I met Pete Seeger once in my life, a chance meeting, a few seconds. I was sitting in the central lobby of Grand Central Station in New York City late one night.I had been to meeting in the city and was heading back out to stay with family. It was a desolate space with echoes dancing off the walls. It is even today hard for me to imagine that this usually bustling place could be so empty.
In the distance I saw an old scraggly looking man carrying a battered guitar case plastered with stickers of all kinds. He was just buying a ticket home. At first glance, from a distance, I thought him perhaps homeless carrying that old case held together by stickers. But then I recognized that familiar iconic profile. Generally shy, I rarely approach people directly, but I could not help myself so I got up and walked over to him and mumbled the only words that I thought he might want to hear, “My children love your music.” shook hands and walked away. I don’t remember him saying anything and perhaps he just smile. We went off in different isolated directions to catch our trains.
Other than that most fortunate and for me among the most memorable events of my life, I was connected to Pete through my children who were lucky enough to attend a wonderful summer camp, Killooleet, in Vermont run by Pete’s brother John and his wife Ellie and now by their daughter Kate and her husband Dean. The camp embodied the same community values Pete sang about.
His songs, so simple and so elegant are musical patterns we share, know, and love for they remind us of a basic tenet of our human community — essential equality. It is a bedrock principle of our educational system, and yet it is so rarely fulfilled. We do not treat our schools equitably, we do not treat our students equitably, and we only pretend to treat our teachers equitably.
But today, I choose not to focus on these social injustices that Pete so eloquently spoke and sang about, but rather speak to the injustice of requiring all of our learners to achieve high levels of the same “basic” skills. We have made the printed word and the textbook math problem, literacy and computation, the tickets to educational success for every child. We have forgotten the arts, left out creativity, and rarely given our children the chance to practice the skills they may care about. So as I remember Pete, I picture that battered, papered old guitar case, and I wonder how we can enable every one of our children to enjoy a just education that gives them such a container of their own.