Friday, October 8, 2010

Of Thee I Sing

My son goes to public school. When he started school, I expected to have the
usual flashbacks to elementary school days: the creaky desks, the annoying
hair-puller in the row behind me, and all that good stuff that comes flooding
back when you have kids. But one memory that I apparently repressed was that of
the institutionally mandated patriotism—in both chanted and musical form. Until
I stood at Friday assembly at my then-first-grade-son’s school, watching
hundreds of children, teachers and parents solemnly grasping their chests and
reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (and “under God,” at that!) and then, in
unrehearsed unison, adopting a beatific stance for the Star Spangled Banner. Was
I really on a children’s playground (in Los Angeles, weather is good and land is
expensive, so most events take place on the concrete hardtop) in a town where
Priuses outnumber traffic lights, and progressive attitudes are to the right
only of Park Slope, Brooklyn? Who ARE these people who I thought I knew? Had I
stumbled onto the set of extras of the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers?
Needless to say, it was many months before I could attempt another appearance at
school assembly.

As a child in public elementary school, I vividly remember my first grade
teacher, Mrs. Hogan, a quiet and solemn woman, whip into a virtual whirling
dervish of nationalistic excitement as soon as the pledge ended. We were led in
spirited versions not only of the “Star Spangled Banner,” but also “America the
” and, inexplicably, “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” It was in the last one
where she really made her mark—the same women who methodically wrote her name on
the blackboard every morning would gesture up a storm, with arms flailing on the
“grand” beat and raised to the ceiling for the “high flying flag” part.
Fortunately, I did not sit in the front row because I can only imagine the
spittle that was flying by the finale of the song.

Later, thankfully, I went to private school, where we weren’t as beholden to the
country’s history as we were to the school’s traditions. We had assemblies
several times a week (indoors, in a specially designated hall). I don’t recall
any singing, except for when the school’s Glee Club performed, and I am fairly
certain they only sang songs in Medieval Greek or Latin. However, when it was
time for Commencement, we practiced the songs as if our lives depended on it.
Because, in a way they did; a sour note or poor diction during the ceremony
would mar the over-achieving perfection that is a Boston all-girls’ school, and
if you were the cause, you wouldn’t get into a good college, never get a job or
have a family, and undoubtedly die an early and painful death.

I never recall actually being taught the words to any of the patriotic gems that
remain the staple of United States public schools, and perhaps that is why
generations of Americans do not actually know the words to these songs, let
alone the meaning. But in pursuit of a first-rank College Preparatory education,
nothing is left to chance, and we spent weeks memorizing every stanza of equally
obtuse and tortured lyrics, but ones that apparently paid homage to institutions
that are not the American Flag. In fact, one song was actually about merry old
England—the song was from a William Blake work called “Jerusalem,” and I
remember wondering why a school full of Boston WASPs were singing about Israel.
The other musical mainstay of Commencement was a whit trickier to master than
Blake’s alliteration about England’s “pleasant pastures”—the song (whose name I
do not recall) had a line that went “Give me your Chariot of Fire.”
Unfortunately, I was in school around the time the Academy Award-winning film
“Chariots of Fire” came out, and I cannot tell you the agony of trying to get
400 girls to not botch that line in rehearsal, lest we have to sing it one more
time. But the good news was, those of us who did not possess pitch that was up
to the school’s standards were instructed merely to move our lips to the music;
yes, I was a mouth mover. So I could have lip-synced all sorts of scandalous
things while my more talented sisters were earnestly asking for that Chariot of
Fire; sadly, I was not clever enough to do so, a regret I still have.

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