Southern Brooklyn

Op-Ed: Kiddie Graduation Song Swap Is Dumb — Hate Mail Is Dumber

Source: krossbow / Flickr

BETWEEN THE LINES: 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 was Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” with lyrics such as “…’cause the flag still stands for freedom and they can’t take that away.” It seems that Public School 90 Principal Greta Hawkins rejected it as “inappropriate for five year olds…that would offend other cultures.”

That reasoning shows a poor lack of judgment, since any culture’s national 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 too patriotic and offensive to her culture, she shouldn’t be foisting her personal views on kindergarten pupils. And the Department of Education (DOE) should certainly not be defending 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 throughout 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. Also, “God” is mentioned in the national anthem’s fourth verse, though the first verse is the only one traditionally recited. But she won’t vocalize her objection to that since it’s DOE policy.

The principal chose, instead, Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” a pop tune about teen romance, which was a top 10 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…”

That’s appropriate for five year-olds, barely out of diapers and years away from a romantic relationship?

I’ve never heard any of the heartthrob’s songs, but since when is a tune about teenage romance, full of references to heartbreak, appropriate for kindergartners, who, in all likelihood, have years before they experience such angst?

I’ve got nothing against Bieber, the Canadian singer-songwriter adored by legions of teenage and pre-teen fans around the world. At the ripe old age of 18, he has already sold 15 million albums and Forbes magazine recently ranked ‘JBiebz’ as the third most powerful celebrity in the world.

On Monday, after outraged parents of students at the school protested, the Bieber song was also removed from the graduation playlist.

“God Bless the USA” is not my kind of song. I prefer “Born in the USA.” In fact, I’d never heard Greenwood’s song until September 12, 2001, and 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. When I hear that version, I still get goose bumps as if it were the first time I was hearing it.

Greenwood’s 1984 song became a right-wing anthem after it was played at that year’s GOP convention, 17 years before the World Trade Center tragedy. I became familiar with it once 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 just stupid.

On the web site, almost 20 teachers from the school submitted anonymous reviews of Hawkins over the past 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.”

But this latest issue over 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 is as 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. However, with its redundant “baby, baby, baby” chorus, like repetitive children’s rhymes, it is age-appropriate.

Criticizing Hawkins for changing the graduation song is acceptable and definitely warranted, especially with her flimsy excuse, but attacking her with hate mail is deplorable.

This issue has nothing to do with politics or race, but rather with 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.

Nevertheless, there’s an ongoing investigation into the slew of racist hate mail the principal has received.

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 anonymously attacked her with hate mail filled with racial slurs 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 uproar that surrounds their first graduation and will have forgotten it when they don caps and gowns at graduations years from now.

Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.

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  1. Jehovah’s Witnesses and the flag salute.
     I was born into the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1957.I was the good little JW boy who got beaten up in the school yard for not saluting the flag and remaining seated for the national anthem as demanded by my defiant Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders.  This was the better dead than red era of the 1960’s, and a kid not doing the act stood out big.
    I suffered much,only to learn that the Watchtower corporation is just another made up man-made religion.My JW leaders *forced* *compelled* me NOT to salute the flag,I wasn’t given any option.If I wavered I would be severely punished by my parents and struck down by God at Armageddon. Kids suffer because of made-up rules by Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders,senile old holy men sequestered in their insulated ivory tower.
    My point is:Jehovah’s Witnesses claim ‘neutrality’ that is false as they DO try to force their convictions on others. –Danny Haszard FMI dannyhaszard(dot)com

  2. Mr. Friedman contradicts himself by first stating that Bieber’s song about teenage romance is not age appropriate for kindergarteners because they are many years away from experiencing it and later states that is is appropriate because of its repetitive refrain, baby baby baby.  So which one is it?  You can’t have it both ways.

    He also states this is not a racial issue.  I have read reports how this principal made incensitive racial comments in the past and that does make it a racial issue. Something about you used to have a white Jewish male principal and now you have a Black one so get used to it because there are more of us coming in the future.

    As for Greenwood’s song, I loved it the first time I heard it at the bicentennial and would even prefer it to the National Anthem.  Then it disappeared until after 9-11.  Five yearl olds may not comprehend all the lyrics, but how many understand all the words of the Pledge of Allegience?  No one has ever sugggested banning that from kindergarten.  The lyrics she specifically objected to were not the ones about freedom.

  3. The theme’s not age appropriate but the repetitive lyrics are like a children’s song.
    So I guess that is a slight contradiction.

    Regardless, the song was scratched!

  4. I feel sorry for the kids. Society can’t even leave 5 year olds out of the political insanity anymore.

    The hate mail is troubling. Someone said the principal gives “progressive” a bad name. Well, the hate mail does similarly for conservatism. Threats need to be stopped and the people prosecuted. The principal herself has uttered at least 1 racist comment, but the proper response to that is surely not racist and threatening mail,

  5. Whatever her shortcomings may be, including possible bias as a Jehovah’s
    Witness, Principal Greta Hawkins is actually correct under school law
    and the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits
    government from establishing a religion (a.k.a. the “establishment
    clause” or “separation of church and state”). Many of the founding
    fathers may indeed have had a faith in God, yet had the wisdom to
    legislate a separation of government and religion — one of the reasons
    they fought for independence from England. That song might have a place
    at a private religious school or other venues, but not at a public one
    which is government-run, cannot legally promote one religion over
    another, and must respect the diverse religious beliefs, ethnicities,
    and cultures of all of its students. This is a basic concept that
    neither many members of the general
    public, nor Mr. Lee Greenwood, seem to comprehend. It seems like basic
    high school Civics to me. There are other songs that would more
    appropriately express patriotism. I see no reason for Mr. Greenwood to
    be offended as a Christian. He has the freedom to worship and express
    his religious views, also thanks to the “free exercise” clause of the
    1st Amendment (the right to freely exercise his religion without
    government interference or prohibition)! It’s a beautiful thing and one
    of the main reasons I’m proud to be an American.

    the same reasons given above, it surprised me that the “under God”
    phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance (which the Knights of Columbus, a
    Catholic group, encouraged congress to add in 1954), is still allowed to
    be recited in public schools and other government venues, and has not
    yet been challenged in court.

    Disrespectful, racist remarks have no place in any disagreement.  Is it OK to respect and honor one’s country but not other human beings?  The fervor and hate this kind of topic stirs up amongst my fellow citizens truly frightens me.

  6. And what one religion does that song promote?  What are the specific lyrics are you referring to?

  7. Except for the last sentence, your argument has more holes than Swiss cheese, because the word “God” only implies belief in a Supreme Being, not a specific religion, which is part of the intention of the First Amendment. 
    Furthermore, “In God We Trust” is on our coins and currency, so, unless those who make purchases only with plastic, they are hypocrites.

  8. Those words on our currency were challenged in court as well (so I don’t see any hypocrisy here).
    Just as with the Pledge, none of the cases were successful (so far):
    However, in that case, “The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco agreed with him in 2002 that the phrase was religiously motivated and that it sent a message to nonbelievers that they were outsiders”.  Ultimately, “The Supreme Court denied review Monday without comment. Newdow said he was disappointed but would refile the suit elsewhere.”

  9. This was a stupid move – replace a patriotic song with the Beibs?  If the song was age innapropriate, teach the children what they are singing about – isn’t that what teachers are SUPPOSED to do?  Teachers today are so useless – God forbid they do their job, they just want to take the easy way out.  That is why I fear the future.  These kids know nothing today – and it is the fault of the schools and the lack of help from the parents.  I see it in my own family.

  10. I can’t understand why “God Bless the USA” is considered “religious”.  Every religion believes in God, no matter what they call him.  This separation of church and state has gone too far here. Nobody is forcing the kids to pray.  Anyone who has a problem saying this phrase should just not let their kid sing.  Simple solution – just tell little johnny ” don’t sing the word God, just hum it!”

  11. By the way, it is an interesting expression in itself.

    Why should god listen to US residents more than, say, Russian Federation?  After all, one would imagine that Russians are asking daily to bless Russia:
    Quote: “Please pray daily for Russia and these 2 leaders of the FREE WORLD as they face imminent nuclear attack by the Pentagon!!”

    God must be very confused.


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