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Music class lifts teen from life of silence

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By James H. Burnett III
Globe Staff / October 26, 2011

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In a slightly chilly basement studio beneath Boston’s Citi Performing Arts Center, Jimmy Nguyen leapt and clapped excitedly. The skinny 15-year-old, nicknamed “Superstar’’ by his friends, was responding to a drama teacher’s warm-up cues.

A jump and a clap! . . . A higher jump!

Five minutes later, warm-ups over, Nguyen began to sing Justin Bieber’s “U Smile.’’ Several teenage girls whooped exhortations: “Go Jimmy!’’ “Yeah, Jimmy!’’ “Do your thing!’’

Before you say “so what?’’ about yet another singing, dancing kid in this generation of “Glee’’ and “High School Musical,’’ you should know that, until a couple of months ago, friends, family, and teachers alike thought Jimmy was probably mute, possibly autistic.

For more than a decade, Jimmy said almost nothing in the presence of other people, including his family. His father, Raymond Nguyen, said doctors believed Jimmy suffered from selective mutism, a condition whose name is self-explanatory and is often triggered by intense anxiety. They said music might help relax him.

Raymond Nguyen gently pushed his son into the Citi Performing Arts Center’s 30-week musical theater program at Odyssey High School, now known as Boston Green Academy, thinking maybe he would learn to play drums or tap his feet to a four-four beat.

But by summer’s end, something else happened.

“He was singing,’’ said Ruth Mercado-Zizzo, Citi’s director of education. “He was rapping. He even danced - and not just any dance but sort of interpretive hip-hop style. And the thing is, he was good, very good. It’s like he had been hiding these talents.’’

While Mercado-Zizzo offers a humble assessment of Jimmy’s transformation - “We just provided a forum; he did the work,’’ she said - those who know him say the new “loud’’ Jimmy is nothing short of a miracle.

A miracle brought about by what? No one is sure, but there is reason to think that intense exposure to music may have played a role.

Music psychologists and neurologists say beats and tunes can have personality-changing effects.

“It’s not so unusual for music to wake up children with characteristics of autism,’’ said Richard Edwards, an Ohio Wesleyan University professor who studies how the human brain learns to be musical.

Paul Mazeroff, a psychologist and professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., researching how the brain processes music and the relationship between music and emotion, said Jimmy’s transformation makes sense to him.

“Music is often used to regulate both emotion and basic motor activity,’’ Mazeroff said. “Think about it. Certain music motivates you to move, to become energized. Other soothes you. The point is music helps develop focus.’’

That explanation is, haltingly, echoed by Jimmy: “I can’t explain it real easy. But the music just sort of opened me up. It did something to me. Even at first, when I was watching and listening. . . I could see the music in the singing. I could feel it when people were dancing. I saw how it was moving them, and I wanted that. And I had to decide if trying to feel like it looked like they were feeling was important to me. It was.’’

Jimmy says “at first,’’ because 30 weeks is deceptive. For at least the first two-thirds of the program, instructors say, Jimmy demonstrated what everyone had been saying about him for more than 10 years: He kept mum.

“He didn’t talk,’’ said , Jimmy’s father. Thuy Nguyen, Jimmy’s mother, nodded silently.

“I didn’t talk,’’ Jimmy said with a wry chuckle. “I guess I understand why some people thought I couldn’t!’’

Though he had never been diagnosed as mute, so few legible sounds had come from Jimmy’s mouth going back to age 5 that it was reasonable for people to assume he was mute, Raymond Nguyen says, adding that his son’s quiet was not that of a stereotypically sullen youth.

“I used to think in the beginning that he was just shy,’’ Nguyen said. “His mother is shy; she holds back and is, how do you say, reserved?’’

But with Thuy Nguyen, Raymond and other family members could pinpoint her long silences to self-consciousness over how well she spoke English, the Vietnamese family’s second language.

Jimmy?

“We just didn’t know,’’ his father said. “We took him to doctor, to counselor. It seem like something must have happened bad, but we didn’t know what,’’ beyond the speculation of selective mutism. Jimmy’s older sister and younger brother have never had problems with speech or socializing, Raymond Nguyen says.

So cultural mores led Jimmy’s family to sort of walk around the boy’s silence. There was no small talk, no questions of whether Jimmy wanted a favorite meal for dinner. He ate what he was served. He went to his room. He did homework and surfed the Web in silence. Teachers also walked around Jimmy’s silence, believing there was nothing they could do.

As teenagers are wont to be, Jimmy is, in retrospect, dismissive of the reason for his silence: “It was nothing, really, just stuff, just life.’’

Prodded, Jimmy said the age his silence set in for the long term coincided with “feeling overwhelmed that we - I mean, like, my family - were still kind of new here and feeling like I wasn’t ever going to fit, and so why bother?’’

He insists that he spoke, just not often.

“Sometimes people would stare at me after I said something, ‘cause they thought I had talked but couldn’t believe it and they weren’t positive,’’ he said. “So they would look again. And I didn’t say anything else, so they thought they had made a mistake.’’

Elementary and middle school passed uneventfully. He managed to stay below the radar using the simplest of tools: slumping in his seat, hanging his head, avoiding eye contact with teachers and peers, and just not answering when called on.

He appeared headed down the same path in high school, until Raymond Nguyen decided something had to change. That was when the family applied to Boston Green Academy, a troubled-child-friendly charter school. Jimmy was accepted, and before long, says the “Futurama’’ cartoon fan, “I was like Bender the robot in the fantasy episode where he became human’’ - and his feet tapped involuntarily when he heard music.

“That’s how I was,’’ Jimmy said, laughing. “I didn’t know what was going on.’’

Nguyen says he began to notice that Jimmy came home from school more upbeat - still not talking, but certainly happier. The child whose nose had previously only sniffed out movies and books online was looking up music videos.

Jessica Harms, a former teacher of Jimmy’s, admits she wondered last spring whether the youth needed therapy more than performance coaching. She said, “I knew though that Jimmy had a quality in him just begging to be released.’’

As with his schooling, the first 22 weeks or so were uneventful for Jimmy. He stood by and watched and listened. But he paid attention.

Nguyen knew his son was paying attention when he snuck up on him at home one evening and caught the boy singing and rapping, among other tunes, Ke$ha’s “Tik-Tok.’’

That night he pushed his son and told him he had reached a now-or-never crossroad. Participate, demonstrate these quiet skills, or fade back into obscurity.

Jimmy showed up the next day on fire, shocking the other students with a spontaneous rendition of Katie Perry’s “Superstar,’’ and his nickname was born.

The program ended in late August. And then Jimmy returned to school, apprehensive at first, worried that perhaps his classmates, so accustomed to his silence, would hold the more buoyant persona against him.

They did not. They followed his lead. He’s back at Citi in an afterschool leadership program.

“We did a flash mob a few weeks ago, where we ran all the way to the T, got on, and just started performing music - singing, dancing, all of that,’’ says classmate Gilesa Thomas, 15. “Jimmy led the way. And, of course, he got things started by singing ‘Superstar.’ ’’

This assessment comes moments after Jimmy has walked a gauntlet of students, giving high fives, smiling at girls, pausing for a moment to finish a rap verse that he overheard another youth start, and then fist-bumping the surprised rhymer he’d interrupted.

“Music does strange things to you,’’ Jimmy said before walking into a homeroom class. “I still can’t explain it. But I like it.’’

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/jamesburnett.