I got about thirty minutes last Wednesday. And in fact, it was probably thirty of the best minutes I’ve had at any job, ever.
It goes like this: part of my job involves teaching kindergarteners and first graders computers. As a specials teacher--that’s what they call the folks at my school who are either not elementary school classroom teachers or the folks in the upper grades who teacher English, Social Studies, Math, and Science (there’s also phys ed, art, World Cultures, library, and music)--I get fifty minutes every other week with these kids. Fifty minutes is just way too much time to expect a kindergarten or first grade student to continuously sit in front of a computer, so I looked for something else I could do at the beginning of the period.
So I started teaching basic songs to myself on my four-string tenor guitar (which, with the way I’ve tuned it, is basically a steel string baritone ukulele) that I could play for the kids for the first fifteen or twenty minutes of class. I began with simple ankle-hugger faire, such as “The Wheels on the Bus,” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” I have since moved on to teaching myself songs such as “The Garden Song (Inch by Inch),” and “The Erie Canal.”
I’ve also been listening to the music of Dan Zanes. Zanes was the lead singer of The Del Fuegos back in the 1980s. For the uninitiated, The Del Fuegos were a garage style Boston-based band that achieved critical acclaim in the 1980s. When the band broke up, Zanes settled down and started a family.
Then, when he was shopping for songs for his child, he was disheartened to find that most of the music was saccharine and, frankly, bad. So Zanes began a second career as a performer of children’s songs. He has since produced a number of albums that combine catchy original songs with lovely interpretations of classic numbers, many of them with such guest artists as Lou Reed, Amy Mann, and Suzanne Vega.
Here's Dan Zanes, with the help of Suzanne Vega, doing a rendition of "Erie Canal:"
“You’re welcome to come to my class anytime,” she said.
So I came into her class two weeks ago, and the result was the picture at the beginning of this post. The kids treated me like a rock star.
That, of course, was a great thirty-minute part of my day, but the best thirty minutes came last Wednesday.
I had taught myself “This Land is Your Land,” and after playing the basic stuff last Wednesday, I said “okay, now I’m going to play a song that I’m sure you all know.”
I gave the title, and a large number of students looked at me blankly.
And I thought: wait. Of course a lot of them have never heard of this song. They’re five.
It just sort of feels as if we were all born knowing that song. There’s just something about “This Land is Your Land” that’s so iconic, such a part of what we know, that it’s actually easy to forget that there was a time in all our lives that we didn’t know it.. And considering that so many of my students have parents from all over the world, it’s even more likely that they didn’t hear that song in their household.
This led to a genuinely profound feeling: of all the people in the world, I was going to be the one who turned these kids on to “This Land is Your Land.” Me. If they liked this song, for the rest of their lives, when they talked about it, they would say “oh, yeah...one of my teachers, Mr. Leif, turned me on to that song when I was in kindergarten.”
So I played the first line a couple of times and taught them to sing along to it, and then the second, third and fourth. Then I played the song for real.
Of course they sung with uncertainty, but after we came around to the chorus the third time, a number of them were singing. It was pretty sweet.
Then, another realization came over me.
I teach in a school that’s diverse in a big way. There are kids with parents from African countries (a lot from Ghana and Kenya), Asian countries (Lowell, Massachusetts, where I teach, has one of the largest Cambodian populations in the country), and Spanish-speaking countries (a lot are from The Dominican Republic). So here were kids with parents from all over the world, and they were singing “This Land is Your Land.”
And I thought about the current political situation, and how there is so much talk about how people who come from other places are terrible people who are coming here to do terrible things. And here were the children of those people, smiling and singing their hearts out. Then I thought about how Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” as an angry retort to the jingoistic “God Bless America,” made popular by Kate Smith, which he couldn’t stand (and recent news stories about some of Kate Smith's other recordings show that her earlier work was very much in accord with many of the current political sentiments of today).
And all those lyrics that I’ve been singing all my life took on such a profound meaning as I say these kids joyously singing them. Honest. Though I’d always liked the lyrics, I’d never had such a deep feeling of the truth of them.
Last Tuesday, the day before what would be the little session where I introduced Kim’s students to “This Land is Your Land,” I had asked Kim if I could stop by on Wednesday morning.
“Derek,” she said with a smile, “let me just make this clear so that you don’t have to keep asking: you’re always welcome in my class on Wednesday mornings. I don’t know why the other teachers don’t take you up on your offer, but as long as they’re not going to do that, it means that I have something great going on in my class every Wednesday mornings. Just come in.”
I will, Kim. I will.