I can’t stop thinking about that smile.

It came while I was shadowing Kevin, grade 6, last fall. 

We had arrived in last period: beginning orchestra. Mr. Qiao was helping students tune their instruments — violins, violas, cellos. He asked them politely to refrain from strumming, banging, or tapping while he made his rounds. Alas, this was too much to ask fidgety 12-year-olds at the end of the day. Each “sshhhh” would quiet the room for a few moments before the noise would swell again. 

Just when I started feeling nervous (it felt like an hour but was probably no more than 10 minutes), the instruments were ready. Mr. Qiao pointed to notes on the board behind him, and tentatively the group began to pluck (they were too raw to use the bows). I couldn’t make out much through the din, until slowly, somewhat unsteadily, the cacophony came together.

I heard the familiar tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

At that moment, Mr. Qiao looked up from his podium with an absolutely radiant smile.

In a normal visit, I might pop in for five minutes and leave. Had I done so on this particular day, I would have left right in the middle of the crazy din of the tuning. What was going on, I might ask. Are those kids learning anything? 

As an educator and a parent, I have to confess sometimes wondering — in the middle of that multi-year journey, with all its dramas and triumphs — if we’re making progress. It is hard to see the forest through the trees. Especially when the tree’s have underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes.

In my 45-minute visit to Mr. Qiao’s class, the value of being patient, of trusting the system, came into stark relief.

That long-term view was reinforced at the end of the year when CA’s first alumnae commencement speaker, Lianne Gonsalves, addressed our graduating seniors. Lianne left CA in 2006 and is now with The World Health Organization’s Department of Reproductive Health and Research in Geneva, Switzerland. She spoke of her journey since Cary Academy and the skills and mindset she developed that helped guide her to her current place in life — researching in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and working with youth in Caracas, Venezuela.

She is not alone in doing good work after graduating CA. Ben Davalos (‘15) was a student at Reedy Creek elementary when he first received tutoring through a CA service program. Ben went on to join CA in high school and is now a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. Last spring, he came back to campus to promote a tutoring partnership between CA and his organization NC Sli, which promotes academic and life skills training within the Latinx community. During a lunch meeting at Duke just a week earlier, Madeline Thornton (’14) told us about her work at WISER, an international non-governmental organization that works toward the social empowerment of underprivileged women through education and health. The week before that, during a lunch at NC State, Lindsey Wrege (’17) shared her vision behind creating 321 Coffee, a student organization on NC State’s campus designed to provide work opportunities to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

It goes that way when you spend time talking with our alumni.

Over their entire journey through Cary Academy, our students have nurtured a compassion for others, developed a deep set of complex skills, and honed the curiosity and drive that will allow them to move boldly within the world — wherever their interests may take them.

Which brings me back to Mr. Qiao’s smile. After all that set-up, his was partly a smile of relief.

It was also a smile of recognition.

Mr. Qiao knew that this was the first step on a wonderful journey to make music together. After so many years leading our orchestra, he knew what was in store for these kids — at the end-of-year concert and the stage at graduation.

He saw potential, and he was radiant.

And to think, it all starts with Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.