• Kipper Ackerman

My Friend, Deborah

Her first name is Deborah and she now owns a piece of my heart. I have come to know her as one of my most captivated audience members. At the moment I begin to play, she is fixed on my hands as I place them on the strings. But, as soon as she receives the message that my music sends, she is engulfed by the power it possesses. When the music of my harp is fast and loud, Deborah is fast and loud. And, when the music of my harp is calm and peaceful, Deborah is calm and peaceful. Transformed by the music that the strings of my harp produce, she becomes engaged with her entire body, mind, and soul.


Deborah’s mother, Felicia Fleming, informed me that she began to have concerns about her daughter when she was eight months old. She was not developing like the other babies her age. It didn’t take her long to begin to understand that Deborah was different from the other children. At the age of two, she began to act out with much aggression. Deborah would soon be diagnosed as autistic with moderate intellectual disabilities and her mother knew that this road ahead would be difficult. In the middle of the difficulties, Deborah has always loved music. Even as an infant, her mother noticed her love of music as Deborah would always rock back and forth when music was played.

This difficult journey has now led Deborah and her mother to Mrs. Paige Stokes’ Special Needs classroom at Alice Drive Middle School. Both Mrs. Fleming and Mrs. Stokes’ describe Deborah as sweet and friendly, but on any given day that could change in the blink of an eye. You have to approach her softly with anticipation of the mood she may be in at the time. She has several different voices and changes her name and identity from time to time. One day, she may be Beyoncé, or maybe even Spike Lee or Madea. And, on those days, Mrs. Stokes’ informs her that she is Christy Brinkley and Deborah lets out an infectious, deep laugh. She refers to herself as “she” and is quick to tell you that “She needs to settle down”. Deborah is extremely detailed oriented and has an amazing memory. And, this young lady loves to shop and go out to eat. My kind of girl!


It is through my own daughter’s journey to Alice Drive Middle School that I have had the opportunity to see peace and healing working through the strings of my harp with Mrs. Stokes’ students. Some days, I walk through their door with a harp that stands 6 feet tall, 47 strings, made of a beautiful Mahogany wood, weighing in at 82 pounds. And, other days, I have walked in with a very small, carbon-fiber harp, 22 strings, weighing in at 12 pounds. Oh, and this little lady in painted pink. One harp is strung with the finest gut strings that one can buy, and the other is loaded up with the cheapest nylon strings available. You would think that the shapes, sizes, colors, and sounds of these two harps would have some impact on these students. But, much to my surprise, there isn’t much difference when I bring in one harp instead of the other. These students just want to listen and be engaged in the music that is about to be played.


The first time I pushed my large harp down the hall toward Mrs. Stokes’ room, I remember the level of noise coming through her door that was closed. I could hear several students shouting out words that I could not understand and laughter that was absolutely contagious, even thru the cinderblock walls. As I slowly opened the door and peaked inside, I was amazed at how no one gave me a second glance, nor did the noise cease. But, as soon as I pushed in a large object covered in a large blue, canvas bag, resembling an “Arby’s” oven mitt, the noise was immediately silenced and everyone’s eyes turned toward me. I had their attention, and from that moment on, I felt like a celebrity in the eyes of that beautiful classroom.


Once the students were seated on their carpet square, I slowly removed the cover to reveal my harp to the class. Some of their eyeballs grew twice in size, some jumped back a little, some giggled, and some just stared right through me. But, as soon as I ran my pointer finger across the strings, every one became entranced by the sound that was filling the room. My attention was drawn to a young girl, with glasses filled with thick lenses, seated on the blue carpet square next to the computer station. She was so drawn into the music that was being shared that I almost wondered if she remembered where she was at the moment. It was almost hypnotic. I continued to play calm, soft melodies that encouraged the students to sit quietly, and some even swayed back and forth with their eyes closed. After a few selections, I began to add my voice. When I began to sing “Jesus Loves Me”, every student began to sing along with me. One voice rang out a little stronger than the others, and that precious voice belonged to my friend sitting on the blue carpet square. Her version sounded somewhat similar to mine, and I am sure that the joy that resonated from her melodies made the angels smile. In that moment, all was well with her soul, so I transitioned into “Amazing Grace”, and what happened next sealed my heart with a peace that passes all understanding. This young lady pulled her knees to her chest and gripped her hands tightly in front of them. She closed her eyes, leaned her head back, and began to join me in singing every verse that I shared. I could see excitement on her face, and at the same time, I could since a peace in her heart. This all took place over a time span of approximately ten minutes, in which not one student left their carpet square. Peace and healing was taking place right in front of my eyes and I was experiencing a new found joy.


After seeing how the students responded to the soft, slow tempo of the first few melodies, I decided to change things up a bit. As I scrolled through the music on my iPad, I came across “This Girl Is On Fire” by Katy Perry. I gave Mrs. Stokes’ a subtle look that said, “Watch this”. I strummed the first chord and let out the first line as if I was Perry behind that harp. “SHE’S JUST A GIRL AND SHE’S ON FIRE!” In a split second, the students head popped up and their facial expressions immediately changed. And, before the second chord was played, my friend on the blue carpet square had jumped up and was in position to start dancing. The transformation of the style of music had transformed this child in a matter of seconds. Even if it was played on a harp! And, before you knew it, the entire classroom erupted with the lyrics to the chorus…”This girl is on fire!” And, we were on fire! Rocking it out in the ADMS Special Needs classroom with a harp.


Now, don’t think that I left things that way. Mrs. Stokes’ would never had invited me back, that’s for sure. So, a couple of verses of “Amazing Grace” and every one was back to their carpet square, including my friend on the blue one.


As I began to put the oven mitt back over the harp, I felt someone pulling my pants leg. I looked down and saw that it was my friend on the blue carpet square. “Mrs. “Keeper”, my name is Deborah and I like your harp." I asked her if I could bring it back another time and she gave me a nod and went back to her square.


Deborah and I have had several “jam” sessions on the harp since our first encounter and I hope I have the opportunity to visit her after she graduates from ADMS and moves on to Sumter High School.

In closing, I am sharing a story that was given to me by a very special friend while I was taking a course on inclusion of special education students in the music classroom. It is a beautiful depiction of what it is like to raise a child with special needs. But, seventeen years later, I have found a new connection with this story as the dreams that I once had of leading choirs in performances in front of large audiences have now had to stop, as I have found myself in a foreign land, learning a new language.


“Welcome to Holland”by Emily Kingsley

When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip - to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."

"Holland?!?" you say. "What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy."

But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven't taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It's just a different place.

So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

It's just a different place. It's slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around.... and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills....and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy... and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."

And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away... because the loss of that dream is a very, very significant loss.

But... if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland.

Being a choir director was my “baby” and I loved being in “Italy”, but my time in “Holland” has kept me so close the Lord. And, man, do I love tulips!

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The Sounds of Grace is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization whose mission is to bring peace and healing through music in hospital and healthcare facilities and special needs classrooms.

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