustered. A culture clash was inevitable every time I walked into my classroom, and my students did not try to hide their discomfort related to my accent. That year, my music theory class was full of rebellious senior boys, some of whom dreamed of becoming rock band drummers, others hoped for an easy “A” and yawned non-stop during the first period. It did not take long before one of the boys found a way to disrupt my class. I felt powerless and, quite frankly, betrayed. But soon, something happened that influenced my entire perspective on teaching: my son Areg went to preschool.
It was Halloween, and Areg could not wait to show everyone his new shirt with the image of a skeleton in front. He also needed to share that the skeleton could actually light up in the dark – they wouldn’t be able to see that otherwise during the day, right? The only problem was: he couldn’t express himself in English. You see, my husband and I decided to raise our children bilingual, so we did not speak English at home. Areg’s English was limited to what he had learned from watching cartoons.
That morning, he asked me: “Mom, how do you say this in English: ‘Скелет светится ночью?’” I answered: “The skeleton lights up at night.” So as he walked to school, holding hands with his dad, he kept repeating over and over: “The skeleton lights up at night,” “The skeleton lights up at night”…. As soon as he walked into his classroom, he shouted: “The skeleton lights up at night!”
A few weeks later, during a parent-teacher conference, Areg’s teacher expressed suspicions that he might have a learning disability: following directions had been a challenge for Areg. “Could this be the result of his limited English?” I asked. She was speechless. Areg was never identified as an ESL student, so she never thought that he might have a language barrier. In fact, Areg worked really hard to hide his struggles, having developed a database of memorized phrases and expressions he heard on TV to then use them as needed, just like he did with the skeleton phrase.
That parent-teacher conference was a revelation: I wondered how many Aregs I had in my class, struggling but not willing to share, even working hard to hide something? It was my job to listen, understand, and connect. So, I began learning about my students’ interests and life aspirations. I listened to their stories and grew a passion for working with them. One of them was Matt, a senior from my theory class. Matt came from a broken family and preferred staying after school rather than going home. We would discuss the staccato riffs by Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” or the remarkable chord progression in The Eagle’s “Hotel California” for hours! I grew to love these kids, and they loved me in return. Suddenly, quitting was not an option: these kids needed me, but I needed them even more. They cultivated a calling that I didn’t know I had – to be a teacher. They helped me find my own identity.
My quest began in Armenia, an ancient country in the Caucasus, and I became a refugee in the United States, by way of Russia. My husband, my two kids, and I were all born in different countries. Yet, I am an American. My “newfound” identity inspired me to create a series of concerts, “Around the World in 80 Minutes” in which each student represented their culture and language, displaying their humanity and empathy. I was proud of my students for using their language and musical skills to express their identity and to build character. As I listened in awe to my students’ stories, I realized that I was finally free to be the person I have been avoiding to be: myself.
 Phonetically, “Skelet svetitsya nochyu?”
Argine Safari, 2017 New Jersey’s State Teacher, teaches music at Pascack Valley High School and is active as a speaker, presenter, choral clinician, and performer, having performed in major concert halls including Carnegie Hall and MSG. She earned her degrees from Melikian College of Music in Armenia, Moscow Conservatory in Russia, Brooklyn College/CUNY, Rutgers University, and is currently a PhD candidate at Walden University. Argine’s students earned numerous awards and accolades, traveling with her from Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles to Canada, Italy and Ireland, where their Irish song renditions were played on the National Radio. Argine is a Grammy nominee and a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher who conducted research and taught at the University of the Arts in Helsinki, Finland. Argine’s article on innovative teaching was published in Moscow in 2019, and in May 2020, she was featured in Dr. Bilha Fish’s book Invincible Women: Conversations with 21 Inspiring and Successful American Immigrants. Argine’s most favorite thing in the world is transforming the lives of her students through the power of music. www.arginesafari.com