Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Kiddie Graduation Song Swap is Dumb — Hate Mail is Dumber (June 8, 2012)

The decision by city schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott to defend replacing an ultra-patriotic song with one about teen romance for a kindergarten graduation at a Coney Island school is not only wrong, but it’s dumber — with a capital D — than the principal’s original decision.
The song intended to be used at the graduation ceremony at the West 12th Street elementary school was Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” (with lyrics such as “…‘cause the flag still stand for freedom and they can’t take that away”). It seems that P.S. 90 Principal Greta Hawkins first rejected it as “inappropriate for five year olds,” then later said she did not want to “offend the other cultures” of guests at the ceremony.
Either reasoning shows a poor lack of judgment since any culture’s flag stands for a nation’s sovereignty! And, despite the school’s diverse student population, it is in Brooklyn, which is in New York City, which is in the United States of America.
So who the heck would it offend?
Even if the principal finds the Greenwood tune offensive to HER culture, she shouldn’t foist her personal views on kindergarten pupils. Still, the Department of Education (DOE) should certainly not defend that sort of irresponsible leadership!
Walcott and a DOE spokesperson noted that students recite the “Pledge of Allegiance” and “America the Beautiful” every day, kind of implying that sufficient patriotism already echoes through the school. But, last year, when “God Bless the USA” was used for the fifth grade graduation, the principal made no public objection.
A source told me that Hawkins is a Jehovah’s Witness, so perhaps it’s the “God” reference to which she objects, although He’s mentioned in the Pledge, too. “God” is also mentioned in the national anthem’s fourth verse, though the first is the only one traditionally recited. But she won’t vocalize her objection to that since it is DOE policy.
For the graduation playlist, the principal substituted Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” a pop tune about teen romance, which was a top ten single two years ago and contains lyrics such as “You know you love me, you know you care, just shout whenever and I’ll be there…”
I’ve never heard any of the 18-year-old heartthrob’s songs, but since when is a tune about teenage romance, full of references to heartbreak, appropriate for kindergartners, barely out of diapers and years away experiencing such angst?
On Monday, after a storm of protest from parents of students at the school, the principal scratched the Bieber song from the graduation playlist.
“God Bless the USA” is not my kind of song. I prefer “Born in the USA.” In fact, before September 12, 2001, I’d never heard Greenwood’s song, yet it remains a distinctive niche in my post-9/11 memory. Not long after the World Trade Center attacks, a local radio station altered Greenwood’s lyrics to make them movingly suitable for the tragedy. From then until now, whenever I hear the revised version I fill with emotion.
Greenwood’s 1984 song became a right-wing anthem after it was played at that year’s GOP convention, seventeen years before the World Trade Center tragedy. I only became familiar with it when I hunted down the revised version and learned that it was only broadcast on that station after a DJ altered it. I recorded it from my stereo and still have it on disc.  
Hawkins is no stranger to controversy. Two years ago at a staff meeting, the principal reportedly made racially insensitive remarks. Earlier this year, she was criticized when she instituted a questionable policy that gave students extra credit for not using the toilet. That may have been unpopular, but it certainly wasn’t racially motivated. It’s sheer stupidity!
On the TeacherVoice.com web site, almost twenty teachers from the school submitted anonymous reviews for Hawkins over the last two years. While most are extremely negative, citing her as “incompetent,” “horrible” and “vindictive,” several give her high ratings, including one with the summary: “One of the most amazing, capable, committed leaders I have ever met.”
The song swap has generated what some perceive as a racially motivated attack on patriotism by an African-American principal. Boorish bigots tend to inject race into such matters, but since Justin Bieber’s white as new-fallen snow, their argument lacks substance.
If she substituted some rap diatribe with lyrics promoting killing cops, an anti-white rant or one full of references to ho’s and bitches, over the Greenwood song, they’d have a point.
On the other hand, the Bieber song doesn’t offend any culture, except pop culture. Nevertheless, its redundant “baby, baby, baby” chorus, like repetitive children’s rhymes, still doesn’t make it age-appropriate.
Criticizing Hawkins for changing the graduation song is undeniably warranted, especially with her flimsy excuses, but attacking her with hate mail filled with anti-black slurs, is deplorable. Nevertheless, the NYPD is investigating three anonymous letters she received, as well as the slashing of the tires on her car and feces smeared on her windshield.
Race may be secondary to this issue, but one principal’s ill-advised decision to substitute an unmistakably patriotic anthem for one with a theme that no five year old could possibly grasp, is hardly a reason to prompt racial attacks.
I disagree with Greta Hawkins’ song swap and other issues, but, at least, the principal stands by her convictions and seems prepared to take the heat, however ill-conceived her choices may be. Those who attacked her anonymously are spineless cowards, like others of their ilk.
I hope investigators find them, from whatever hole they reside in, and mete out fitting justice.
More importantly, let’s hope the kindergarten students at the center of this debate are not tainted by this misguided, polarizing uproar that surrounds their first graduation and will have forgotten it when they don caps and gowns at graduations years from now.