March 2, 2013

Issac J. Bailey | Music binds what race couldn’t divide

David and his biological mother are black. His new parents are a white couple who considered the adoption of children from China, Guatemala and elsewhere until a DSS social worker connected them to David. Race couldn’t keep them apart because the bond that is music was stronger.

David Koch loves playing “the dozens” with his friends.

They stand around laughing, taking turns in a game that includes far-fetched banter about harmless “yo mama” jokes.

There’s even an app for that.

Yo mama is so fat that the National Weather Service names each one of her farts.

“We like to do yo mama jokes,” the 13-year-old Myrtle Beach Middle School student said through a wry smile.

It’s almost always fun, except when an angry friend turns a silly game into a serious insult.

“At least my mama loves me and is with me,” a friend has told David.

That friend was referring to the mother David has seen sporadically the past couple of years, the one who would leave him at the homes of strangers for days or weeks at a time, the one who exposed him to the darker side of life, the one whose behavior forced him into and out of foster and shelter homes.

His friend wasn’t referring to David’s new mother, Jo Nell Koch, the woman who, along with her husband Tim, took him in December of 2010 after multiple S.C. Department of Social Services interventions.

“I try to make him feel special in that he has two mothers that both love him and that most people only have one, and some not even that,” Jo Nell Koch said.

David spent most of his young life overcoming the perils of poverty, instability and an absent father and mother struggling with drug and other addictions.

Tim and Jo Nell had to overcome years of disappointment of struggling to increase the size of their family and deal with some family member’s disturbing views about race.

Now they are overcoming it all together, creating an alliance that is breaking barriers elsewhere along the Grand Strand.

David and his biological mother are black.

His new parents are a white couple who considered the adoption of children from China, Guatemala and elsewhere until a DSS social worker connected them to David.

“The joys of raising David include filling the void of my own paternal instinct that I didn’t know I had, evening family snuggling on the couch for a little BET, giving a kid his first ever dad, and being astounded, daily, by David’s enormous gifts, especially in music and the arts,” Tim Koch said.

Race couldn’t keep them apart because the bond that is music was stronger.

“If all the criteria were met except for the fact that the child’s skin might be different than ours, then I knew, as a Christian, that I couldn’t say no to a child based on the color of his skin,” Jo Nell said.

Besides, she and her husband heard David play the drums and knew there was a natural connection among them.

Her husband, Tim Koch, is the director and conductor of the Carolina Master Chorale.

He knew making David his son was the right thing to do, God-ordained even.

But he also knew there would be challenges, including “keeping David connected to his cultural history.”

It’s one of the reasons the National Association of Black Social Workers has long issued detailed recommendations and cautions concerning trans-racial adoptions.

“The significance of culture in the life of a person is profound,” the NABSW said in a “preserving families” statement. “Children removed from their home, school, religious environment, physicians, friends and families are disengaged from their cultural background. They are denied the opportunity for optimal development and functioning.”

There are about 1,400 black children in foster care in South Carolina, which represents about 42 percent of all kids in foster care, according to DSS. Blacks make up about 30 percent of the state’s population.

The U.S. has gone through periods in which it has all but denied trans-racial adoptions, encouraged them and finally implemented laws to remove race as a barrier, particularly given that black children languish in foster care longer than others.

“Neither race, color, nor national origin of a child or prospective caregiver may be considered in the placement selection process for a foster child,” said Marilyn Matheus, DSS spokeswoman. And “culture may not be used as a proxy.”

The Kochs didn’t have to share David’s race to want to honor his culture.

Their expertise is in classical music but they knew David had been excelling in a gospel choir in his last foster home. They asked friends along the Grand Strand what to do.

The name Aarian Land kept coming up.

Land is the drummer at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in Conway, a historically-black congregation.

The new Koch family attended church there one Sunday and friendships that began that day blossomed into a musical collaboration between the Carolina Master Chorale and Mason Temple’s choir.

In early February, Mason Temple’s pews were filled with white faces for “Hearts of Passion IV: A Gospel Valentine.”

It was a smooth blend of diverse styles, Southern hymns and contemporary music.

Tim Koch directed the Chorale and Charles Jones Evans, maestro of the Long Bay Symphony, sang lead on a song.

David, then 12, was on drums, his presence the reason two professional choirs with distinct sounds had merged for the second consecutive year.

The drum is “like the heartbeat of the music,” Tim Koch.

He’s “kind of the engine that keeps the energy going” in a performance, he said.

David’s skills are immense. His style energized a performance by a middle school orchestra after students had grown bored with a particular musical set.

He uses the acoustic drums for the flashier gospel sets and the electric trap drums for the more classical style needed in his role as a member of the Long Bay Symphony Youth Orchestra.

David also dabbles on the guitar, occasionally the piano and plans to audition for “X Factor” this month in North Charleston.

“I’m just happy that I’m with somebody who will be there for me and take care of me,” David Koch said. “I’d rather be the place where I’m taken care of instead of being with someone of my color who didn’t take care of me.”

But love alone isn’t enough to overcome racial barriers, Darron T. Smith, an assistant professor in Wichita State University’s Department of Public Health Sciences who studies trans-racial adoptions, has written.

White adoptive parents want the best for their black children and given that most black kids in foster care “age out,” such adoptions play an important role, Smith wrote.

“Given the historical tenacity of injustice, it is therefore vital that white adoptive parents help their children develop a positive racial identity and a strong set of coping skills,” he wrote. “Communicating this kind of knowledge to adopted black children … provides them with ample protection and allows them to more effectively confront the negative consequences of human prejudice and bigotry.”

The authors of Nurture Shock have come to a similar conclusion, citing research that shows young black children need to have outlets to discuss race. But it’s not easy to strike the right balance.

Avoid the subject or not discuss it enough and you leave children unprepared for real-world situations.

Over-focusing on the issue, though, “give children the message that the world is going to be hostile – you’re just not valued and that’s the way the world is,” the authors wrote, which can harm a child’s educational and other pursuits.

Tim Koch’s skill set is ideally suited for that delicate dance.

The best directors are adept at blending styles, finding the sweet spot where each voice or instrument is utilized well and compliments the others.

It doesn’t matter if he knows what it feels like for a woman to hit a “high c” note, “but I must understand what she needs to sound like,” Tim Koch said, just as he must understand David and his unique struggles.

He has to know what each player or singer should be doing, the shape of their mouths, their breathing, their posture.

Being able to handle diverse personalities, backgrounds and expectations is a professional requirement for Tim Koch.

With David, it has become more of a personal one as well and fits with Tim’s philosophy of life, which includes fighting for equality.

“We are doing and will do all in our power to preserve our son’s cultural heritage, especially through education, music and religion,” Tim Koch said.

They feel honored to be parents of one of the most talented drummers in South Carolina, as Tim Koch describes David.

“He is a prodigy, as gifted as Michael Jackson, and I don’t think that’s much of an exaggeration,” Tim Koch said. “He is far more talented than I am. He is primarily self-taught at most everything. He can produce an entire music video by writing the song, laying down all the instrumental and vocal tracks.”

The Kochs have been welcomed by church members, friends, black and white, and neighbors, including one who volunteered to build David a tree house in the background.


“I knew it would be a challenge, especially living in a small town in South Carolina and my immediate family’s feelings about people of color, especially African-Americans,” said Jo Nell Koch.

Some family members have severed ties because of the Koch’s decision to adopt a black boy, including one who hurled the n-word.

And sometimes a friend of David makes a snide remark.

And sometimes they get stared at in public.

“When I see a suspicious look, I usually put my arm around David or give him a hug and a kiss on his forehead,” Tim Koch said. “The most common response, however, is a big smile and sometimes a tear, especially when we perform together. Frankly, I think more about how some African-Americans might feel about our adopting a black child. Is there any resentment or suspicion that something about our decision is somehow condescending toward African-Americans?”

The Kochs have also kept David in touch with his previous family, which includes his mother, two brothers and three sisters.

“I think his biggest fear was that his mother would not be alive when he finally was old enough to see her again, given his understanding of her lifestyle and addictions,” Jo Nell Koch said. “I now realize that it’s possible for him to love both his biological and adoptive mothers, just in different ways.”

The families meet at least once a year in a Spartanburg mall. David spoke to his birth mother recently by phone and keeps photos of them in a folder he created during his many stays in foster care.

“It’s never really like I’m angry with her,” he said. “It’s more like she did things that ended up putting things in place for God’s plans” to unfold.

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