From children's notes, a musical partnership

Singer: After exchanging e-mails, Arizona folk artist Eric Hansen visits West Baltimore pupils for a second time.

April 23, 2004|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

There is music being made in room 422 this week at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, and it comes from an unlikely collaboration between the exuberant voices of city second-graders and the songs of a middle-aged Arizona folk singer.

The children learn math to the rhythm of the blues and clap in unison to learn about whole notes, half notes and fractions. They write lyrics and do a little acting.

And by the end of each day, the children find their way to the musician's side, leaning against his shoulder and dancing to his melody.

Music brought together the children and the musician, Eric Hansen, after a friendship born and nurtured in dozens of e-mails that whizzed between Baltimore and Tucson during the fall and winter.

"My house caught on fire," one girl wrote in December. "And I am sad now because my house is burned down. My mother is too because she loved her house and my sister did too. Well I'm sorry for my three cats because they all died."

Hansen wrote back: "I am so happy to hear that you got out of the burning house safely. That must have been very scary. Your Mom sounds like a very strong woman. ... Yes, I love macaroni and pizza. I also love hot fudge sundaes. ... Continue being so brave and strong."

These inner-city children and the stories of their lives have tugged so hard at Hansen that he has flown across the country twice to see them. His first trip was in December, and he is making his second visit, a two-week stay that ends today.

"The kids touched me. They really touched me, so I wanted to be there for them," said Hansen, 47, who has had a varied career that has included acting, teaching and making several CDs of his work. The children began e-mailing him after their teacher played his CDs in class.

He travels around the West in a van, performing at coffeehouses, hospitals, outdoor concerts and prisons.

Although he has never set out to produce children's music, some of Hansen's songs, such as the "Boo Boo Blues," were inspired by teaching children, he said.

And one of his CDs, Nobody Knows, is described as "music for kids of all ages, shapes and sizes."

The singer's gentle manner and music have encouraged quiet and troubled children to sing with passion and learn math without realizing it.

Hansen sings about courage and heroes and friends, themes real to children who have experienced hard times.

Many have a relative in prison, have failed a grade or are living with foster parents, said their teacher, Linda Morris.

On a recent day in Morris' classroom, pupils began to tell Hansen their stories.

The class sang "Hero in the Dark," a Hansen song about unsung heroes.

The refrain is, "So sing this song for the unknown heroes who change the world every day."

Between verses, he asked the children to talk about their heroes.

"My hero is my grandfather because there was a fire in my house. I was the only one in my house, and he went in and saved me," said Angelica Hill.

"My whole family because they take care of me," Malcolm Denton said.

Morris, the second-grade teacher, said she has always incorporated music into learning to motivate and teach her pupils.

"This music is an alternative way to reach them," she said. "It is a great way to teach phonics and vocabulary."

The teacher said she has found that children with behavior problems are more engaged in what they are learning and more obedient when the arts are combined with academics.

Morris met Hansen when she wrote an article about him for the music magazine Dirty Linen.

She began playing his CDs to her class, and the children decided to write to him. With e-mail available in their classroom, they began to write to him individually.

"Somehow the songs spoke to them. They started writing pretty personal stuff," Hansen said.

One child told him about his mother's death, another about how Hansen's song "In Grandpa's Eyes" reminded him of his grandfather.

Hansen wrote back to each child.

"I would try to be really positive. I would try to give them good, strong ideas. They started pouring their hearts out to me through the teacher," he said.

Then one day he got an e-mail from the children with a whimsical notion:

They would take a bus to Arizona to visit him. Their teacher would come, too. And they gave him a long list of items, including cupcakes and salmon cakes, that they wanted him to prepare for a big dinner they would have together.

"I said, `I don't think so,'" Hansen said. He decided to fly to them, spending his money for the December trip. This time, he received a grant to pay the airfare and has combined the visit with several performances in the area.

Working with the children takes a lot of effort because Hansen has a lung disease, alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, that has left him with 32 percent lung function. He takes medications to stabilize the disease.

"I have a hard time working with children. It is exhausting," he said.

"It is very sad for me. I wish I was stronger and could work with them more."

During one class, Hansen pulled a shy boy who was having a moment of sadness to the front of the classroom.

Slowly, the boy draped his arm over Hansen's shoulder, and minutes later the boy began to sing.

The rest of the children were singing their hearts out for a song called "True Friends."

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