When we walked into the small, sunny sitting room, many of my kids looked up at me with questions in their eyes.
Why are most of these people in wheelchairs?
What's that smell?
Why is everyone slumped over? Are they asleep? Are they gonna wake up to hear us sing?
Of course we talked about what the nursing home might look and sound and feel like back at school. But to stand there and experience it was a completely different thing.
I was frozen for a moment, trapped somewhere between the eight and the eighty year olds. I wasn't sure what to say. I didn't know if my words could build a bridge to span the chasm of years between them.
Thankfully, my teacher friend and "soul sista" Cathy Dodson was there with her class to get things started. She is a lover of the arts, a nurturer of children, and a fantastic teacher. Her class gathered toward the front of the room and the sweet sound of children's voices belted out the Bruno Mars ballad "Count on Me" perfectly, with no musical accompaniment. It filled up that quiet room like sunshine in outer space.
If you're tossin and you're turnin and you just can't fall asleep... I'll sing a song beside you... And if you ever forget how much you really mean to me... I'll remind you....
My eyes filled with tears as I watched the residents begin to open their eyes and sit a little taller. The song was like magic. It was medicine- not for the body, but for the heart.
I realized that my job wasn't really to say anything. Music was doing all the talking.
My students took the stage next and sang like never before. I think they knew how important this moment was. It wasn't about the performance as much as the joy they were passing on.
I looked out on the sea of wrinkled faces and saw sparkling eyes. One lady (who told me later that she is 102!) was making little funny faces at the kids and waving her arms. An man with hair the color of snow was smiling quietly and clapping along.
Mrs. Dodson's students took turns sharing some of their creative writing. One little boy read about spending time with his grandson in a poem that had wisdom and depth and poignancy beyond his 9 short years on this planet.
I thought about how much kids and elderly people alike have to teach us. They have such wisdom and such courage. They tell the best stories. They know the importance of family.
Part of turning 30 is the halting realization that life on earth is short. The past 10 years have gone by in a blink, and I shudder to think at how fast the next 10 will speed by. I had hoped that my list would provide a sense of urgency - not just to live life to the fullest or to seize the day- but to serve others to the fullest.
Because one secret I have learned in my 29 years here on Earth is that the best way to get joy is to give it away.
I pray that this trip taught my students that lesson. It is probably the most important one I can ever teach.
Now I know:
I am so thankful for music and the way it touches the heart. I am so thankful for my job and the opportunity to spend my days with children. I am so thankful for friends to help me cross off items on my list. I am so thankful for almost 30 years of life. What a privilege. What a gift.