When we graduated sixth grade, in the skirts and ties we had laboriously sewn—mine was apple-green gingham—with the corsages and boutonnieres our teachers had made to match, I was the first to receive my diploma. This was not a particular distinction; it was just because I was the shortest person in the entire grade. And at the end of the ceremony, we sang “The Garden Song,” aka “Inch by Inch, Row by Row,” and I remember being very conscious that this was the last time we would ever sing it, and that now everything would be different. And not just because we were moving to the Upper School Campus a few hundred yards away. Because we would not be allowed to be kids in the same way ever again. I remember blinking back tears.
All week, I have wanted to write about Pete Seeger, but every time I sit down to do so I have been overcome with emotion and affection for my progressive elementary school with its earnest devotion to the tenets of secular humanism and folk music, and have wanted to write hundreds of pages. I want to write about City and Country and the Weed Wallow and the holiday assembly and the apple assembly. And Mary and Sally and Joyce and Colleen and and Mrs. English and Betty (teachers) and Mr. Schwartz (the principal) and Mr. Ellis (the custodian).
In fifth grade, in June, we donned costumes and did sword dances and played recorders and invited our parents to the medieval feast. At the third grade cookout we wore the Native American garb we had sewn and beaded and dyed with onionskins and cooked fish and oysters in a fire behind the upper-school library. Then, there was the endless work on those skirts. I also know that none of this would mean anything to anyone who didn’t attend my school, and that we all have our own early memories, tender as a bruise, and that unless one is Proust, it really doesn’t much matter.
But I also can’t write about his death without recalling those years, because Pete Seeger was so beloved at my school. His older brother, John, was principal from 1960 to 1976, but Pete continued his involvement for many years after, playing at assemblies and hosting day campers upriver in the summer. And his songs featured prominently in our collective childhood sound track: not an assembly went by that we didn’t sing “This Land Is Your Land,” “Soma el Barco,” “Abiyoyo,” and, of course, “The Garden Song.”
When I was home, I found that gingham skirt, impossibly tiny, in a box in the basement. I never wore it after that day, and after we started middle school, I would learn to be embarrassed about my tiny size and my piping voice and the way I dressed and a hundred things I had never thought about before. We had learned a lot about social justice and ethics and how to treat one another in elementary school. But we had never learned self-consciousness; I wonder if maybe we should have, a little more. I imagine nowadays, kids probably do.
As one alumna wrote on the spontaneous memorial page that sprang up on the school’s Web site, “Thank you, Pete Seeger, and all those that passionately walked with and sang with you. I do indeed have a hammer, and I have a bell. I have a song to sing all over this land! It’s the hammer of justice. It’s the bell of freedom. It’s the song about love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land!”
Then again, there is a lot to be said for unself-consciousness.