On May 23, I went to hear my daughter sing in the sixth-grade concert at Weber Middle School. Included in the program was a bilingual rendition of the Mexican song Des Colores. As an avid multiculturalist, I think that it is great to have our kids learn songs from other languages. But why stop at Spanish? The older, established ethnic groups in this area are Irish, Italian and Jewish. (Hence, the established tradition of NY politicians including Ireland, Italy and Israel on their campaign trails.) They're all trying to keep their languages alive. Can't we have the kids sing Gaelic, Italian and Hebrew songs too? My daughter, who has already sung Des Colores in three concerts now, would love to learn some old Gaelic songs.
New York's older ethnic groups, such as the Dutch and Germans, have pretty much disappeared into the local populations through intermarriage and assimilation. But their musical traditions are part of our heritage. I could make a good case that the body of work created in the 300-year period of (primarily German) classical music represents the greatest artistic achievements of the human race. Last year, I heard the children's choir of a Korean church sing the choral from Beethoven's Ninth. They were magnificent. Let's give our kids the same opportunities for development.
Speaking of which, what about our Asian neighbors? Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Indian communities are not well established in Port. It would be a great exercise in linguistics to have our children learn those drastically different systems of pronunciation. The same goes for Russian, Polish and Greek.
South Africa has the distinction of having two national anthems. One, Nkosi Sikelel i Afrika is the definitive black African song of liberation. The other, Die Stem, is the Boer equivalent of America the Beautiful. Learning how these two songs came to be dual national anthems would be a political education in itself. The truth and reconciliation commissions organized by a handful of black African leaders (e.g. Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu) were perhaps the most important moral achievements of the 20th century. Their significance has gone practically unnoticed as Central Europe and the Middle East degenerated into religious and ethnic warfare, but such commissions seem to be the best route to salvation. Do Mandela and Tutu have successors who can travel to the Middle East? (I digress.)
One language that we probably should exclude from the school music program is English. After all, New York has the distinction of never having had a WASP majority. The original Dutch settlement had become multi-ethnic long before the English took over. Today, people of English background are a demographically insignificant part of NY. Let us at last throw off the yoke of English imperialism. To enjoy a truly multicultural, polyglot community we must overcome our regressive notions of a shared common language.
We can include French songs, not in tribute to France's rather nasty, racist, imperialist past, but rather in tribute to the spirit of revolutionary democracy that Jefferson found so appealing.
Indeed, this raises a delicate question about Spanish. Many Spanish-speaking immigrants from Latin America are not of Spanish descent, but rather Native Americans. As they grow in political consciousness, they may realize that Spanish was not their native language, but rather the language of the Spanish conquerors who oppressed and exploited their people for hundreds of years. We can ignore this for now, but we may have to drop Spanish from the program if they demand a change.
As you can well imagine, the district may be drawn into costly legal disputes between the representatives of various ethnic groups. In addition to legal costs, hiring language teachers for so many languages could double the district's payroll costs. In the end, the cost of operating the schools could easily triple. We'll just have to pay. After all, is any price too high to pay for social justice?
You may wonder whether I have any serious purpose in writing this. I do. Listening to the Weber concert, I realized that I had failed my first child by not adequately defending her right to develop her cultural heritage. Both my children are bilingual. They speak English and Danish. My son is now finishing the first grade. By the time he reaches Weber, I expect the school administration to have incorporated songs from each of the language groups that I mentioned above in the concert programs. That way, they can put a Danish song in the program for one of the concerts when my son participates in 2007 through 2009. If they don't, I will be obliged to begin legal action against the school district to stop the district's blatant discrimination against children on the basis of their race and national origin.
Please excuse me for having left out a multitude of other language groups, but I invite other parents to write in for recognition. In closing, I call on all New Yorkers to join together to preserve our shared cultural heritage by keeping Yiddish alive.
Robert T. Schill