COLUMBIA, 10/11/11  (Op-Ed) --  Columbia Public Schools (CPS) music educator Pam Sisson asked my wife and I for our thoughts on TJ Wheeler and Blues in the Schools, an annual event that just wrapped with Columbia's Roots, Blues, and BBQ festival. 

With two children now ages 14 and 9 who have enjoyed all five years of the "TJ Wheeler experience" at Grant Elementary in Columbia, we say with confidence that Blues in the Schools has been a smashing success on a number of levels.

As TJ has wisely -- and gently -- instructed, the name "Blues" is as powerful as it is ironic.  African-Americans invented the Blues to help give them strength.  Facing challenges from all quarters, they knew that music and song can communicate trying times the mind may have trouble comprehending, but that the heart can understand -- and start to change.

From the old "Negro spirituals" that swayed with the cotton fields in the humid breeze, to the powerful gospel rhythms that rock the aisles of hundreds of modern-day congregations, the history of American Blues also tells a story TJ explains in the simplest way. 

"Blues is the music of hope," he tells his students and his audiences.  The future looks bright even at the darkest moments.  You just have to open your ears and listen, open your eyes and see.  

For children like ours, Blues in the Schools adds a timely measure of self-awareness to their everyday lives early in the school year.  It brings together educators, musicians, librarians, and fellow students in pursuit of an important part of American -- and world -- history.  As our children retrace their ancestors' musical roots, they learn that the soul of our gentility lies in our ability to accept and to love.

That's the message Blues in the Schools has delivered, and that TJ Wheeler embodies so well.

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