I couldn’t believe I was crying. “Stop it,” I chided myself internally, trying to stem the flow, “it’s just a song for kids. You’re being ridiculous.” I shifted in my folding chair, brought my sleeve up to my cheek, and hoped that no one was looking. “C’mon. Hold it together.”
I knew the song well; they were coming up on the last refrain. Soon it would be over. Soon the first-graders would file off the stage and sit with their teacher.
If I could just get through the last refrain, I would be okay.
* * * * *
It didn’t begin this way. That day, the crying day, was a Thursday afternoon in mid-March, and I was attending the dress rehearsal for my daughter’s annual spring musical. She goes to the Pittsburgh Urban Christian School, or PUCS, where each year students, staff, and volunteers create and perform an impressive all-school musical production. Its theme coincides with that year’s all-school unit, which have been, in our K-2 tenure; ‘Superheros’, ‘Farms’, and now, ‘Bridges and Steel.’
This year’s theme is particularly appropriate for Pittsburgh–a city that has almost as many bridges as Venice, a city that once ran on the steel mills, and a city where many key institutions (Carnegie museums and libraries, Frick and Mellon parks) pay homage to industrial barons of the last century. In Pittsburgh, bridges and steel are everywhere, connecting everything.
However, when it came to the musical, the theme didn’t seem so promising. Last year, during ‘Farms’, our daughter got to be a singing chicken–a hard act to follow. “This year is going to be so booore-ing,” she pronounced, sometime in grey January. “How can you even write a musical about bridges and steel?” To add insult to injury, her class was assigned a song about the physics of bridge-building, which, she reminded us often, was not her favorite.
Still, by early March, our whole family was chanting lyrics about tension and compression over our daily oatmeal. This is something I love about Spring Production. Every year there are songs about scientific concepts, historical figures and events, and literary references. The kids hardly realize they’re learning, or, even better, they come to associate learning with enjoyment.
PUCS is one sneaky school.
And so, by mid-March, when we saw the entire production, I wasn’t surprised to learn–through bouncy tunes and exuberant choreography–about the composition of steel, working conditions in the mills, and the history of several local bridges. Also, because many of the steel workers came from other countries, there was this song about immigration.
Like all Spring Production songs, I first heard it over breakfast. It was the first-graders’ number, but every kid learned every song, and this one was particularly catchy. It also had a lot of big words in the verses, so it required lots of practice.
They traveled from Czech Republic, China and Japan. Others came on boats from Poland and Ireland. Scandinavians came to work with their strong hands. Hungarians worked in the mills with the Africans.
“Daddy is a Scandinavian” I told the girls, “see his strong hands?” I smiled, but the kids didn’t. “Mama, this is serious,” my eight-year-old informed me, “I have to practice.”
Eastern Europe was the home of the Slovakians. Eager workers from the mountains were the Carpathians. From down south came Cubans and Mexicans. Expecting jobs and good wages were Italians.
And every morning, the girls’ singing was mixed with news from the radio. I suspect this contrast was the seed of my tears.
* * * * *
The first-graders were, of course, adorable.
Each carried a sign representing a place. One by one, they came forward and bowed proudly to the audience. Ireland and Hungary; Slovakia and Cuba. Several kids represented the continent of Africa. The first-graders were diverse too, though not matched ethnically to their signs. A precocious girl with dark skin got a big laugh when she threw an exaggerated kiss into the air. Italy!
I laughed with the crowd, but the refrain was coming, and so I braced myself. I had to. I was already shaken.
Just twelve hours before the Spring Production dress rehearsal, there was a horrible shooting in Wilkinsburg, the neighborhood where PUCS is located. The ‘urban’ in the school’s name is no accident; the school intentionally exists in a distressed area of the city, attempting to integrate people as well as it integrates curriculum. The latter is far easier than the former.
And this morning, the tragic Wilkinsburg news had been mixed with the national and global news, now too familiar. The rhetoric of the politicians, the fear of those who are not like ‘us’, the refugees and tragedies, the call for walls. All the actions and reactions, all mixed up, turning everything I believed into a children’s song–cute, but irrelevant.
The last refrain came.
Men and women, boys and girls. They all came for a better life. Many feared the differences in others, and that caused lots of strife. If America is a melting pot, then we are all equal. So God, please help us all build bridges between people.
This time, it got me. I tried to keep from embarrassing myself. “Stop it… It’s just a kid’s song… just a kid’s song.” But even as struggled for control, I prayed the last line. Or. Maybe the last line prayed me.
Even now, I can’t seem to get it out of my head.
* * * * *
Song lyrics by Suzie Salo; music by Rachel Matos.