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Why I Do the Work: Virtues, Bones, & Tolerance

Naomi Natale

Last September, I went to East San Jose Elementary School here in my hometown of Albuquerque, NM. While there I spoke with over 200 fourth and fifth grade students in six classes.

For the three weeks before I visited, the students had been studying “virtues” under the guidance of their teacher, Amy Sweet, who heard about One Million Bones, loves the project, and wanted to bring it into her classroom.

Together we began the lesson by asking the students about their virtues — which ones they possess, which ones their friends possess, etc. — and asking what acts they do that show them off. We then asked the question,  “How do we find the virtues in people that we don’t really like?”

All of us together decided that virtues are very much like bones, that though we cannot see them we know that they exist and that they make us who we are. We also decided that EVERYBODY has virtues just like EVERYBODY has bones. And then we began the process of art-making.

While making bones, we talked and shared about what happens when we do not see or look for the virtues in others – how that can lead to name calling, bullying, fighting, and conflicts.

We talked about how this played into our own lives and in our stories we described how people get hurt, bones are broken, families are broken, communities are broken.

One young boy shared a personal account about how his father had been killed by a family member when he was eleven months old. At a recent event this family member asked if he forgave him and the young boy said he had. If a child experiencing a loss that great can perform the truly heroic act of forgiving, we all have much to learn from that.

One of my favorite stories that came out of the day was from two young girls who were sitting next to each other in our second class. They explained how they didn’t like each other at all when they first met but were persuaded by another classmate to get to know each other. Now they are best friends, and their love for each other is absolutely visible. When one of the girls became emotional recalling a personal account of intolerance, her best friend wrapped her arms around her and held on for a long while.

These children completely understood the idea behind One Million Bones.  They made their own bones, from their own stories, but recognized that they were also making them for people all over the world whose virtues were not seen or valued in their communities or by their governments. I promised that I would bring their bones to Washington so that world leaders could bear witness to their actions.

For me, this is why this work is so important. The impact on these children, right now, may be imperceptible, but this made an impact. And so in reference to my last blog post, this is why sufficient funding is an issue. I’d be in schools or community centers, in libraries or detention centers, in senior centers or domestic violence shelters everyday, if I could. I imagine the impact that would have. And finally, this is why the intersection between art and social activism is so important, because the creative process combines with the social action for more profound results.

On behalf of all the fourth and fifth grade students at East San Jose…To all the children in Sudan, Congo, Uganda, and Burma, we offer you these bones, these stories, and our voices.

Your virtues we hold and do not forget.

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