Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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Rosa Parks Day

December 8th, 2005 4:58 PM

Imagine All the People

From: "Danny Moynahan"
To: contributions@michaelmoore.com
Subject: my Rosa Parks moment
Date: 12/1/2005

Dear Michael Moore,

At this time last year I had an experience at work that would turn your stomach and make your blood boil. I was a music teacher at a private elementary school in Pacific Palisades, California. The principal wanted a non-religion-specific song for the holiday program, one that captured a sense of holiday spirit without mentioning specific Christian or Jewish themes and one the whole school could sing. I suggested John Lennon's "Imagine". She loved the idea. When I cautioned her about the h-word in line three she assured me that wouldn't be a problem and she green lighted the song. The song was sounding beautiful in our rehearsals. My students were really feeling connected to the song and its message. It was truly beautiful to hear them sing "Imagine".

Then, about a week before the holiday program, the principal came to me in a panic. One of the parents was very upset we were planning to use "Imagine" in the program as he felt the song was an affront to his Christian values. The principal informed me the words in the first verse "Imagine there's no heaven.no hell below us" would need to be changed.

I assured her that the line, when taken in context of the whole verse, was not anti-Christian at all. Rather, the line, verse, and in fact the whole song was quite consistent with the essence of Jesus Christ's teachings. She then informed me this parent's beef was not only about the "no heaven" line.

There was also the problem of the second verse: "imagine there's no countries.nothing to kill or die for". The parent made it very clear to the principal that he felt it was inappropriate to sing those words 'at a time of war.' The principal told me we would have to change the words. I told her you just can't do that to a John Lennon song, ESPECIALLY not that one. So she told me to find a different song and teach it to the whole school before the holiday program.

The 6th grade class was very disappointed to hear we would not be performing "Imagine." The four boys in the 6th grade had worked very hard to learn the song on piano, bass, guitar and drums. They loved the song and were excited to accompany the voices at the holiday program. They asked for a meeting with the principal to express their disappointment (woo!).

Meanwhile, the admissions director came to me with some adapted lyrics to "Imagine." For the sake of the 6th graders-they really wanted to play the song on their instruments-I consented to using the adapted lyrics but insisted we change the title to reflect that the song had been censored.

At first, this seemed like a compromise I could live with. But each day I struggled more and more with it. It bothered me that one extreme parent could so thoroughly and so easily impose his own sense of morality and his own sense of patriotism on an entire school community without so much as a peep out of the other 99.99%. (Incidentally, the other 99.99% never knew this was going on.)

A few days before the holiday program I decided I would not be a part of the mind control, the fear mongering, the jingoism and the Christian fundamentalism that was behind the censoring John Lennon. I told the principal in a respectful and carefully worded letter that I would not lead the school in singing the adapted song. That letter is attached below.

That's the story I wanted to share with you. In the end, the principal decided to use the original lyrics after all. It was the right choice but for all the wrong reasons, I felt. She took my letter very personally. We didn't talk much for the rest of the school year. I have no regrets. This was only one of a few incidents last year in which I was challenged to stand up to bullying, fear mongering, censorship, etc. As a songwriter, one way I process these kinds of experiences is through song. Feel free to check out a song I wrote about my experience. Go to www.myspace.com/dannymoynahan and click on "Poop and Boogers."

Keep up the good work! Danny Moynahan Los Angeles, CA

My letter to the principal of Seven Arrows Private Elementary School in Pacific Palisades, CA:

12/14/04

"We share a deep commitment to promoting positive change in the world through the power of education and the power of our minds." (from the Seven Arrows philosophy) AMEN!!!

Dear Margarita,

As you can imagine (no pun intended), I do not agree with the parents who feel that "Imagine" is not appropriate for the winter festival, nor do I support your decision to appease these parents based on their meeting with you.

"Imagine" is not an anti-Christian song. Rather, it affirms values and ideals that are at the core of Jesus Christ's teachings. These are values like peace and brotherhood. These are ideals that teach us "the kingdom of God is within you" (Jesus said that.Luke 17:21).

I don't want to change anybody's value systems, but how could we, in good conscience, change John Lennon's lyrics in the name of Christian values? Since when does one family dictate Christian values for the whole of Seven Arrows?

There are nationalistic values at risk as well. You explained that these parents feel this song is too controversial to sing at a time of war. They are entitled to these feelings. But do the rest of us at Seven Arrows have to agree with them? What about all the parents who feel "Imagine" IS appropriate for the winter festival? Isn't the majority entitled to their feelings?

Where are our values? As a staff, as an institution of learning, and as a community of families, where do OUR values lie?

"That our community and world are composed of many diverse cultures, and that peaceful coexistence depends upon mutual respect, are essential elements of what we believe and teach our students." What a beautiful and powerful philosophy. Let's show families that Seven Arrows can be empathetic to their views while, at the same time, remain committed to the Seven Arrows philosophy. And let's invite them to participate in that philosophy. It's just good parenting, and good parenting dictates that we don't give a child a candy bar just because he's throwing a tantrum.

I have been struggling with this since Friday when you first told me about the change. As you know, my first reaction was that we shouldn't change John Lennon's lyrics for anybody and that it would be better to omit the song from the program. Later, I assented to some changes to the original lyrics on the condition that we changed the title to reflect the adapted aspect of the song. I regret having assented to any changes.

I am reminded of George Orwell's "1984", in which Orwell cautions us against thought control, and I am greatly disturbed. The Thought Police scrutinize everyone for "any possible deviation from acceptable thought or action." The main character laments that pure love no longer exists. "No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred."

I have taught at Seven Arrows for five and a half years and I have always strived to do good work for you, even when my ideas, thoughts, and feelings don't align with yours. We may not agree on how to achieve a stated goal at times, but I have always deferred to your authority and done my best to satisfy your wishes. However, as a matter of conscience, and with all due respect, I cannot and will not sing the adapted lyrics to John Lennon's "Imagine." I will accompany the kids as they sing and I will support the 6th graders in their performance of the music, but it will pain me greatly, as I feel I will be betraying my own values as a compassionate and free thinking human being.

With love and respect,
Danny

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