by Ariel McRae
Student enrichment is a necessity for children throughout their educational career, especially programs that center around the arts. The speakers and entertainers leading the program can become catalysts for a child in the audience to have their hopes, dreams and goals for the future take root. Enrichments that make children believe in themselves are the best kind of all.
In Humboldt, the students at East Elementary and Stigall Primary were treated with a program from one of Humboldt’s own. Valerie June Hockett, known professionally as Valerie June, is a Humboldt native that has paved her own way through the music industry. With her folk, blues and bluegrass background, she is a singer-songwriter who energizes and inspires her fans to believe in themselves. She is a major advocate of children’s literacy and has served time as a Turnaround Artist working with students for the President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities. On Friday, November 18, June married her skills together and led Humboldt students in song as she told them her story from a book she wrote entitled “Somebody to Love.”
“I was telling [my] story in the Turnaround Arts program that Michelle Obama started and the Kennedy Arts Center picked it up and we [shared] it with schools throughout the states,” June explained of how her children’s book became published. “The director, Kathy, told me, ‘You need to make a book out of that’ and I was like, ‘You’re right, I do!’ So I went ahead and wrote it and it took three years for it to find the right publisher for the book to be published.”
In the book, she writes about a personified version of her sweet little baby banjolele, her most treasured instrument. The banjolele had to harness its belief in the sounds within its spirit before music could be played from its strings. Many characters within the book, illustrated by Marcela Avelar to resemble June’s own family, try to convince the baby banjolele that it cannot be played, but once it decides to believe in its dream to be played, with the help of Valerie, it shakes out the dust and plays the sweetest of tunes.
The kids gathered around June in awe of the story and the moral it instills while tiny sparks of belief in their own dreams shown in their eyes and reflected in their smiling faces. The title of the book is from the name of one of the very first songs she wrote using the banjolele. She invited the children to sing along with her as she serenaded them while they clapped—albeit a bit off beat.
When her song and story concluded, she asked the students if they had any dreams they wanted to fulfill and one by one little hands were raised with excitement to share what they wanted to be when they grew up. Answers varied in profession from ballerina to drummer to singer to astronaut. June shared with each of them how amazing it was to hear their aspirations and for them to never stop believing their dreams can come true.
After the program, June invited the children to come to the front to count the strings on the instruments that she brought with her. She is self-taught and can play many instruments—mostly in the string family. She laughed with some of the teachers and mentioned for some of her songs she passes them along to her keyboardist because while she can play block chords on the piano, he is a genius at the keys. She also said that she is friends with Norah Jones and she could not compare her piano playing on Jones’ level although she dreams of one day being able to play in that capacity. She told the kids that she is not done dreaming for herself and hopes to keep learning instruments well into her golden years.
June plays shows around the United States 200 days out of the year, playing her own concerts, with other creatives like Elvis Costello and Margo Price, as well opening for other well known artist such as Dave Matthews. She has also been nominated for a Grammy from a duet with Carla Thomas.
“Every person they say has a story in them or a song in them; every person has a book. I think that about instruments too,” June explained about her inspiration behind writing her songs. “Every single instrument, if you are a writer or want to be a writer, it will give you a song.”
June hopes to take time out of her schedule to continue to spread the message of her book at other schools around the States because she believes in the power of creativity and finds speaking to children vitally important. She remembers growing up and only having maybe one or two outside people come in to do enrichment with their classes so she hopes to change that for other children because it is important for their ever-changing, developing minds.
“It feels like a homecoming to me. My last time in town was when I was nominated and put into the Humboldt Hall of Fame and that was amazing, but I wasn’t really around this many young people,” June expresses about coming back to her hometown. “Really, this whole experience has been amazing. I am so grateful to be accepted and for them inviting me to come back [to Humboldt schools.]”
Valerie signed 10 copies of her book to leave at both East Elementary and Stigall Primary for the library so the students can revisit the story if they ever need to reread for a reminder to continue to believe in their dreams.