LSS: FESTIVAL volunteers create magic

Festival International has been a mainstay of Lafayette for 24 years

With a small paid staff, volunteers deserve much of the credit for the success of the event.

When asked for the reasons they keep coming back year after year, the faithful offer a familiar, but often rare, theme as their primary answer. It’s all about making real human connections — to people close to home and to people from far away.

The Duhon family epitomizes the Festival volunteer.

Peggy Duhon, a teacher at Scott Middle School, has been volunteering for 23 years. As artist transportation coordinator, she’s responsible for picking up musicians from airports and getting them to proper stages for performances.

Peggy doesn’t represent the Duhon family alone. At last count, 16 family members volunteer — all in transportation.

“We train them from babies. Not all of our family members drive for Festival, but they all volunteer,” she said. “Our nieces and nephews have come out with us since they were babies. Festival and helping are just a part of their lives.”

Duhon remembers feeding the artists in homes during the early years.

“Once we were at our parents’ house with a band. They played everything in the room. They banged on pipes. They put jars in rocks. My mother had a Christmas bugle on the wall, and they played it,” she said. “They took anything off the walls to make music. Music is part of their chemistry. I don’t remember the year or the band — or where they were from. I just remember the event. It was just so happy. So fun. When you have that experience, that’s what hooks you. You can’t buy that.”

Roger Smith of Lafayette is one of Duhon’s drivers. His reasoning for volunteering for Festival for the last 18 years is simple.

“I get to live like a rock star for a week and not have to travel,” he said. “I prefer the behind-the-scenes duties and not fight the crowds.”

Stacey Scarce, also of Lafayette and a transportation volunteer for 15 years, said her reasons for staying involved revolve around her service-oriented nature.

“But the reason I keep coming back to this is that this is the best part of the whole festival — hanging out with the artists,” she said. “A lot of the artists are coming from a place of spreading peace in the world — and I like that.”

Plus, Scarce said she likes to show people Acadiana.

“I like taking them to Lake Martin, showing them the animals, seeing the wildlife, letting them eat plants. To me, it makes me feel better about being here.”

Bobby Schexnayder of Meaux has volunteered 14 years.

“I love to meet the different people,” he said. “Bertrand Laurence came in one year. It was his first year and my first year. We clicked. Every year when he comes, he remembers me and I remember him.”

And as the good things in life so often do, his reasons for volunteering go back to making a real human connection.

Jan Risher’s column, Long Story Short, appears on Sundays. She can be reached at jan@janrisher.com.

LSS: Pencil-thin character

Students and teachers across Louisiana have endured a grueling week of standardized testing.

There’s a certain calm with testing itself, but the pressure associated with the tests and administering the tests wears everyone’s nerves raw.

There is much that has been and could be written about standardized testing. In fact, I could go on for a while myself, but of all there is to say or write about standardized testing, none of it will be said or written here.

As close as I’ll come to standardized testing is the lowly item so closely associated to testing.

The no. 2 pencil.

You know, the yellow ones?

With the orange erasers?

And the green banding where the pencil meets the tiny metal bit holding the eraser in place?

They look like the pencils of yesteryear.

But let me assure you, for the most part, these lookalikes do not write like the pencils of the past.

Pencils used to last.

I can’t say for certain how long my grandfather used a single pencil, but I believe he held on to the same knife-sharpened yellow stick for a year or so. Every farmer’s overalls had a special pocket just for a pencil.

There were no industrial-sized boxes of 48 to be had. Certainly, students, even in my grandfather’s day, lost a pencil on occasion. They also forget them or left them at home, but when pencil push came to pencil shove, the lowly writing instrument had value.

Based on having spent the better part of the last eight months in a sixth grade classroom, let me tell you that times have changed. Whoever makes the bulk of today’s pencils does not make them like they used to. Surely, there have to be some super-duper pencils out there that still work right, but I’m not sure I know or teach anyone who has found this present-day leaden writing treasure.

Many students don’t even know how to operate the round-and-round-and-round-bolted-to-the-wall contraption formerly used to sharpen pencils. However, they’re chomping at the bits to grind pencils to the nub in an electric grater.

All I can tell you is that pencils of the present and pencils of the past are poles apart.

Rarely, rarely, rarely does a contemporary pencil lead simply wear down. Nope, these pencils have full-scale and absolute pencil blowouts repeatedly — the kind reserved for near-catastrophic pencil and paper situations in days of yore.

After a week in a room full of 12-year-olds who each needed two no. 2 pencils steadily sharpened, I speak with some authority.

So, I’ll get to the point.

Maybe we live in an age of such perceived bounty that the producers and consumers of the lowly pencil see it as nothing more than a twig to be used for the moment, then broken and discarded. Yet, I believe there’s something worthy when pencils — and other items of utility – are constructed well enough to last long enough to develop some character.

Life is about more than one new pencil after another.

LSS: Rite of passage welcomed

By the time you read this, my family and I should have fulfilled a promise I made 13 years ago — if the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise (as my mama used to say).

Thirteen years ago, I promised my friend that my family and I would be on hand for her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.

Back then, thirteen years seemed impossible.

These babies would surely defy the laws of nature and remain babies. They couldn’t grow to be gangly, goofy adolescents spending time and energy on things beyond our limited, but sufficient domains.

Much to our surprise, time stops for no man – or our daughters.

Both girls have grown to be everything adolescence holds true. As it turns out, in our worlds, gangly and goofy is the new baby. And this weekend, my family and I will go to celebrate our daughter’s first friend’s rite of passage.

What a wonderful tradition Judaism offers its young. At an age when their worlds are going topsy-turvy, the faith offers an opportunity to focus on and study wisdom as old and steady as time, plus a chance to reflect on the personal obligations of God’s commandments.

Certainly, the event is more than a party.

The Bar and Bat Mitzvah require work on the part of the adolescent. Our young friend will read a passage from the Torah in front of her temple’s congregation – in Hebrew. She will deliver a sermon inspired by that week’s parshah (like in many Christian faiths, the Torah is divided into parts and studied at weekly intervals, allowing for the whole Torah to be completed in a year).

At any age, but especially having just turned 13, getting up in front of hundreds of her friends, her parents and their friends, her grandparents and their friends requires a certain chutzpah.

Judaism does a good job of connecting the generations – and offers a perfect platform for families and friends to connect and reconnect with each other. During the service, our young friends’ grandparents will hand the Torah to her parents. Her parents will then hand it to her — a link to who she is and who she will become.

The event is a perfect rite of passage, which is sorely missing in so many cultures. Trust me when I tell you that a similar rite is needed for adolescents. For me, this year has been the Year of the 12-year-old. My oldest daughter is 12. I have been surrounded by 12-year-olds as I’ve taught sixth grade. I’ve watched them and learned. So many of these kids – including my own — are searching for who they are and where they’re going. They desperately need faith. They need a greater awareness of commandments to be kept. They need the support of generations who have gone before them and continue beside them offering love and encouragement.

This weekend, our young friend is fortunate to be at the center of all of that.

To her and her family, I say, “Mazel tov.”

LSS: Thanks, Easter Bunny

On Easter morning 1978, the Easter Bunny left a songbook in my basket.

It may have been 1977.

There’s a slight possibility it was 1979.

Chances are, if you remember those years, they’re blurry for you too.

This much is certain, the book was called, “100 Popular Songs.” To give a sense of the sap level, “Feelings,” was song no. 1, followed by “Piano Man,” “Saturday in the Park,” “Kodachrome” and “My Eyes Adored You.” I played them all with varying levels of fervor. But my favorite, my fallback, my standby, was Olivia Newton-John’s “I Honestly Love You.”

I probably sang that song more times than she did.

That Easter changed the course of my music education.

I took piano every week from — Mrs. Willie Mae Mitchell in elementary, Mrs. Myra Frances Hayes in middle school and Mrs. Edna Earle Gibson in high school. I list their names because they’re legends and also to prove that to be a respectable piano teacher in Mississippi, you had to have a double first name.

Much to my childhood chagrin, I was forced to practice at least 30 minutes. Every. Single. Day.

To some degree, I appreciated Beethoven and Bach’s beauty back then, but it wasn’t until the music I was playing had words I could sing (when no one else was actively listening) that I could really lose myself at a piano.

“100 Popular Songs” was all I needed.

It was cheesy, cheap therapy. And, it worked.

My mother always said, “Piano is something you can do your whole life.”

The truth is, I rarely play piano these days. Among other surprises, adulthood has offered much less time for piano than I prepared for.

Even still, in the middle of one day last week, I had a serious hankering to play a piano. During my planning period at school, I remembered a room full of pianos. A piano might be momentarily available.

It was.

When I sat on the stool and put my hands on the keyboard, I instantly thought of

Mrs. Mitchell. She was adamant about students sitting at pianos with proper posture – down to fingers and wrists. If I were lazy and let my wrists sag, Mrs. Mitchell straightened my limbs and said in her slightly squeaky singsong voice, “Don’t squish my little chickens.”

I never really understood. Why would little chickens be on the edge of a piano? However, to this day when I sit at a piano, I instantaneously remember the posture.

Part of it is muscle memory.

Part of it is Mrs. Mitchell.

I don’t want to squish her little chickens of mythical proportions.

With last week’s unsquished chickens at hand, I mangled my way through a little Beethoven, some Brahms and Chopin.  Then I looked deeper in the stack of music.

And there was Nora Jones.

The contemporary songstress offered the same liberation of that Easter morning long ago. I love the classics, but music with words to sing in my heart and soul transferred me to another time and place.

Thanks, Easter Bunny.