Thursday, January 12, 2012

Out of the Mouths of Babes

It’s that time of year again. The moment to take out the old melodious chestnuts from the 60’s that inspired us and kept us moving one little step towards freedom even if police with billy clubs were blocking the way. Yes, Martin Luther King Day is upon us and as I wrote last year around this time, it’s a wonder to behold kids as young as 3 years old belting out “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty I’m free at last!” with such passion and gusto. In fact, today I was in the middle of singing “If I Had a Hammer” with 75 preschoolers when I simply had to stop singing, alternately laughing and crying in front of the whole crowd. The cause? One four-year old singing with her eyes closed and lips puckered and such innocence and beauty and spirit shining out in her face that it struck me to the core. At once cute and about the realest thing I’ve seen lately in a community of adults throwing around stale words to avoid hard truths.

Yep, there is still big trouble in Camelot, but in some weird way, I’m thankful. This year singing these songs with the 8th graders and 6th graders and telling the story of how each one is an arrow aimed to burst the frozen heart or penetrate the thick wall of denial, a flower growing up through the cracks in the concrete, a tsunami of love to make hate turn on its heels and run, a well-spoken word that suddenly throws the light on ignorance— pick your metaphor, they’re all true—this year, it all had a special meaning. Without having to name names or point fingers, the songs both helped me sing out our collective troubles in public and also connect with the kids in a profound way. For these kids, who feel injustice so deeply and are starved for something real and authentic, rose to the bar of the repertoire’s passion and sometimes leaped over. My classes the past few days, in company with my singing colleagues, have been like a thunderclap that helped burst the tension of an intolerable situation and cleared the way for some healing rain to fall.

Then there were the five-year olds, singing, dancing and acting out a perfect five-year old song by Reggie and Kim Harris—“One Little Step Towards Freedom.” We were all having so much fun and yet again, a visitor walking into the room who was even half-alive would have to stop and notice—“Wow!! There’s some strong spirit present in this room!” So that made it all the more hilarious when one of the kids raised his hand and asked, “What is freedom anyway?”

Whoah! That’s a showstopper. You assume the kids are connecting the words with the energy, but of course, they’re mostly not. For one thing, as any parent, teacher and neuroscientist can tell you, the young brain is all concrete nouns and action verbs. Abstract concepts like freedom, democracy and justice are too large too fit on the narrow roads of the young brain’s synapses. It’s the music’s rhythm and melody that is penetrating past the verbal brain and to the core of the young child’s spirit. They get the message in their heart before they understand in their head.

But now I was obliged to answer him. “Hmm, that’s a very good question, “ I said in teacherese, stalling for time while my brain searched for a five-year old image. “Does any one else know?” (Another great strategy for passing the buck under the guise of Socratic Dialogue.) “It’s a person!” offered one. “No, not exactly.” “It’s like when you get out of jail, then you’re free.” “Okay, now we’re getting closer. In jail, you can’t go where you want—there are big bars to stop you and keep you locked up. You can’t do what you want or say what you want. You’re not free.” A couple of semi-nodding heads. “And sometimes people can be in a different kind of jail, where bad ideas are like bars that keep them from being free.” By now, some kids are rolling on the floor, the kid who asked the question is chewing his sock, the perfect line we had looks like cooked spaghetti, all childrenese for “Doug, you’ve gone too far here.” So back to singing passionately about freedom while visions of escaped convicts danced in their heads.

And with the older kids, as the topic comes up, I always pause before explaining how indeed one group of people denied another group the freedom to go certain places, do certain things, didn’t give them the chance to define themselves and claim their own identity. Looking at the beautiful faces in all shades of color in the 4th grade and everyone enjoying each other —or not—precisely for “the content of their character,” I both felt what steps toward freedom have indeed been taken, even as there are many left to go. And yet again, I feel somehow telling the story will help erase the final bars that keep us apart, even as it brings up the idea to kids who perhaps had never even considered it. But who knows.

One final image. I had the 4th graders split into small groups to make a musical realization of a Langston Hughes poem, one of three about his dreams— dreams that should be wrapped up in a “blue cloud cloth” to be kept away from the “too-rough fingers of the world.” Ah, there’s a useful image for what I’m after, protecting that innocence while telling the truth. At one point, one white boy and one black boy sitting across from each other, got in a power struggle over whose xylophone part they both must play. One (rightly) noted that the two patterns didn’t fit together. And so, unbeknownst to me, they decided to have a staring contest. Here in this exercise dedicated to truth and understanding and beautiful music, I looked over and saw these two boys glaring at each other. Not exactly what I hoped for! But I had the sense to just watch for awhile and sure enough, it ended in one of them starting to laugh and then both collapsing in giggles and getting on with their piece.

So back to “what is freedom anyway?” A worthy question for a word that rivals “awesome” as the most misused, abused, overused word in the English language. But I will claim my freedom to simply say, “I’ll get back to you on that one.” Suddenly dinner seems more important. 

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