On Friday afternoon, I had the good fortune to catch a performance of America Sings at Edna Maguire Elementary School in Mill Valley, Calif., which both my children attended and from which my fifth grade son is now graduating. A yearly event of traditional American songs with original skits written and acted by all fifth grade classes in the Mill Valley School District, the production is funded by the district's non-profit arts organization, KIDDO!
Dressed in red, white and blue clothing, the fifth graders marched into the school auditorium singing Neil Diamond's "America:" a pop anthem by "a nice Jewish boy" from Brooklyn, who is a first generation American and wrote this song for American immigrants: Far/ We've been traveling far/ Without a home/ But not without a star..." The song is fitting choice in a school where 20 percent of the students are first generation Americans.
Most remarkable in this quiet, liberal upper-middle class suburb 12 miles north of San Francisco is the unapologetic joy of being American, especially in a time when both American education and cultural self-understanding have become highly contested.
Surely these Northern California kids are proud because they have made this production their own, reworking the traditional songs, while adding contemporary updates in their skits on American history that speak to their generation. Instant giggles and hoots from younger peers in grades 1-4 reward the fifth grader's cheeky takes on American history.
The biggest laughs are of course bodily humor -- the lone fifth grade male teacher, father of three, who hams it up on stage in a blonde wig and an ill-fitting purple and gold velveteen princess costume at the end of the traditional number "Soldier, Soldier." Of course, jokes abound about Christopher Columbus, who after much hesitation on his knee, proposes that the Spanish princess tie his shoe and trips as he leaves the stage. This is the very same world explorer who introduces himself as a European, and whom the Native Americans understand to be saying he's "peeing" on their land.
Such gleeful revisionism keeps the material accessible while also confronting America's political inception in colonialism and slavery. For anyone who might doubt the educational worth of discussing Columbus and the conquest of the Americas in such potentially overly familiar terms would be well advised to recall the long literary and historical traditions in both Eastern and Western cultures that also have much to say about bodily functions. Who could forget the "liquid dew of youth" in Shakespeare's Hamlet (Act 1 Scene 3) -- such wry lines await these kids as teenagers in high school English classes. Or, consider all the learned references to urination in the venerable and always lucid medieval Persian polymath Ibn Sina. The point is that these fifth graders are lucky enough to write, practice and perform their own popular history of America.
Thinking critically about American history is not only directed against Columbus, his ilk and the European tradition either. On the contrary, the performance made clear how Europe is also the bearer of many American traditions, especially wordplay and appropriation of other linguistic traditions. Some puns may not register with the first graders but for the older students such linguistic adventures of their own may well be a first step toward understanding the complexities of America's past and the ambiguous language of history. Hopefully with continued education in the liberal arts, greater critical engagement and understanding will follow. For now, the gift of music, drama and language proves invaluable for young people, as a way to enjoy history as well as the performance.
Most amazingly these fifth graders pulled the production together in just under two months, working just once a week for one hour until the final two weeks, and all the while taking the state mandated standardized tests, learning pre-algebra, American geography and revolutionary history as well as family education. No light fare here. Only, the weight of it makes one wonder about the other fifth graders in America who don't benefit from a nonprofit arts organization or from high local property taxes. What kind of history do they perform? What other chances do American children have to write history, explore music, their own voices, investigate the complexities of language, and make their peers and parents proud in public? These kids are proud of themselves, their schools, and their country. Can other students say as much for their education? What needs to be done so that others can also enjoy such pride?
None of what happens at my kids' schools transpires out of thin air. Decades after the infamous California prop 13, the some schools are able to attract and retain excellent staff, garner parental involvement and provide communal support . What does it take to have all Californians enjoy such an educational experience?
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