Hey, Arundel, Loosen up a bit!

Andrew Reiner

September 21, 1990|By Andrew Reiner

ANYONE who values the First Amendment should be outraged.

School officials in Anne Arundel County earlier this month banned singer-song writer Barry Louis Polisar and all his works -- nine records, six books and two videos. And in a sad example of me-tooism, Colgate Elementary School in Dundalk canceled a November concert by Polisar after officials read in the newspapers about what had happened in nearby Arundel.

Polisar's crime? Fifteen years after he began performing for school kids, county educators have determined that he is a poor "role model," that his material might arouse the wrong kinds of feelings in children.

Of course, Anne Arundel officials and those at Colgate (which is in Baltimore County) aren't obligated to stock Polisar's books on their library shelves. No law can force them to allow him into their sacred halls. The question is this: What has this seemingly benign Pied Piper of pre-teens done to justify being banned in all 70 elementary schools of a county school system?

I can't help but wonder if officials nixed Polisar out of fear and ignorance. One of them worried: "If children have problems with parents or with siblings, [Polisar's songs] could aggravate those problems."

That bureaucrat must have had a fit, then, over the Polisar classic, "I Got A Teacher, She's So Mean." In this song a young student agonizes over his instructor's lack of humor and heavy laying on of criticism. Perhaps this shows that children question authority figures -- hardly a felony. This same official must have convulsed upon hearing the Polisar ditty about a boy who relishes the thought of dumping his little sister into the sea or of tying her to a tree in the woods.

Yet both of these songs merely arouse feelings that are universal among children and adults alike. We've all had mean teachers or pain-in-the-neck siblings whom we've felt like putting out of their misery. Few of us actually act on those feelings. Surely even this timid school official can remember having similar human thoughts during his childhood.

Another school executive said the 35-year-old balladeer isn't a "good role model for kids." This administrator and members of the committee who voted Polisar out must have cringed, then, at the implications of phrases like "standing on the sofa with carrots up our noses."

How can such harmless lyrics lead a gaggle of learned people to fear that children act physically on such nonsense? How many children have been caught masterminding classroom mutinies or with a carrots bulging from their nostrils? How many have been caught trying to kill a sibling after listening to one of Polisar's songs? Anne Arundel and Colgate authorities have issued a warning that should be heeded by anyone who values personal freedoms. The warning is that those who exhibit unique, unorthodox forms of expression or who dare to question authority risk censorship.

Even more frightening, another Arundel official explained that schools simply "are not an open arena." This should scare the stuffing out of parents whose children attend an Anne Arundel County elementary school.

Isn't school a place where we're taught to broaden our perspectives? Are schools no longer our children's arena of knowledge and mind-opening challenges? When I attended elementary school, we were taught that there were two sides to every question and that both should be considered carefully before decisions are made. To do otherwise, we learned, is to skirt the real issue, is to make decisions out of ignorance and fear.

Probably the most distorted comment, however, came from Bruce Horner, the Arundel music coordinator, who said Polisar's work is unsuitable for "instructional use."

Granted, Polisar the father of twins, doesn't teach children what the chief export of Africa is or about shortcuts in multiplication. But Polisar does something through his wacky tunes that is equally imperative in the pursuit of education: He inspires children to be creative and, in doing this, to be resourceful.

Polisar's work says to young listeners that it's OK to be afraid, even to laugh at nightmarish problems. He is like a gold star on a spelling quiz, reassuring children that their occasional hatred of a sibling or teacher or friend is natural. Perhaps most important, Polisar arms his audience with the healthiest, most effective weapon in the fight against frustration -- humor. Sure, his lyrics are ridiculous to adults. But they're not meant for adults, and that's why kids love them. Polisar's words are rich in the stuff that makes kids howl with delight and at the same time teaches them to deal with their anxieties creatively and resourcefully -- through song.

School officials in Anne Arundel and at Colgate need to see the other side of this Polisar issue. Maybe they would learn something if they were forced to jump on a sofa with their choice of vegetables shoved in their noses. Then they could see Barry Louis Polisar's music for what it is: an educational, reinforcing outlet and some good, zany fun.

Andrew Reiner writes from Baltimore.

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