Martha Johnson, or “Miss Martha” as her students refer to her, doesn’t know the children’s stories. She’s not sure she wants to. You can understand the apprehension as a new child named Stella joins her group on a Tuesday night at the Hamilton House in Fort Smith.
Stella belongs in commercials. Her dark brown hair falls a little below her shoulders. She’s clean and very neat looking. Friendly to everyone she meets in the same way that she is to her little brother, who wants you to know that he’s six years old and proud of it.
Stella doesn’t mind him at all. The 9-year old is a good big sister and stands confident in a room with a 10-year old and three teenagers that to this point, she’s never met. They’re all welcoming of Stella.
“Hi Miss Stella,” Isaac says.
The teenage girls are happy to give her the good chair and sit on the floor at her feet.
These children share an interest in the Native American flute. They also share a much darker commonality. All but one are victims of sexual abuse. These are the children who comprise Johnson’s “Echoes of the Children” effort, which she started in her free time to restore feelings of control and self-worth to victims of child sexual abuse.
The room is cramped, but large enough to house Miss Martha and her five students. Joining the group is Johnson’s new seven-week old Australian Shepherd River, who goes from one child to the next without a yelp.
Johnson started teaching the Native American flute to these children in May. Isaac was her first student, and it “grew from there.” Tonight, she’s hoping to incorporate “pet therapy” by allowing River to listen to each child’s flute performance and wag his approval.
“With what you know they have been through, I would like to hug each and every one of them, but you can’t,” Johnson tells The City Wire in an interview prior to the class. “But an animal can.”
Each of the kids, from nine to 16, are taken with the dog. They make him a home on their laps while the rest of their classmates play.
Isaac leads the group off with a slow and methodical take on “Amazing Grace” that, considering he’s been playing for five months, is quite good. He hands it off to Stacy, who plays a lights-out version of “O Christmas Tree.” Stella closes her eyes and listens. River sits on Sara’s lap, dips his head and remains still – or does until the end of the song.
Now it’s Sara’s turn to play, and River needs a new place to sit. He finds it with Stella.
River sits there for the rest of the performance and moves only when his picture is taken. He’s completely content with his place in this world, and so is Stella. As the performances wind down, she learns that the flute is much more than an instrument to her new friends.
Isaac reads a report he has written for Miss Martha on what the flute means to him.
“The flute is music to my ears when it is played and it’s the perfect instrument for me,” he says. “Maybe not for you, but it is for me. When I play with my flute, it is like a bird whistling. When I play my flute, my flute takes my mind off other things. That’s how special it is to me.”
Stacy says her flute “keeps my mind clear and makes me happy.”
For Sara, it reminds her “of things I had forgotten were possible. Things like freedom, happy endings, the ability to be in control of things, and new chances or beginnings.”
“The freedom and control of the flute, to me, means that happy endings are possible and I can create them,” she adds. “I am the one who gets to decide what the music says.”
For Hillary, the journey “has changed my life, and definitely not for the worst but for the better.”
Hillary is the only student not to suffer the horror of abuse. Her parents are foster parents to Sara, so she decided to take up lessons to show her support for the girl.
“The Native American flute has taught me you cannot worry about what other people are going to say or if they are better than you because that is the precious thing about this instrument. Everyone learns from everyone.”
Johnson voices support for each response, her energy spiking throughout the class-time despite having come from a full day as a Sparks Women’s Center associate.
It’s an energy that rubs off on her students. After the performances, Johnson plays a selection of flute music from different artists. Isaac points out a note “bend,” while Stella criticizes one of the faster songs.
“It sounds good, but it just doesn’t sound like flute music. I like faster songs. I just don’t like adding a lot of other stuff. It seems like you’re taking something away.”
Isaac is impressed. “This is her first night, and she’s already smarter than anyone in this room.”
For Johnson, there “are no mistakes” with the Native American flute.
“You can’t make one. Playing, it’s more about what’s in your heart,” she explains.
Before the end of class, Johnson makes sure to give Stella her “starter kit,” which includes sheet music, an explanation about what the Native American flute is, and what she can accomplish with it.
Lastly, she gives the little girl a starter flute crafted from PVC pipe.
With 7 p.m. approaching, Stella’s mother and brother waiting for her outside the door, the little girl does something that takes Johnson off guard but that is not at all unwelcome. She wraps her arms around “Miss Martha’s” waist and squeezes as tightly as her little arms can. Then, she takes the gifts and joins her family outside.
Before Christmas, Johnson would like for Isaac, Hillary, Sara, Stacy and now Stella to record their own CD together if she can find the funds and the expertise to have it professionally produced. But tonight, she’s simply glad to make a difference.