A few years ago when my hometown passed a millage increase so Ozark Public Schools could build a performing arts center, I was asked to consult on the purchase of a piano worthy of our amazing new state-of-the-art facility.
So I went around tickling various ivories and having fun with research until we found the One. I might be biased, but I doubt there is a finer instrument to be found in any school in Arkansas, including the bigger, richer, and/or private institutions.
Our great black Steinway is the crown jewel of the PAC. We call it the Precious. The Precious rests in its own climate-controlled room when not gracing the stage. We Ozark Hillbillies, you see, are nothing if not fancy.
Our town is exceedingly proud of the Precious. Like the PAC itself, it represents a commitment to the arts in a place where athletics are, shall I say, also heartily supported. As a former band nerd, I approve. But how I feel really goes way beyond approving.
I started playing piano on an old green upright that fit in a storage room off our garage in the house my parents rented on Gibson Street. That same house had a furnace in the floor, and I remember standing on it with rubber-soled shoes until my shoes melted enough to stick to the metal grate. My mother would smell this experiment from the kitchen and admonish me to "get off there right now before you ruin your shoes!"
It was cold in the storage room, and one had to really want to practice piano to go out there in the winter. Gloves defeated the purpose.
Later, when I was deemed serious enough about playing, and we built a bigger house, we got a Kimball console from Plunkett Music Company in Fort Smith. I got to help pick it out. It was oak and lovely, and I was enchanted.
I could go into the living room, shut the door, and practice any time I wanted. That piano saw me through Robert Pace's Music for Piano course--from the red beginner book all the way to the bitter advanced yellow end.
I took out a lot of my teenage angst on that piano, pounding my way through Bach, Beethoven, and my favorite, Chopin's Revolutionary Etude. In high school--the old Ozark High School--I played that one on stage.
The piano was about the same caliber as the one I had at home. Which was better than what most people had. Much better than someone else I know who made her own piano out of a cardboard box because she so much wanted to learn.
Still, when my music teacher Gail Hillard took me to contests in exotic places like Russellville, Little Rock, and even once to Houston, I would play on these grand pianos that thundered in the bass and chimed like little bells high in the treble. I felt famous, like a real concert pianist, playing those grands.
That is what happens to school kids when they play on the Precious--one little example of the magic of a public school in rural Arkansas. It does not matter what houses they came from, or whether they have stains on their clothes. It does not matter what their names are, or whether their parents can afford any instrument. The Precious is theirs at school, just as much as it is anyone else's. Like the eagle or the flag, it's a perfect symbol of America, where we believe people are created equal.
But it's more than a symbol for those kids. It's the American dream they can touch, experience, own. Because our local people believed our kids are worth it. Because those local people got out and voted to fund a facility and equipment kids needed. And because a democratically elected school board made it happen. Everyone worked together, did our parts.
A diverse group of folks can differ on many things and still work together on a common goal. A diverse group of ideas negotiated by our nation's founders is how we got the U.S. Constitution in the first place. Like our children, most of the things that really matter, matter to all of us. Who doesn't want great schools, well-paying jobs, and excellent health care? We all want these things for ourselves. The unique thing about being American is that we also want those things for all of our citizens.
For Arkansas--and America--to be great, we all have to play our part. Not as solos or separate ensembles against each other. All unique parts, all together.
Gwen Ford Faulkenberry is an English teacher and editorial director of the non-partisan group Arkansas Strong. (http://arstrong.org) Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.