In the Heart of Jakarta: The Educational Power of Song

D’Arcy Dretke Maher

“Lagi,” peeped a quiet voice, and soon a chorus of other voices joined in, chanting the same. Then the clear voice of a classmate rose above the others, “Again, Miss, again.” Ah yes; they were learning to code-switch from Bahasa Indonesian to English.

Chatter in a mix of languages filled the room as I prepared to sing the beloved vegetable-samba song again with a group of 4-year-olds in the heart of Jakarta. The teacher has taken the children through formal English instruction. When I visit the classroom, we read stories and sing and dance.


It is difficult to explain the intensity that this culture attaches to formal learning—marks . . . tutoring . . . extra lessons. Children wake around 5:30 a.m. and rush to school. Sometimes they are transported in a car, but more often on a motorcycle. School begins at 6:30 a.m. and concludes for kindergarten children around 11:00 a.m. They have breaks for sticky rice, fruity drinks, sweet bread, and cold fried chicken. Elementary children have staggered dismissals, between 12:30 – 14:00 p.m. Most then rush to extra lessons after school: covering music, math, English, art, and science. Parents clamor for harder subjects, while students hope for the break of music or art; if they are very fortunate, a dance class may be included.

Academic competition swirls through conversations, as insistent as a tornado. The young in its wake are hurled into the vortex, gaining competence and determination. I struggle with my visceral reaction to the intensity of it all, while at the same time wanting to honor and support the cultural norms.


But I am old. Fifty-one, to be exact. Older than many of the expat teachers who embark on the adventure of teaching abroad. And I know, way down in my bones, that stories and singing and dancing delight every child, everywhere. So, I bring the songs and stories. We talk together about pictures and wonder, “What if. . . .” I choose to be unselfconscious as I make my old body jump and turn and wiggle with the music. I sing loud and, sometimes, off-key. Sweat pools above my upper lip in this tropical climate and trickles down my back. My bangs are pasted to my forehead. But I am not alone; sweat is finding its way down the sides of their tiny faces, as well. And I am rewarded by the quiet peep of, “Lagi” (“Again”). And so we twirl and spin and wiggle, again, as if the global economy depends on our dance moves in this moment.

The children used such good vocabulary today: “bridge,” “bubbles,” “river,” “towel.” I notice the teachers exchanging surprised glances. None of these words have been formally taught, but the children’s language data pool is growing as the stories interest their minds, and the words naturally burst out. It is soon time to go and, without prompting, the children sing our goodbye song. We wave and stamp our feet and end with a high-five to each of the 30 children.

I know I will hear these songs again today. As they find their minders in the after-school press, they grab their smaller siblings and begin singing and dancing as they hop into a car or onto a motorcycle. They have so much of the day still before them: extra lessons, an early evening nap extending until supper, a meal with family members, screen time, and, finally, bedtime. But for right now, we are singing in this moment—singing our good-byes.

As I move to collect my media, the teacher leans close with a persistent whisper, “Miss, can I borrow some of your music? The children love it so much. Can you show me where to find more? I see how much the children remember after they sing and, well, maybe I could find some songs for other subjects.”

And just like that, in the heart of Jakarta, a new rhythm begins. A beat that will be remembered in simple classrooms. And children will cheer on the teachers with each request of, “Lagi!”

D’Arcy Dretke Maher is the head of an English program for a small system of 13 schools, headquartered in Jakarta, Indonesia.