I could never be an elementary school teacher. I’m already grieving the end of Leah’s fourth grade class yet I barely know most of the kids and wasn’t even that hot on the year. But like every other grouping in my life, I get extremely attached to the unique configurations of individuals that will never be gathered together again, and I start mourning the loss at the first glimmer of that end-of-tunnel light. I’m sure if I were an actor I’d be sobbing on the last day of every film shoot and grabbing at the ankles of my co-stars.
Kids in fourth grade are at an amazing age. It is a time of intense transition from pure childhood to the joys and assaults of puberty and increased hormone levels. I was glad to go to school yesterday to witness one of Leah’s final classroom projects, a Living Portraits Gallery in which each student chose a famous person to portray and then designed a frame on foam core to stand behind during the presentation. I wish the choices of subjects had been more open-ended but I can understand that Leah's teacher wanted to avoid having the children portray a slew of unnoteworthy pop culture droids like Paris Hilton or Ryan Seacrest.
The fourth graders had an "approved list" of people to choose from, based largely on the collection of biographies in the school library. Hardly the most all-inclusive list but I guess it could’ve been worse. Leah was pressured into being Louis Pasteur since she’s the only half-French fourth grader and she did a great job. I haven’t learned that much about Pasteur since I saw Paul Muni’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1935 biopic. Did you know that in Pasteur’s time over 20,000 Parisian women died in childbirth each year simply because doctors didn’t know enough to wash their hands or sterilize their equipment? Muni himself should have been on the list for Living Portraits. Born Meshilem Weisenfreund in Austria, he became a huge star on the Yiddish stage in New York beginning in 1907 and didn’t even play a role in English until 1926. Muni was the nephew of actor and Yiddish theatre impresario Boris Thomashefsky and is a cousin to classical conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.
Far from including Paul Muni, I was surprised to note that there wasn’t a single Jew on hand in the Living Portraits Gallery. However, I did spot at least three known anti-Semites! I audibly gasped when I saw the boy from the most observant Jewish family in the class portraying Henry Ford. His mother and I are always the ones who come to school to lead the class Hanukkah celebration and yet here was this nice Jewish boy extolling the virtues of a man who, like Hitler, believed that the “International Jew” was the source of all the world’s problems. In his vile newspaper, “The Dearborn Independent,” Ford blamed the Jews for everything from the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I to bootlegged liquor and cheap movies. He also accused the Jews of conspiring to enslave Christianity and destroy the “Anglo-Saxon” way of life. Nice. I’m not saying that Henry Ford’s accomplishments shouldn’t be studied by fourth graders, I just think they should get the full picture. I even talked to Leah’s teacher about it but she just looked at me blankly and mentioned her worries about the salacious tidbits that were present in the school biographies of both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (I was disappointed that the girl playing Eleanor didn’t mention the First Lady’s special friendship with Lorena Hickok). At least the feisty girl who played Calamity Jane cheerfully recounted the less savory details of the bawdy woman’s life. In addition to a poster showing Doris Day as Calamity Jane on her frame, she included a photo of a Jack Daniels bottle to represent Calamity’s flagrant alcoholism.
I guess that’s another reason why it’s a good thing I’m not an elementary school teacher. I would have organized my students’ Living Portraits Gallery into categories such as Virulent Anti-Semites of the 20th Century, Famous Lesbians and the Women Who Love Them, and Favorite Anarchists and Rabble Rousers. Leah was one of three girls in her class who portrayed men but you gotta love the lone boy who decided to be not just a woman, but no less than Susan B. Anthony! He wore a wig that made him look more like Chita Rivera than the champion of women’s suffrage, but he gave a rousing presentation on Anthony’s radical life. His mother’s skirt and high heels rounded out his costume along with a blue jean jacket that I assume represented Susan B. Anthony’s butchier side. I haven’t seen such guts in a kid since our classmate Lee Goldberg performed “People” in the 8th grade talent show in full Barbra Streisand wig and false eyelashes!
My admiration for fourth graders was cemented when Leah and I went to see an extraordinary documentary last night called “Mad Hot Ballroom.” This inspiring movie tells the story of three inner city public schools in New York City that are participating in a ballroom dancing program that eventually leads to a citywide competition. Leah and I immediately fell in love with the kids at Washington Heights’ P.S. 115. The school is largely made up of the children of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and 97% of the families live below the poverty line. Watching dancing coach Yomaira Reynoso work with these kids and seeing the transformation of so many of the children in the film from potential drop-outs to dedicated students and dance lovers, I wanted to rip Leah out of her privileged private school and jump on the next plane for Manhattan. I wonder who these kids would have chosen for their Living Portrait subjects! If you have ever doubted the vital, life-changing importance of maintaining arts programs in our nation’s public schools, RUN, RUN, RUN to see this film!