Songs in the Key of Life Creating lullabies awakens young mothers' feelings of fear, frustration and hope

December 11, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

Shy and quiet, Traychel McLeod did not have an effective wa to express the frustrations and difficulties of being a teen-age mother with an irresponsible boyfriend. Nor did she realize there were others like her, young mothers unable to find common ground with the fathers of their children.

Then, Traychel found her voice in song. In a workshop at the

Laurence G. Paquin School for pregnant girls and new mothers where she is a student, she composed a lullaby that spelled out her love for her daughter and disgust with her daughter's father:

Oh little Boo bear

I snuggle you tight.

I hug you like a teddy bear, you're the light of my life.

He's wrapped up in a street life,

Wrapped up in a wild life

Not ready for family,

Not ready for love.

The song, composed with another student and set to an original, bittersweet melody, helped Traychel, 17, face the reality of her situation: "It tells the truth and it took me a long time to face the truth -- he's too young," she says. The collaboration also helped her realize she was not alone.

Both soothing and troubling, Traychel's lullaby is in sympathy with lullabies written around the world, over the centuries, says Teresa Whitaker, a lullaby scholar who conducted the Paquin workshop along with poet Susan Yaruta, jazz singer Ruby Glover and storyteller Beth Vaughan.

"Looking back on history, there are many, many lullabies that speak of all sorts of frustrations," says Ms. Whitaker, herself a mother of two young children. She cites examples of lullabies written by peasants sent to work as nannies in upper-class Japanese homes, as well as lullabies in the African-American tradition, sung by women forced to leave their own little ones to care for the master's children.

Other lullabies grieve the fathers who went off to sea, or who deserted lovers once "a baby was on the way," Ms. Whitaker says.

There is therapeutic value for the mother as well as the child in singing lullabies of lament and frustration, Ms. Whitaker says. Lullabies can also be "a really powerful tool to help with bonding," Ms. Whitaker says. "Babies really do respond to the sound, they act much more adorable. [That gives the parent] more confidence as a parent and [encourages them] to do more creative things with their children."

For the past eight weeks, Ms. Whitaker, a singer and storyteller, as well as Ms. Glover and Ms. Yaruta, have met with 18 students in a school nursery, where babies napping in cribs ring the room. The weekly one-hour sessions are conducted among the chaos of stirring children, and mothers -- who range in age from 14 to 20 -- fetching bottles and changing diapers.

Their first lullabies were simple chants built on the rhythm of the babies' names, in which the students listed their children's endearing traits. Over time, they graduated to more complete songs, such as the gentle "As You Sleep," another joint effort of the workshop:

Softly you sleep

Thoughts run through my head

Mama holds you snug and tight

As you rest your head on me

As you rest your head on me

Throughout the workshop, Ms. Glover contributed not only musical know-how, but experience. Once a teen-age mother herself and now a proud grandmother, she was a charismatic mentor for the students. "She brought all this wisdom and presence Susie [Yaruta] and I just couldn't bring," Ms. Whitaker says.

On the final day of the workshop, funded by Partners in the Arts, the Maryland State Arts Council and Very Special Arts Maryland, students are asked what they wish for their children as they grow up. Their replies will be woven into one last, affirming lullaby, to be sung at a concert at the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library tomorrow morning.

One by one, the girls speak of qualities and accomplishments that will propel their girls and boys out of the insidious cycle that cut short their own childhoods:

"I want my daughter to be smart, brave, proud, not scared of anything."

"I want my child to be an independent thinker."

"I want my daughter to be a smart little kid, not take drugs, not be a drug dealer and not depend on her boyfriend.

"I want my daughter to be highly educated, very responsible, have Christ in her life and have a lot of self-esteem and don't let nobody tell her she can't do things."

To that, a student cries " hallelujah!"


What: Lullaby concert by Laurence G. Paquin School students.

When: 10:30 a.m. tomorrow.

Where: Wheeler Auditorium in Central Pratt Library, 400 Cathedral St. Free.

Call: (410) 396-5402.

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