Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Oct. 24, 2008

Cynicism meets the Dragon

I was in St. Paul at the end of last month for the annual convention of the National Newspaper Association. The opening ceremony for the convention every year commences with Old Glory being carried into the room by a color guard followed by the state flags borne by members of the NNA. I proudly carried the Kansas flag, placed it in its designated standard at the front of the room and took a seat at the table I had picked out before the session began.

I noticed in the program that Peter Yarrow of folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary fame was to be the keynote speaker. I have loved the group since my youth when I heard them sing "If I Had a Hammer," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Puff the Magic Dragon."

I was wondering what Yarrow would say as well as how the crowd - mostly age 40 and above - would react. Newspaper editors and journalism educators usually have a good sense of humor, but they can be pretty cynical, too.

The focus of Yarrow's remarks was Operation Respect, a non-profit organization designed to promote civility and conflict resolution in the curriculum of U.S. schools. He started the program in 2000 after he and his daughter heard the song, "Don't Laugh at Me," written by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin.

Yarrow said when he first listened to the song, he cried at its descriptions of bullying, stereotypes and intolerance. He thought how the message of the song could help in schools, camps and other organizations that serve children. Today, "Don't Laugh at Me" is sung in thousands of schools as part of Operation Respect.

Yarrow began singing softly.

I'm a little boy with glasses, the one they call a 'geek'
A little girl who never smiles cuz I got braces on my teeth
And I know how it feels to cry myself to sleep.
I'm that kid on every playground who's always chosen last
A single teenage mother tryin' to overcome my past
You don't have to be my friend but is it too much to ask

Then he asked us to sing the chorus:

Don't laugh at me; don't call me names
Don't get your pleasure from my pain
In God's eyes we're all the same
Some day we'll all have perfect wings
Don't laugh at me.

We all have observed disrespectful behavior - on TV reality shows, in political ads, at sports events, in acts of road rage, in intolerance for people who are different.

I could relate to it on a personal level. I was the skinny kid with glasses who was always one of the last kids chosen for playground games.

"Respect is the glue that holds relationships together," a publication of his organization states. "It is the foundation on which peace is built. It is a source of security and a protection against violence. Respect brings people together and increases understanding. It highlights what we have in common, and teaches us an appreciation of differences. . . Respect is like love: you have to give it to receive it."

Yarrow had us "hooked." He urged us to encourage others to be mindful of how important respect is.

At the end of his remarks, I blinked back tears - and noticed I wasn't the only one in the room to do so.

Yarrow concluded by asking people to come forward to sing "Puff the Magic Dragon" with him. About 20 of us joined him on stage, swaying with the music

So much for cynicism!

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