no pass, no play

“And what do we teach our children in school? We teach them that two and two make four….When will we also teach them what they are?”

–– Pablo Casals, Joys and Sorrows
Thomas Jefferson High School, San Antonio, Texas

Joël and I live around the corner from Jefferson High School, a historic structure built during the Great Depression. Driving home from the studio in the evening, we see its silver domes sparkle in the sunset. We pass through its beautiful stone arches across worn floors of hand-painted tile to cast our ballots on election day. With its wrought-iron balconies and elaborate concrete carvings, Jefferson is a monument to a time when the work of artists and artisans helped lift our nation out of deep economic and emotional depression; a time when we recognized the power of art and craft to create paid work, to encourage, to heal, and to inspire.

When autumn chills the air, our neighborhood echoes with the rhythms of Jefferson’s marching band at practice, and I think about 16-year-old Rhiannon Rabago, a former Jefferson student whose story was told in this 2014 Express-News article about teen suicide.

Rhiannon struggled with ADHD, learning disabilities and depression, but she had a passion for music. Playing trumpet in the Jefferson band was her greatest joy; but under our state’s No Pass No Play policy, failing grades threatened to cut off that creative outlet. In the wee dark hours of one spring morning, she took her own life.

Although we cannot know what might have brought about a different outcome for Rhiannon, her story touched us deeply. When Joël and I have faced the losses and deep disappointments that are part of every human life, music has often been our anchor and our refuge. In trying times, the experience of playing with others provided escape and connection. Composing and songwriting have been our therapy, allowing us to transmute our pain and give it meaning. We have known friends who might have given up on life long ago had it not been for their passion for music.

Rhiannon’s story inspired the poem “no pass no play,” set to Joël’s music featuring the trumpet of Cecil R. Carter. The video below was recently published by Hofstra University’s Amp Magazine. We hope it will be part of a larger conversation about policy, arts programming, and how we can best prepare our children and young people to thrive in the world.

Hear “no pass no play” @ Amp Magazine

The great cellist Pablo Casals put it beautifully in his autobiography Joys and Sorrows:

“Each second we live in a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that never was before and will never be again. And what do we teach our children in school? We teach them that two and two make four and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all of the world, there is no other child exactly like you. In the millions of years that have passed, there has never been another child like you. And look at your body — what a wonder it is! Your legs, your arms, your cunning fingers, the way you move! You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must cherish one another. You must work — we all must work — to make this world worthy of its children.”

For more information about supporting arts education in America, visit

For more information about supporting the arts in San Antonio, visit


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Wonderful, wonderful piece, reminds me a little of my high school days not being “good enough” at being a good student. Thank you for creating this piece, it will go a long way helping others. Its nice to hear Joel and Cecil playing together. They are two of the many people I get my inspiration from. Thank you.

Wow how beautiful this was read. Art indeed. Thanks Betty. You always inspire me, with your music and your words.

While my comment is not about the main theme of this story, I want to point out that Jefferson High School was not funded nor built by the Works Progress Administration (“WPA”). Jefferson was funded by the San Antonio ISD taxpayers in a 1929 bond election.
Jefferson opened in February 1932 under President Truman’s term. The WPA was created in April 1935 under President Roosevelt’s term.
Hence, it was not possible for the WPA to participate in the construction of Jefferson High School: it didn’t even exist!
Read more about TJHS in “A Brief History of Thomas Jefferson High School – Through the Eyes of the Monticello Yearbooks”.

Thanks so much for the fact check, David! I’ve edited the post to show the correct information. Facts are important, and we greatly appreciate your input.

Once again, Bett and Joel, you have contributed with a depth of heart and humanity, and art….. a depth of thought and feeling, and a challenge to the powers that be, to reconsider what we teach our children with thoughtless policies like “no pass no play”. “Your are a marvel!” should be our guide for policy and perspective and treatment of all our children, from the depth or our own being.

Bruce, it’s always good to hear from you. Thanks so much for your kind words. And yes, how inspiring and healing it would be for all our children to hear “You are a marvel!”

Wow. I graduated from Jefferson in 1986. The story is a sad one and it hits close to home. My Son is 13 years old and I feel he may have been heading in that direction so I feel blessed that I was able to bring him home with me instead of him being 4 hours away. He does seem happier and his grades are getting better. Thank you for the reminder to keep on keeping on with the parenting. And thank you for bringing this issue more out in the open.

Guadalupe, thank you for your comment. We send blessings and best wishes to you and to your son. May he thrive, and may he always know the marvel he is!

Bett and Joel, I would love to send this to a professor at the University of Siagon. They graduated from Incarnet when that happened. She’s always been so supportive of the Arts

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