Thoughts from Dr. Joe: When classrooms aren't classrooms

I’m still at loss for words trying to express the essence of the La Cañada High School choral artists’ Cantemus tour through Central Europe. If you remember, when I last wrote, the choir had just finished singing in Bratislava, Slovakia.

“You are cultural ambassadors for America,” Keith Eddins, the chargé d'affaires of the American Embassy, told the La Cañada students.

Even the Greek heroes Prometheus and Hercules couldn’t prevent the divisiveness between the Titans and the Olympians. I hope the choir understood that it’s not power that unites us, but rather heart and gesture. Their voices spread goodwill, winning the hearts and minds of those present.

My story continues as we sailed the Danube to Vienna on a cold Monday. The music of Mozart and the philosophy of Goethe resonate in this monumental city, the gateway to central Europe. Vienna’s streets are paved with culture. During the students’ third performance, Jeff Brookey, the choral director, brought their final note to a climatic crescendo in Saint Francis Cathedral, which is famed for its acoustics. The choir stood breathless as they listened to a five-second echo and marveled at their beautiful voices. It was a musical moment and all present were wrapped by an epiphany that we had witnessed something remarkable.

We docked in picturesque Krems, Austria. I spent time like a Bohemian with a cigar and a coffee at a local café, pecking at the great American novel. Through the window that opened to the main thoroughfare, I witnessed a metamorphosis. The angelic singers of LCHS transformed into kids savoring and rampaging through the desserts, souvenirs and charm of the town. When I observe kids, I realize that parts of ourselves given up for dead are merely dormant and that old joys often re-emerge, but in a different form. These kids were showing me how it’s done.

Amid the grand cathedrals depicting man’s most eloquent creations adorned with golden angels, flying buttresses reaching to the sky, and masterful artistic renditions of the divine, central Europe has fallen into a malaise of secularism. The only proof of God is from the angelic voices of the artists as they sing the holy liturgy in the cathedrals. Europe has lost its soul and after the artists sing, the colossal edifices built for the grandeur of God become silent and wait for the Messiah.

Theologians say that that a propensity exists within us called, “Capax Dei,” the capacity for God. Communism stripped faith from the people of central Europe. Subsequently the people became secular. Joy atrophied from the citizenry. In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Victor Frankel contends that meaning and purpose in life are sacrosanct. Through the centuries, faith has been the foundation of purpose. The communists took that away from the people. The locals in Prague expressed unhappiness and a lack of hope. In the cafés, political strife hung heavily in the air. I read the angst on the faces of their youth, as their lives are remnants of religious and political oppression.

I meandered around the back alleys of Prague and saw a young couple securing a padlock to the railing of a bridge. They then threw the key into the water and kissed. There were hundreds of locks, all symbolizing the unbreakable bond between lovers.

In Durnstein, Austria the choir gave a stellar performance in the cathedral with the blue steeple. As Brookey readied the choir for their first piece, the steeple bells rang. When the artists finished the last note of the last hymn, “Lord Hear my Prayer,” the bells chimed again. All remained quiet and relished the moment. I bet the Lord did hear their prayer. Such serendipity has followed us throughout our travels.

The LCHS Cantemus tour came to an end. I wonder if the artists realize that some of our classrooms aren’t classrooms.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at

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