Lighten up, Anne Arundel and Colgate

MICHAEL ELESKER

September 11, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Barry Louis Polisar is the Marx Brothers set to kids' music.

He's a one-man symphony of comic anarchy, a bulletin to every child who's ever worried about all that weird stuff inside, declaring that it's OK to air the stuff out and laugh it off.

What Groucho and Chico and Harpo did for adults -- upsetting authority figures' apple carts, slipping a series of verbal mickeys to the uptight, unstatus-ing the quo -- the gently absurd Polisar does for kids.

Except, of course, the kids in Anne Arundel County.

And the kids at Colgate Elementary School in Dundalk.

In Anne Arundel County, 15 years after Polisar began performing his satirical folk songs for school kids, the bluenoses got together last week and banned him from any more appearances in public schools.

At Colgate Elementary, somebody read the newspaper stories about Anne Arundel County's ban and figured Polisar was too controversial and therefore canceled his scheduled appearance there later this fall.

"Unsuitable for use as instructional material," declared Anne Arundel County schools' music coordinator, Bruce Horner.

"Inappropriate instructional material," a county education committee echoed in dark and serious chorus.

Uh, could we perhaps define "instructional material?"

If you mean, like, will Polisar's "My Brother Thinks He's a Banana" teach kids about U.S. agricultural policies, then the answer is no.

If you mean, will Polisar's "My Mommy Drives a Dump Truck" teach kids about labor trends in the post-feminist era, then the answer is still no.

If you mean, will Polisar's "I Got A Teacher, She's So Mean" teach kids about the underlying problems of American education, then the answer is still no.

But listen to a few lyrics, just the same:

I got a teacher, she's so mean

She never laughs, she always screams.

She says, "Pay attention and do what I said."

But if you ask me, she's crazy in the head.

To elementary school kids -- particularly those with mean and crazy teachers, and particularly kids who are intimidated by those teachers -- such lyrics are welcome as a hug on a rainy afternoon.

They say: I'm not alone. There are others who feel the way I do.

But Polisar's songs do more than give safety valve release to kids' anxieties. They make the intimidating education process user-friendly. At a time when vast numbers of our kids see school as endless drudgery bearing no connection to the world outside, Polisar's songs say otherwise.

They say: Isn't the English language fun? Look what we can do with it. We can write funny stuff to make people laugh. We can poke fun at our teachers, and nobody has to get upset. We can talk about stuff that's in our own heads, and not merely stuff from somebody else's. We can feel a little bit liberated.

To an elementary school kid, is there anything more basic than this:

Don't put your finger up your nose

'Cause your nose knows it's not

the place it goes.

You can sniffle

You can sneeze

But I'm asking you please

Don't put your finger

up your nose...

It gets tougher all the time to wrap kids in the blanket of academics. There's too much glittery stuff out there that keeps tugging them away: Nintendo and MTV and Saturday morning cartoons and on and on, ad nauseum.

Bringing Polisar into schools -- and they've been doing it all around the country for 15 years without anybody having this kind of censorious conniption -- is a stroke of genius. It says to the kids, We have fun in here, too. We have genuine laughter, and isn't laughter nice when you're sharing it with friends?

Anybody who's ever taken kids to a Polisar performance is always struck by the joy in the room. The kids fill the place with laughter and shouts of recognition, and their parents beam at the happiness on their kids' faces.

It's both sides of the generation gap sharing unspoken secrets that turn into a joke on everybody:

Late at night when Mommy and

Daddy have gone out

Me and my brother get to scream

and jump and shout.

'Cause the house is dark and quiet

and we're left all alone

With another teen-age baby sitter,

talking on the phone.

We tip-toe on our tip-toes and we

listen to her laugh

While the water is running so she

thinks we're in the bath

She tells her friend she's hungry so

we know just how to tease her

We go and get the kitty cat and hide

it in the freezer.

Lighten up, Anne Arundel County! Take it easy, Colgate Elementary!

Polisar's not out to hurt your kids. He's embracing them on your behalf. Instead of cutting him off from the kids, he should be a wonderful takeoff point, a place to tell children about language and shared anxieties and music and a thing called a sense of humor.

Which, while we're on the subject, is something school officials could learn a few things about, too.

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