The Independence Rap: Because Children ARE Our Future

Tomorrow is Independence Day.  And Independence Day is a uniquely American holiday.  It commemorates the day on which our Founding Fathers, after more than a year in the Continental Congress debating the issue of independence from the British Crown, finally compromised, and one by one rose to take the quill pen in hand in order to append their signature to the document written by Thomas Jefferson, our Declaration of Independence.

(To the younger generation, that’s the document that, if you shine a special light on its back, you can find a treasure map that leads you to fabulous riches and Nicholas Cage.)

It truly is a remarkable thing to celebrate.  It had never been done in the history of the world… independence, that is.  Back then, the sun never set on the British Empire, a reference to its global reach, and what our Founding Fathers were engaged in was treason of the highest order.  Had they been caught, they would have surely all been hanged.

The idea of colonial independence, sovereignty of the people, written constitutions, and effective checks and balances in government, was both radical and new.  In fact, it was an idea put on paper by a man who has been described as “a professional radical and revolutionary propagandist,” Thomas Paine, who was brought to America by Benjamin Franklin.  It was an idea that had rarely if ever been tried, much less succeeded.  It was an idea you spoke of knowing that to do so could lead to your death.

Because of this rather extreme penalty associated with the idea itself, Thomas Paine wrote the pamphlet “Common Sense,” and published it anonymously in January of 1776.  It was “Addressed to the Inhabitants of America,” it became an instant best-seller, and it made Thomas Paine the first true American Idol.

Common Sense advocated an immediate declaration of independence from British rule, and conveyed a special moral obligation of America to the rest of the world.  It brought into sharp focus the suffering of the American colonies and placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the reigning British monarch, King George III.

Eventually, Thomas Paine would go on to write “The Rights of Man,” and “The Age of Reason,” but there’s no question that the words he wrote in “Common Sense,” represent some of the most brilliant and ultimately important words ever written in the English language.  It sparked a revolution whose shots were heard around the world.  It led to a revolution in France, and later a revolution in Russia.  And it remains to this day, a beacon of freedom around the world.

Tomorrow we celebrate the day on which the world’s first revolution against tyranny and oppression began.  And it is uniquely our revolution, we need share it with no one.  Tomorrow is a day on which all Americans should be very proud of this country’s heritage, a day on which we can forgive our many mistakes along the way, in favor of recognizing the men and women that risked their lives and the lives of their children so that millions could live in freedom and self government for hundreds of years to come.

And I think everyone in this country should understand that tomorrow is more than just fireworks and a barbeque.  Tomorrow is the day on which the country I love celebrates its birth… the day back in 1776 on which “they made a revolution”.

And  that leads me to my story…

Two years ago I was offered a position at my daughter’s elementary school teaching U.S. History and Social Studies to 5th and 6th graders.  My daughter was in 6th grade at the time, and I suppose because she knew that the kids all liked me… after all, we’d been at the school since Kindergarten… she was perfectly okay with me doing it.  In fact, she was happy about the whole thing, and so was the rest of her class.  Were I to have suggested the same thing this past year, when she was in 8th grade, I confident that she would have gone directly into the street to lay down in traffic before allowing me to teach her friends at school.

So, understanding that opportunities like this only come around but once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky that is, I jumped at the chance to teach my daughter’s class a little U.S. History at The Berkeley School in Fullerton, California.  I taught every Tuesday and Thursday morning from 9:00 AM until 10:30 AM, when the kids would go on break.

Now, you should know that The Berkeley School is no ordinary elementary school, unless you’re still living in the 1950s or even before.  It consists of two small school houses, each no bigger than the school house Laura Ingalls attended when she lived in her little house on the prairie.

There are about 50 kids that go to school there, K-6, so my daughter’s 5th and 6th grade class had a total of nine kids in it, which I thought was wonderful.  I took advantage of the small size to take the kids on excursions to places like Richard Nixon’s Presidential Library, and the Museum of Tolerance, which commemorates the Holocaust, but also racial segregation and bigotry and the struggle for civil rights here in the United States, and around the world.

When I started planning my curriculum for the year, a few months before school was to start, I had no idea that as a result of going back to 6th Grade, I’d learn so much.  It was the most wonderful professional experience I’ve ever had, and I’m saving up to do it again someday.  Teaching elementary school is a lot spending a month in Italy… if you can afford it, I’d recommend doing it.

Anyway, when I was a kid, the public school system had a way of teaching U.S. History that was a little less interesting than say… watching them give haircuts on Saturday.  I remember opening our history (or I think they called it Social Studies back then), books and then spending the rest of the class trying to sleep without being caught by the teacher who seemed, by the way, to be old enough to have attended the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  In other words, history class when I was in school was BORING… with a capital B-O-R-I-N-G.

Not only that, but I grew up in Pennsylvania, which is, one should remember, where our history comes from, and as a result my parents felt it their parental obligation to drag us kids through every single historic site the state had to offer… at least once.  We even went to Boston in 1976, the year of the Bicentennial, where my father is from, and he dragged us on every step of the Freedom Trail, stopping at church after church, and graveyard after graveyard to examine the headstones and talk about their significance to our nation’s heritage.

As a result, although I don’t agree with what the infamous Menendez Brothers did when the gunned down their parents with shotguns back in 1989… let’s just say I understand.  (Kidding… Mom & Dad, if you’re reading this… just kidding… I’m a kidder, ask anyone.)

The point is, that as I started planning how I would teach American History to my daughter’s class, I was determined not to be boring even for a moment.  The question was… how to accomplish this obviously worthy objective.

You see, to me… there’s nothing as exciting as American History.  Even though my parents and teachers did their best to make it as boring as possible, they ultimately failed, because as an adult I found history to be down right sexy.  From the moment the Puritans, named because they wanted to “purify” the Christian Church, which at the time had become too liberal for their tastes as a result of King Henry VIII breaking ties with the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church over not allowing divorce and starting his own Protestant Church of England, stepped onto the Mayflower to seek freedom in a new land, Americans have been breaking rules and generally kicking butt in one way or another.

Oh sure, we’ve had our more than our share of shameful periods, the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans, forcing Japanese Americans into internment camps during WWII, Disco dancing in leisure suits, and many others.  But all in all, we’ve moved ahead and been the “good guys”… the land of the free and the home of the brave… where the streets are paved with gold… one nation, under God, indivisible… with liberty and justice for all.

Of course, I understood from the start that were I to begin the school year examining the significance of the Pledge of Allegiance, I’d be run out on a rail, if not by the school itself, then metaphorically, certainly by the kids.  So, I decided that I needed something that would grab them from the moment they said goodbye to summer and took their seats to endure yet another school year that at that moment seemingly would never end.  I need a “hook,” as they say in the Ad Biz.

And that’s when it hit me: a hook… music.  Sixth graders love music.  It’s a magical age.  It’s the age when you not only know the words to the Top 10 on the radio, but you’re still young enough to join in on a round of “Bingo was his Name-O,” or “Three Cheers for Our Bus Driver”.  In my day, we sang “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” or “What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor,” but those aren’t politically correct anymore so say la vie.

Anyway, I decided to call the year, “Racing Through the Years Through the Music of Our Times”.  I chose “racing,” because it implied that we wouldn’t be going slowly… at 12 years old “slowly” means “boring”.  And when they walked into the classroom on the day in late August, I had a “boom box” set up with a CD player and speakers possibly big enough to blow out the windows in the classroom.  You could see from the looks on their faces that they had already started thinking that this was not going to be just another school year.

I began my first class by hitting the play button and the music blared out: “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the Age of Aquarius… Aquarius…”  I was groovin’ and my daughter looked like she was not at all sure that she had been thinking correctly when she had approved of me as teacher of her class.

I lowered the volume and spoke to the class: “When I was your age,” I told them, “I hated having to sit through history class.  You know why, right?  Because it was sooooo boring, that’s why.”

I think I had them when the music started, but now they were hanging on every word.  I went on to explain that when I was their age I listened to and knew all the words to all the hot songs on the radio, just like they do now.  And I explained that one of the best ways to understand history is through the music of the times.  When I hit the button on the remote control, the next song hit the airwaves, it sang:

“War… huh… Good God, y’all… what is it good for?  Absolutely nothing… say it again.”

I waited through a verse or two before turning the volume down and talking about what was happening in the 1960s.  The next song was a change of pace, “We shall overcome,” and then Bob Dylan sang that “The Times They Are a Changing”.

“When we got to the Watergate years, we heard “The Backstabbers,” and I showed how popular music reflects what happening at the time.  I gave each one a CD that I had made, and their first homework assignment.  I also told them that when they came to the next class… they would have a “Pop Quiz,” meaning that the answers would be found in the popular songs of the 1960s that were on their CDs.

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