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Citizenship (2002)

Friday afternoon at Anza Elementary was always a momentous affair. It was “Community Sing Day.” All of the fourth through sixth grade classes were suspended from the usual rigor of memorizing times tables, building sentence structure and reading assignments to celebrate. We came together in the auditorium to simply sing. This was the best part of being in the fifth grade. It was better than recess.

When our classroom teacher announced “Community Sing” at two o’clock on Fridays, a cheer erupted from all of us. First of all, we knew that the week of school was almost over, but more importantly, we all looked forward to this ritual closing out of our week. We would line up in class and be reminded by Miss Lowe before we left the classroom to walk to the auditorium that we were representing our class and that good citizens were respectful and courteous. We were exiting our smaller world of the classroom and joining a greater community. There was an expected standard of behavior that defined who we were in this community and transgressions from this standard reflected not only ourselves but on our peers.

Mr. Johnson, the sixth grade teacher played the piano to accompany us. He always wore a gray tweed coat, a white shirt and a bow tie for the occasion. I remember that we all thought of Mr. Johnson as a stern taskmaster and somewhat as an enforcer on the playground, but on Friday afternoons, he was always smiling when the student body filed into the auditorium. When we entered, we were given freshly mimeographed sheets of the week’s play list. The words were inky blue and the smell of the words of the week prompted us to sniff at the papers. The first song was always the same, “America the Beautiful.” After that, songs that had been taught to us during regular class time made up the rest. Sometimes there was theme to the collection of songs. In social studies one week, we had been looking at different cultures and the songs were international. The “Feng Yang Song” from China, and “Dr. Ironbeard (Twiddle de de de boom boom) from Germany. Sure, these were not authentic international songs, but in the fifth grade, anything out of the ordinary was exotic. They stretched our imaginations.

Benson, Mark, Thaddeus and me would always sit together. We were a quartet of loud singers, totally unabashed in our vocalizations. Actually, we weren’t bad. On the playground, we regularly made up ditties while we played baseball. Lyrics like “Hambone, Hambone have you heard? Mama’s gonna buy me a mocking bird. If that mocking bird don’t sing, batter’s going to go and miss that swing” interspersed our baseball chatter. We’d pass the lines around between shortstop, third base, first and second, making it up as we went. It was an unstructured communication that kept us sharp on defense and rattled our opponents, or so we thought. When it came to your turn and you missed the rhyme, there was derision and a lot of “shoot man, where’s your head?” They always said I was pretty good for a Chinese kid.

The first strains of “America the Beautiful” set the tone for the community sing. It was church-like, very reverential. One might suspect that for a bunch of cut-up, trash-talking baseball rappers (in a time before “rap”), that this gathering would provide an opportunity to get a bit crazy, but that wasn’t the case in 1958. This session was a class, just like any other and we approached it as such. We were a hundred and fifty voices joined together in a loosely structured lesson plan. We were good citizens that came together for a brief moment in time to share our enthusiasm for being part of something bigger than ourselves.

The rest of the program consisted of songs such as the “Feng Yang Song” and “Dr. Ironbeard,” and then interspersed with everything from cowboy songs like “Down in the Valley” and “Red River Valley” to rousing renditions of “California Here I Come” and “Blow the Man Down.” Mr. Johnson, beaming behind his bowtie would become animated and his voice would boom over the hall as he exhorted us to let it all come out. Benson, Mark, Thaddeus and I would sway with the music and the infield for Mr. Harrison’s softball team couldn’t have been more in sync than a perfectly executed 6-4-3 double play.

The last song was always the clincher. Mr. Johnson would invite us to stand to finish the session with “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” At ten minutes to three, he would pause, then stand from his piano bench, and then like a great maestro and conductor, face the audience, and silently lift his palms upward as a sign for us to rise. He was met with applause and cheering as his fingers touched the piano again. Maybe it was because this gospel number was a standard that was sung at the Third Baptist Church on Sundays, but everyone knew the words. We didn’t need the mimeograph sheets for this one. Our hands were free to clap.

For the next ten minutes before the final school bell, the auditorium “rocked.” Mr. Johnson would always start with the refrain “He’s got the whole world in his hands” and then thereafter, each teacher would add his or her own verse. We would follow in firm affirmation with our voices, “amens” sprinkled in with some “yessirs” and “that’s right.” “He’s got the itty-bitty baby” might come from our Miss Low, the quiet 4th grade teacher. “He’s got all the hungry people” might come from Mrs. Robinson, the 6th grade teacher who always spoke with such passion about world affairs when she presented the Weekly Reader to us. Even Mrs. Carrie, the young hard-nosed bespectacled disciplinarian who would snatch you up by the ear with a twist if you were off task in her class, was fully engaged in this one. Unlike the precise and measured tones she used when she taught in class, her singing voice was unrestrained, flowing and filled with emotion. When she’d bust out with “He’s got you and me brother,” that would bring the house down. We boys laughed and put our arms over each others’ shoulders to reaffirm our brotherhood. The girls were something else again. You could see the dampness in their eyes. You could feel the stirring in their souls. You could not help but be caught up in their emotion. For elementary school kids with no formal training in music, there was an unbelievable harmony that comes not from study or practice, but from believing. As the clock almost reached three, Mr. Johnson would slow the pace, quiet the timbre, and move us into just humming the melody. The effect was as if to let us calm down and reflect on the words we had just sung. Then, we would repeat the refrain a capella. It was like a prayer.

For one hour, on every Friday during the school years of 1958 to 1960, I became a part of a larger world than my boundaries of Divisadero Boulevard, Geary Street, and Masonic and Fulton Avenues. It was during those Friday afternoons that I knew that I belonged to this world as much as it belonged to me. Perhaps it was a simpler time when teachers were still addressed as Mr. and Mrs., and baseball players played for the love of the game. It was a time when we represented more than ourselves, and, as good citizens were respectful and courteous.