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Pianist in Tune With Boy's Spirit

Laguna Niguel girl, 9, is among latest to receive awards inspired by child slain by Italian bandits.

September 22, 2003|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

Seven-year-old Nicholas Green was killed by bandits nearly a decade ago in Italy, but his spirit lives on in another little boy's heart, a woman's eyes and hundreds of gifted U.S. schoolchildren who have won awards bearing his name.

Now Nicholas' legacy has touched Orange County, where Laguna Niguel fourth-grader Magdalena Chau is the most recent winner of the Nicholas Green Distinguished Student Award.

It has been given to a child from each state every school year since 1998-99, four years after the Bodega Bay boy was slain in a highway robbery while visiting southern Italy with his parents and younger sister. The Nicholas Green award carries a $500 prize and, his mother hopes, encourages children to realize how special they are.

"Children that age don't have a lot of opportunities to be recognized for their gifts," said Maggie Green.

She and her husband, Reggie, also travel worldwide encouraging parents of terminally ill children to donate their organs. Their gift of Nicholas' organs to seven people, including a Roman boy with a deformed heart and a diabetic woman barely able to see, was seen as so altruistic given the circumstances of his death that it triggered a surge of such donations in Italy, where the practice remains unusual.

Magdalena, whose haunting piano composition inspired by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought a school district boardroom to tears earlier this year, touches the lives of those around her in a different way. The Hidden Hills Elementary student helps her classmates with English and math, her favorite subjects.

"It makes me happy that I can help them understand," she wrote in her award application essay, among dozens received from California this year.

Magdalena will receive her award Monday at a ceremony conducted by the California Assn. for the Gifted at a San Juan Capistrano chapel, where she will play some of her compositions on a baby grand piano.

The 9-year-old started playing the piano four years ago and began composing her own pieces a year later. She embraces both the somber and whimsical, her newest piece blending light tinkling notes with slower, more serious passages. She performed "Remembering the Heroes in New York, Signs of Courage" at a Capistrano Unified School District board meeting last spring after winning a music composition award from the National Parent-Teacher Assn.

"The fire fighters were so brave to try to help people trapped inside, so I decided to dedicate this song to them," she wrote.

In person, Magdalena expresses herself best through her music and her mischievous grin. She is too shy to elaborate on why she enjoys the piano so much, saying only, "It's interesting, and I like it." But when she plays, her fingers fly over the keys of the family's upright piano and she is oblivious to her two little brothers playing in the hallway with little plastic soldiers.

"We started learning the piano together, but she quickly left me behind," said Magdalena's mother, Rita, watching her daughter with a proud smile. Across from the piano, Magdalena's basketball trophies line the mantel.

"A lot of times I worry she works too hard," said her father, Zi, a computer chip designer. "She stops the piano and picks up a book."

Magdalena looked at him in amusement. "I like playing with my friends," she said before scampering to a neighbor's house.

In wondering how her own son might have grown up -- Nicholas would have been 16 now -- Maggie Green salutes the potential in children like Magdalena. "If these kids are doing amazing things at 10, 11, 12 years old, imagine what they'll be doing later," she said.

Magdalena isn't sure what she wants to do with her talents -- being a teacher, doctor or musician are possibilities. But in her essay, her attitude toward her future seemed healthy.

"I have a lot of time to decide," she wrote, "so I am just learning all I can now."

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