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VIENNA, VA — Behind every great work of art there is a story.
This is the story behind a charming new work of art installed outside Marshall Road Elementary School in Vienna, Virginia that sprang up on the very last day of school, June 2021. This joyful piece of art is entitled "Little Music Box." It is — from concept to carpentry — the work of 13-year-old Juliette Kopp.
Permanently installed next to another Little Free Library*, it is not at first apparent as to why its size, art, and purpose are different than the other 100,000 registered Little Free Libraries.
Juliette created the Little Music Box with the aim to spread the joy of music as well as to honor her elementary school –a community that helped her cope with a serious medical condition that she battled during her time there.
The project also proved to be a therapeutic way for Juliette to focus her energies while facing the same fears and frustrations we all faced grappling with the restrictions, anxiety, and grief caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Juliette came up with the idea pondering the criteria for the Girl Scout Silver Award.
"Have you ever looked around your neighborhood or school and wondered how you could make a change for the better? Going for the highest award a Girl Scout Cadette can earn gives you the chance to do big things and make your community better in the process."
A Mysterious Illness
Juliette's symptoms of extreme anxiety started when she was in 2nd grade. She likens it to an internal tornado that overtook her (see sidebar essay below for her description). For two years, the cause of her condition remained a mystery. In addition to anxiety, she developed many OCD tendencies. Finally, in 2014, at age 10, she was diagnosed with PANDAS [Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infections], a systemic strep infection and neurological condition that spreads to the brain. She was treated with antibiotics and a low dose of anti-depressants — as well as sessions of talk therapy with a female child psychiatrist to help her learn to cope with and control the symptoms and self-regulate her emotions.
Before PANDAS took hold, Juliette was a typically developing, happy child growing up with her older sister in Vienna.
"We always had music on in the house and we are often outside planting in our garden and fixing things," her mother Jennifer Jackson Kopp says. "Juliette especially loved making and painting things."
Starting when her daughters were toddlers, Jennifer took advantage of the National Gallery of Art's Stories in Art free monthly classes as well as Home Depot's monthly workshops that provided the tools and instructions to build and decorate bird houses, flower planters, toolboxes, picture frames, toys and dozens of other projects.
Art and Music as Therapy
When Juliette was in kindergarten, she started piano. She also joined Girl Scouts as a Daisy that same year and loved that she shared the same name of Girl Scout founder, Juliette Lowe. Her interest in both scouting and music grew even as she started experiencing strange symptoms of anxiety.
"Music and Art helped her try to tame the beast," her mom observes. "She found she could get lost in the act of playing a great song or drawing and painting. In 4th grade, in addition to piano, she took up violin as part of her school's program."
"I made sure to try to give her lots of outlets to calm her brain. We have every art supply fully stocked at our art table. All kinds of yarn and knitting needles and crochet, needlepoint, embroidery, wood, paint…you name it. We garden all Spring - Fall, growing our own food and herbs."
It Takes a Village
At Marshall Road Elementary, Juliette developed a special relationship with principal, Jennifer Heiges and music teacher Arianne Welsh. Originally in 6th grade she'd planned to do her Girl Scout Silver Award Project by writing and choreographing a musical with Welsh. She even had funny songs written for it but then Covid happened, and in-person school and performances disappeared.
Juliette entered middle school virtually and had to re-think not just her Silver Award project but her coping mechanisms.
Her mother said, "The girls and I coped through the pandemic by surprising people with planting gardens and pop up yard birthdays and baking bread and we spent as much of our days outside as we could. Juliette had always loved doing things with wood so one day I brought home a tattered hutch someone gave away, she fixed it up and then painted it for me for my garden shelf."
Even while most of her fellow students left their cameras off for virtual school, Juliette always left hers on, thinking how lonely the teachers must feel not seeing their students faces as they lectured. Juliette even practiced her violin outside so she could, in her words: "make people happy."
Little Library Love
Her mom says, "At the time we were purging our house to renovate it. We regularly placed outgrown books into Little Free Libraries around our community. But we also had TONS of music books; we didn't know how to pass them on to people during Covid, but Juliette refused to throw them away."
Hanging on to too many things was a symptom of OCD (similar to hoarding) but her mom's request also gave Juliette an idea that planted the seed of the Little Music Box. What if she could create a music free library –she'd be happy to donate her old sheet music and practice books there. And others could drop off their books too. It would be helpful to kids who could not afford to buy books to get them for free. She went online to find out how to make such a box.
She discovered the kits for sale on the Little Free Library website were 1) roughly $300 and 2) would not be tall enough to house music books which are several inches taller and wider than most books.
Breaking a big idea into doable steps. She got an initial box design off a google search but realized she would still need to modify it to accommodate music books. Occasionally as she worked her anxiety reemerged. She worried she might not be able get it completed and installed before school let out for the summer. But she coped with her anxiety by breaking the project down to smaller steps.
To be officially called a Little Free Library, a free book exchange must be registered with an official charter sign and charter number (cited on a plaque).
She did chores and babysat for money to buy the wood and other materials she could not borrow. She had her dad teach her how to safely use the saw.
Trial and error taught her how to make the door; when corners refused to cooperate and line up well, she came up with a Plan B and asked her uncle to use a jigsaw and cut a window out of a solid piece of wood, then she'd use acrylic to see through the door. She said she wasted an entire day when she could not get corners to align on 1x4 pieces of wood to make the door.
Latches are tricky. Her first latches did not work because the screws poked through the wood in the door… yet that problem yielded an elegant, musically inspired solution: She discovered that piano-type hinges running the full length of the door solved the problem.
Her mom helped her find free paint on a Buy Nothing Facebook page. She painted the inside Pink (her favorite color) and the outside background a cheerful yellow. Then she drew the art tracing her violin to make the outline to fill in with colorful geometric patterns. The back she covered with brightly colored musical notes and symbols.
She thought the hard part would be cementing the 4x4 into the ground but a helpful employee at Home Depot shared a better product (Sika Fence Post Mix) to use instead of cement.
Permission from her principal to install it on school grounds took longer than usual because of Covid. Her final in person meeting with the principal was just a few days before school let out but she got the approval she needed.
They borrowed a post hole digger from a family friend and finally dug the hole the evening before the last day of school—in the rain--and left it to harden.
The next morning, she woke up at 6am to go glue and nail the box onto the post. To qualify for Silver Award it had to be done before the last day of 8th grade. And so it was-- just in time: A Little Music Box, firmly cemented, a musical and artistic dream come true.
That morning mom posted a photo of Juliette to a private local Facebook group (see photo collage
below) standing next to Little Music Box: "Ever wonder what to do with all those music books you've kept? Need new music for summer lessons? My daughter Juliette just completed her Girl Scout Silver award by designing a Little Music Library that she designed /built /installed at Marshall Road Elementary, where she developed her love for music of all kinds. Please drop by any time to drop off/take any music books for any instruments!"
Within hours that post garnered 200+ "likes," "loves" and "wows" and dozens of supporting comments. (Including from this reporter, which inspired this article.)
Juliette is hoping her idea will spark the installation of similar little library music boxes by others across the country … and maybe even the world.
By Juliette, in her own words
At age 11, Juliette wrote about her medical condition –anxiety and OCD caused by PANDAS—that changed starting when she was in 2nd grade. This is an excerpt of her 6th grade memoir writing assignment she shared with her class.
It was the most wonderful time of the year and Santa had stopped by just weeks earlier. We were trying to find room for all of our new things. We were just getting to the jewelry. I had collected tons of jewelry over the years. Things I had made, things I don't know where they had come from. My mom would pick up one piece of jewelry and I would say "keep" or "give away." Seashell necklace?? keep. Big ring?? keep. "The little purple bracelet you never wore?? Keep. "keep keep keep keep." That is all I ever said. "Why?" my mom asked. "Why are you keeping all of this stuff? You never wear any of it." "You gave it to me." "I made it at preschool." "It is my favorite color." I would come up with the most random excuses to keep the stuff. I burst into tears because I wanted to keep everything. "You must be tired," my mom said. "maybe that is why you are so emotional. We'll try again later." It had just gone from the most wonderful time of the year to the most terrible time of the year.
A couple days later I knew it was time for me to see what stuffed animals I wanted to give away. So I began the dreadful task. I sighed at all of the memories running through my head. All of my childhood friends that I had slept with for so many years…They stood by my side when I had nightmares and fought off the evil while still holding me close in their arms. Though I wanted to dive into the big pit of buddies I knew I couldn't. I had to do the job of getting rid of some of them to give them to less fortunate kids. By the time I was finished, there was a huge pile of my stuffed animals on one side of the living room and two keychains on the other side. My dad said, "I'm proud of you for making that huge pile of things to give away." "Big pile? That's the stuff I am keeping," I said. "The other pile is the stuff to give away." My dad looked at the keychains, slapped his forehead and walked away. My mom looked at me and said, "This isn't like you, Juliette." She was worried I seemed to be having a hard time controlling my attachments.
A couple months later my sister and I were on the hammock when she had to get off because she was going to a NATS game. "Bye G," I said. Rolling on my back I looked up at my bug net that covered our hammock ( like a wagon cover) to keep bugs away.
I was still on my back not moving. "On my back not moving," I thought. My palms were sweaty and I didn't know why. I kept saying to myself "on my back not moving." Then, it finally came to me. The bug net looked like a coffin. Dead people are in coffins on their backs not moving. I feel a feeling like a wasp sting. I jump up and started running around the yard screaming at the top of my lungs "I don't want to die I don't want to die." I ran over to my mom still screaming "I don't want to die." I was feeling hot. "I don't want to die I don't want to die," I screeched. My mom was shaking me and yelling "Juliette what's wrong?" but I couldn't hear her. Everything had gone silent but I was still screeching. She put her hand her over my mouth "mfblpdfbnubldmfp." This episode lasted about an hour and my parents didn't know what was going on.
I didn't know where all of the emotions came from. I was terrified.
It got worse and worse. It made me want to never grow up and never forget the memories. I wanted to stay a kid. I wanted to stay in the same grade. I didn't want to forget. It made me think bad things. People I knew and loved were transforming into ugly creatures. I looked up and every day people were monsters. There was a new negative focus every week. I was angry about things. I would start wailing. "What's wrong, Juliette?" my parents would ask. "I don't know," I would say. I was scared. I hated it. I would dive into the deep pool of tears and start drowning wishing I was dead. I couldn't control myself. My OCD …pulling me into the darkness.
My family was worried. They tried reading me books and talking for hours but … OCD was spreading through my body like the plague. "What did I do to deserve this?" I would say. I wanted my life back. If you want to know what it felt like, try trapping yourself in a box.
[After 2 years of struggling, in 2014, Juliette was diagnosed with PANDAS, a systemic strep infection that triggers anxiety and OCD. She was treated with antibiotics and a low dose of anti depressants as well as talk therapy with a child psychiatrist]
"Think of a cool supervillain name," my mom said. "Why," I asked.
"We are going to name your anxiety, so it is easier to control."
Ok. so we thought of the name DOOMER.
Imagine your holding a quarter between your thumb and your pointer finger. The closer you hold it to your eye, the bigger it seems, to the point it is all you can. But when you hold it at arm's length, the more it seems like a manageable small ol' quarter. I was imagining Doomer, my anxiety, as something like that quarter. I needed to find some way to control it. To keep it at arm's
length, or better yet, farther because when the anxiety was close, it was like that quarter being too close to your eye. It was all that I could see. I had to do that with Doomer. In bed, I was practicing. "Doomer go away." " Doomer leave me alone". I was regaining power.
We did lots of exercises to try to get rid of the OCD or at least make it not so bad. Dr. Laura taught me how to control DOOMER. We discussed the plans by acting scenes out with barbies. She was a human diary for me. I went to her for 2 years. Slowly the chains started dropping from my box. Finally, I felt the last chain break. I was free. I was so happy I smiled. I laughed. I started crying out of happiness.
Sure, I still get sad sometimes, and sure Doomer comes back now and then but I can control him. I take medicines to help me along the way. I really would like to help anyone who is having a hard time with anything. So, if you are feeling anxious, come to me… I now realize that part of my happiness that was missing, was living inside all of you. Thank you.
Juliette read her essay aloud to her 6th grade class, hoping it might help others who might be struggling.
Susan Goewey is a freelance writer based in Vienna. Her blog can be found at susangblog.wordpress.com and her LinkedIn profile is available here.
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