Goin' Off the Rails: What I Learned at the Elementary School Talent Show

Last night I attended my seventh “Variety Show” at my sons’ public elementary school. This being year seven, I walked into the school’s Multi-Purpose Room with certain expectations:

1) Someone would dance to YMCA, with no understanding of the song’s queer subtext (which is subtext only to school-age children and the blindly heterosexist).

2) Some cherub-faced child would play an achingly poor rendition of the Star Spangled Banner on a rented trumpet.

3) I would cry my eyes out, especially when the graduating fifth-graders took their final bow, because I’ve been watching them grow up alongside my children all these years, and because it’s all just so painfully sincere, these kids on stage, reaching to be something so much bigger than what they are.

4) Taylor Swift. Definitely Taylor Swift.

Turns out only one of my predictions held true. No, it was not Ms. Swift. Apparently Miley Cyrus has usurped Taylor’s talent show throne. It was this: I cried my eyes out. In fact, twelve hours later, recalling the feeling that swelled in me as I watched the show — pride, empowerment, inspiration — here come the tears again.

For this I blame — and thank — the 45th president of the United States.

This year’s line-up included three performances of songs from Hamilton, five song and dance numbers expressing themes about women’s self-actualization, three acts supporting an anti-bullying agenda, a handful of political jokes, and a spare, heart-wrenching, a capella rendition of Ozzy Ozbourne’s “Crazy Train” that laid the lyrics bare for all to hear:

Crazy, but that’s how it goes

Millions of people living as foes

Maybe it’s not too late

To learn how to love, and forget how to hate

Mental wounds not healing

Life’s a bitter shame

I’m goin’ off the rails on a crazy train

I’m goin’ off the rails on a crazy train

I’ve listened to preachers,

I’ve listened to fools

I’ve watched all the dropouts

Who make their own rules

One person conditioned to rule and control

The media sells it and you live the role . . .

Aging rockers in the audience who expected to thrash their hair and throw their horn hands in the air instead met a hard reality: in this country led by a maniacal buffoon, we are riding off the rails, and it hurts like hell.

Damn. I want to listen to that song again.

But I met something else last night, too: Yes, we’re stuck on the crazy train, and the ride’s becoming doubtlessly and increasingly more dangerous every day, but at least we’re not alone.

I heard it when audience cheered at the elocution of these words from Hamilton, “You want a revolution? I want a revelation. So listen to my declaration: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’ And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!”

When the boy wearing the rainbow wig delivered this joke: “What’s the difference between a smart politician and a unicorn? Nothing! They’re both fictional characters!” an eruption of thunderous applause momentarily stopped the show.

Over and over again, I watched the kids deliver the messages we audience members all wanted — no, needed — to hear, and I felt the comradery in the crowd’s response.

By the time the night’s second rendition of Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” rolled around, the transformation was clear — this party, necessarily, has become a revolution.

I know. I know. It’s just a flippin’ talent show. It’s just kids mimicking the stars they want to be someday. But the choices they made this year were different than any other. Even here, in a predominantly white and middle- to upper-middle-class public elementary school, a revolution is stirring in the younger generation, fed by their beliefs in inclusion, fairness, kindness, and equality (and, I’m sure, a healthy dose of their parents’ disgust with the state of our world).

This year, these kids had something to say, and receiving the power of their messages was nothing short of inspiring.

That’s what art does. It connects us. It gives rise and expression to our personal and collective frustrations, pains, wisdoms, visions, hopes, and dreams, even when — especially when — we’re goin’ off the rails on a crazy train.

In other words, no matter what comes of our trumped-up world, makers, keep making. Please. Keep speaking, keep singing, keep dancing, keep painting, keep writing. Keep expressing your most dearly held values, keep mining your most deeply felt beliefs, keep asking your most troubling questions, and keep sharing what you learn.

Now more than ever, we need you.

This post first appeared on Write Where You Are

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