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The Kind of thing Yecke wants to crush under the heel of Ideology

History lesson in song emphasizes life lessons
Maria Elena Baca, Star Tribune
May 15, 2004

At Longfellow Humanities Magnet School's 120th anniversary celebration today, students will showcase history lessons they didn't learn in a textbook.

The elementary students' voices that swell in the school won't be a litany of names and dates, but a collection of life lessons and stories.

With help from Minneapolis folk singer Larry Long, students interviewed elders from their community, then chose the best phrases and wove them into song. Minneapolis gospel singer and conductor J. D. Steele helped them to polish their performances.

Long and Steele have known each other for more than 20 years, and the longtime friends' classroom presence couldn't be more different or more complementary.

Long sat cross-legged on the floor, cradling his guitar on his lap. He listened intently, leaning forward to look into students' eyes, telling them how happy their voices have made him.
Larry Long works with Longfellow students.
Richard Sennott
Star Tribune

Leading students in "Something for Me, Something for You," a song about mutual respect that Long and Steele co-wrote, Steele danced around the room, waving to students to join him on their feet. He guided their voices and movement with extravagant gestures and a countenance of pure jubilation.

The result of their collaboration with students is a moving collection of earthy wisdom and wit, practical advice such as staying in school, eating lots of vegetables and helping the poor.
J. D. Steele greets students at Longfellow.
Richard Sennott
Star Tribune

"Nobody is better

Than anyone else

Because of the color of skin

Two feet, two arms,

One mouth, two eyes,

To talk, to walk, to sing."

Suzy Lovestrand's class interviewed Janebelle Taylor, 83, a St. Paul matriarch and social worker who grew up as the only black girl in an all-white neighborhood.

Taylor told the third-graders that she was taught that skin color makes no difference in people, a lesson she's shared since she was their age.

"It's not a difference if you have different shades of skin," remembered Myroslava Shevchenko, 8. "You can still be friends."

"I was born on the Red Lake Reservation.

I'm a member of the Anishinabe Nation.

We grew up in the woods.

Life was hard, but it was good ...

I'm proud of who I am:

Anishinabe Indian."

Elsie Fairbanks, 65, a nutritionist, has lived in the Twin Cities for more than 30 years, and now works at a St. Paul food shelf. Jane Harstad's third-graders said Fairbanks' stories of living in the wilderness taught them not to take for granted the conveniences of modern life. Hearing that Fairbanks' parents downplayed Anishinabe culture to keep their children out of boarding school, and how precious Fairbanks now holds that culture, taught them to value and share their own cultures.

"With my family

We're now living

In the city of St. Paul,

Far away

From my ancestors.

Each day I hear them call."

Youa Teng Xiong, 59, was a freedom fighter in the Lao Royal Army, fighting alongside Gen. Vang Pao. He lost six brothers and many friends to the war. In 1979, he carried his children across the Mekong River to safety in Thailand. He joined his sons in St. Paul in 1984. Xiong's grandson, Fue, 9, is a student at Longfellow.

A group of fourth-graders interviewed Xiong, with translation help from Fue, and from their teacher, Keng Young.

"He said the reason he was so lucky was that he was so loyal and honest," said Orlando Ortiz, 10.

"He risked his life to save a lot of people and to save his family," said Jojamba Matthews, 9. "In his culture, when he's close to the ancestors, when he prays to them they can help him out, but when he's far away, it's hard."

Students said they hope that, despite the sadness and loss in his life, Xiong will be uplifted by their song.

"He'll be happy that we understand that he's sad that his ancestors died and he misses them," said Tyrone Tauzell, 11.

"We stand on the shoulders

Of those who came before,

Those who give their life

To help the poor."

Former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer, 68, said he didn't know what he would tell Carol Hannum's third-graders. "I saw a globe, and it struck me that the first thing to tell the kids was where my ancestors came from because it was such a faraway part of the world," he said.

From Latimer's stories about his Lebanese mother and his English father, students took a lesson about working to fulfill a dream.

"He gave advice to stay in school and be respectful so people will treat you the way you want to be treated," said Kiara Foxen, 10. "He told us to never give up on dreaming of what you want to be, because he never did."

From the whole process, students said they learned the power of their own creativity. Many said it was easier and more fun to sing these songs than it was to sing other songwriters' music.

"It was fun because I liked doing the motions and making up the words," said Grace Hersey, 9. "It was fun looking at the script and picking out the words to put in the song."

And the fun fits in well with the school's mission.

"We're part of a story that began before any of us was alive, and we expect that will continue," said principal Howard Wilson. "So, when we celebrate the story of Longfellow, it's important to honor those who have gone before."

Maria Elena Baca is at mbaca@startribune.com.