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 TeacherVoice.com 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.

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