“The World Would Be a Better Place If …”: National PTA and ED Honor Student Artists

On the inside of high-schooler Maria Quiles’ right wrist is the neatly crafted tattoo of a treble clef, surrounded by notes. Having epilepsy, she relies on the tattoo, coupled with her musical passion, for courage during seizures.

Maria was at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in January to be honored for her musical composition, which won an award in the 2014–15 National PTA Reflections competition celebrating arts learning in schools across the country. Each year hundreds of thousands of entrants from preschool through grade 12 reflect on a common theme to create original art in six mediums — dance choreography, film production, literature, music composition, photography, and visual arts. Maria’s composition responded to this year’s theme, “The World Would Be a Better Place If … ‘’

ED hosted the National PTA awards ceremony for the ninth year, which this year drew 35 honorees from 21 states and 200 other attendees — families, teachers and school leaders, National PTA staff, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and other arts leaders, and ED staff. The ceremony ended with a signature ribbon-cutting to officially open the exhibit of Reflections visual arts and literature winners, on display through the end of February.

Maria, from Oviedo, Fla., was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 13; she has endured bullying, depression, and thoughts of suicide. The world would be a better place, she believes, if compassion trumped hurtful nicknames. Through the years, Maria has turned her despair into songs of hope. When a seizure is imminent, she and her mother together grasp Maria’s tattooed wrist and sing or hum her winning composition, which concludes, “Everything will be ok. . . . No matter what’s in my way, I’ll just stay, I’ll Just Stay.” Soon the seizure subsides.

Maria Quiles and her mother at the opening ceremony to honor Maria and 205 other winners of the 2014–15 National PTA Reflections competition.

Maria Quiles and her mother at the opening ceremony to honor Maria and 205 other winners of the 2014–15 National PTA Reflections competition.

Ted Mitchell, ED’s under secretary of education, spoke of “the transformational power of art,” as reflected in Maria’s story:

“Art has a particular ability to raise the volume on the possible, to give us images
and sounds, pictures, words that help describe a world that might not exist yet, but
can, and more importantly, ought to. … Art enables us to create an experience
before we can explain it, and it’s that movement from the experience to the explanation, to the development of work that … is our life’s journey.”

Beyond discovery, educators lauded many other merits of art in education. Jane Chu, NEA chairwoman, cited research indicating that arts-infused schools correlate with improved social skills, higher grades and test scores, better attendance, lower dropout rates, and increased college enrollment. These outcomes are particularly pronounced for low-income students.

Laura Bay, the National PTA president, named additional benefits. Artists learn to create, problem-solve, persevere, and communicate. Art can be woven throughout all academic areas, including science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), to clarify, illuminate, stimulate the imagination, and develop innovations.
Honorees interpreted this year’s competition theme in myriad ways. For example, “The World Would Be a Better Place If … ”

“… [P]eople came together and focused on their similarities, not their differences. The joy of music creates a common bond that brings people together, even people who do not know one another. …If more people focused on the joyous parts of life, like music, the world would have less hatred and would be a better place.” — Kyle Gatesman, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology [Virginia] student, who composed and performed “The Joy of Music” on his keyboard.

Kyle Gatesman performs his original composition for keyboard, “The Joy of Music.”

Kyle Gatesman performs his original composition for keyboard, “The Joy of Music.”

“… [W]e all set down our cell phones and got to know each other face-to-face.” —Hanna La Londe, Shawnee Mission West [Kansas] High School student, who choreographed and performed the dance “Losing Touch” to the music of Prince Ea.

Hanna La Londe performs the award-winning dance she choreographed, “Losing Touch.”

Hanna La Londe performs the award-winning dance she choreographed, “Losing Touch.”

“… I could march through life with my brother.” —10-year-old Jarom Garner [Briarwood, Wash.], who, accompanied by his 12-year-old sibling, Adam, performed a cello duet of Jarom’s prize-winning composition, “The Brothers’ March.”

Jarom Garner, left, and his sibling Adam perform Jarom’s winning musical composition for cello, “The Brothers’ March.”

Jarom Garner, left, and his sibling Adam perform Jarom’s winning musical composition for cello, “The Brothers’ March.”

Honorees cut the ribbon at the opening of the Reflections art exhibit featuring some 60 pieces of visual art and a collection of literature.

Honorees cut the ribbon at the opening of the Reflections art exhibit featuring some 60 pieces of visual art and a collection of literature.

Nancy Paulu is an editor and writer in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.

All photos are by U.S. Department of Education photographer Joshua Hoover. More photos from the event may be viewed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/departmentofed/albums/72157663336481071

The Department’s
 Student Art Exhibit Program provides students and teachers an opportunity to display creative work from the classroom in a highly public space that honors their work as an effective path to learning and knowledge for all. To visit the exhibits or for information about exhibiting, contact Jackye Zimmermann at jacquelyn.zimmermann@ed.gov or visit http://www.ed.gov/student-art-exhibit