Follow Your Heart: Khalida and the Most Beautiful Song
There’s a common theme that courses through every article that I write - preserving the magic of childhood. Like most parents, all I want for our kids is for them to be truly happy. I want them to find the things that they are passionate about, and I want them to follow those dreams for their entire life. I often reflect on my role in all of this - and I’ve come to the conclusion that my most important job is keeping all of the things that crush dreams and destroy imaginations as far away from my kids as possible.
In the beginning of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a boy describes the time that he drew his very first picture. It was a picture of a snake eating an elephant as seen from the side. He asked the adults if his drawing scared them. But all they saw was a hat. “Why would we be afraid of a hat?” they asked.
Not only do the adults lack the imagination required to see the drawing for what it is, but they even go so far as to tell the boy to give up his drawings and focus on arithmetic and grammar instead. So he gave up on his art and he never drew again. I’m liable to burst into tears when trying to read this section out loud. In fact, I even placed it in the number one spot on our list of things that make me cry.
One of my very favorite movies of all time is The Neverending Story. In it, the entire world of Fantasia - or the world of the imagination - is threatened by a terrible destructive force known simply as The Nothing. Towards the end of the movie, the Childlike Empress explains that all Fantasia actually needs is the help of a human boy. All he needs to do to save their world is use his imagination to help write their story. As a child I never really thought twice about its meaning, but as I reflect on it as a dad - it strikes me as such an important reflection on life and childhood.
Now both The Little Prince and The Neverending Story serve as constant reminders to me that parents have the most precious job in the world - providing a childhood with as much magic and wonder as possible. But, unfortunately, we screw it up a lot. The Arcade Fire wrote a song called Wake Up that featured in the movie Where the Wild Things Are. They truly put this theme of adults and society ruining the magic of childhood into the most perfect words I could imagine:
Somethin' filled up
My heart with nothin'
Someone told me not to cry.
Now that I'm older
My heart's colder
And I can see that it's a lie.
Children wake up
Hold your mistake up
Before they turn the summer into dust.
Children don't grow up
Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.
We're just a million little gods causin' rain storms turnin' every good thing to rust.
What’s most depressing about these examples is that they are such a painfully accurate depiction of our world. As a dad and a teacher who is around kids all day - I deeply wish every child could be provided with the encouragement to follow their dreams and discover what makes them happy. Simple as that. No caveats or catches. Find out what your passion is and pursue it. Unfortunately that’s just not the world we live in right now. We live in a world where we give 8-hour-a-day jobs to 5-year-olds and legislate how many hours of math they’re legally required to have.
I mention all of these things because I recently read the most amazing picture book named Khalida and the Most Beautiful Song - and I wanted you to know the background of why it immediately had such a tremendous impact on me.
In the story, Khalida feels inspired to play a beautiful song that she hears in her head. She feels like she absolutely must find a piano to get it out of her head right away. The passion and the creativity that Khalida has building up inside of her reminds me of our son. He’s always coming up with new ideas and inventions - particularly right before bedtime. More often than not he’ll run out of bed to go build the creation he has in his head. If he doesn’t, he’ll talk about it for hours before he falls asleep, and he’ll build it the instant he wakes up in the morning. And he never forgets.
But, unfortunately, those around Khalida don’t feel the same way she does about her song. They don’t exactly place the same amount of importance on her playing it. When she tries to play it at home on her piano - her parents tell her to go to bed. When she tries to play it on a piano at school, her teachers tell her to go to class. Khalida is visibly deeply disappointed by this point, and with good reason.
Like the boy in The Little Prince who was encouraged to focus on arithmetic and grammar instead of art, all I see when her parents and her teachers tell her “not now” is a little girl that’s struggling to find support for her passion. The beautiful illustrations and the dreamlike atmosphere of the book are in stark contrast with the picture of a large, angry finger pointing and demanding that Khalida return to class.
When I see that sad page with Khalida’s disappointed face as she shuffles back to class, I can’t help but think about the tragic way that schools are run these days - with such a focus on seat time requirements and standards and testing. Worst of all, the way they’re set up sends a very clear message to kids that the arts - and by extension creativity and imagination - are not as important as the “core” curriculum. Without very intense intervention by caring adults, school can truly be a very well-oiled joy-sucking machine.
But despite her setbacks, Khalida finally gets her hands on a piano at the end of the book - in the middle of a city park. She finally gets the chance to play her song. I can’t describe how perfectly Amanda Moeckel, the author and illustrator of the book, executed this scene. When Khalida finally plays the song that’s been trapped in her head, it affects people. It makes a difference:
Jeremy forgot he was late for a meeting.
Camille forgot about being bullied at school.
Tulip forgot her grandmother was sick.
There is a lot of depth hidden in the simplicity of those lines, and it’s enough to make me cry. Following your passions is vitally important. Music is important. Painting is important. Dancing is important. Creativity and imagination are important. Being happy is important. Pursuing any and all of these things - and anything else you are passionate about - is quite frankly more important than arithmetic or grammar.
The title of the book - Khalida and the Most Beautiful Song - is incredibly fitting. Finding beauty and happiness in life provides meaning. It might be hard to put your finger on at first, while it’s rattling around your head just out of reach. But once you discover what makes your life beautiful - you have to chase it down. And the truly amazing thing is, parents and teachers have the incredible opportunity to be a part of that chase every day.
The creativity of a child is a sight to behold, and they can be non-stop idea machines. And the thing is, regardless of how mundane or unimportant something might seem to adults, their everyday desires and plans are often the most important thing in the entire world to them. So we have a personal choice to make about one million times each day. Either we can slowly crush the life and imagination out of our kids with our adherence to arbitrary societal obligations and selfish convenience, or we can help them pursue their interests, find happiness, and nurture their childhood passion for life as long as possible.