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America the Beautiful? Absolutely, as Sung by Art Teacher and Students

Editor’s note: This is a personal reflection from Charles Honey, who covers Northview Public Schools for School News Network. 

Are you sick of the daily news showing us what a cafeteria food-fight our government has become, and how formerly friendly citizens have turned into Hatfields and McCoys? Are you heartsick over this week’s shooting of U.S. congressmen playing baseball?

Me too. So read on.

The day after our bitterly contested presidential election, Darius Baldwin, a student teacher in the Northview High School art program, found himself motivated to do something. He wanted to somehow address the tension he felt coming from Michigan voters so deeply divided between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

“I was really hoping more than anything just to send a message that would help reunite us afterwards, and get everybody back on the same page moving forward,” said Baldwin, a Kendall College of Art and Design graduate. “I didn’t want to add to the negativity on either side, so just chose to do something in a positive light.”

Being a musician, he put that positivity to work in a song – with the help of Northview High’s talented art and music students.

Music and Art Work Together

His art students had already embarked on a project drawing pictures of people who stood for social justice and equality. It seemed to Baldwin he could combine those images with song to make a worthy artistic statement.

In just a few hours, playing all the instruments, Baldwin knocked out a knockout version of “America the Beautiful,” subbing in uplifting lyrics to suit the occasion. Culling recordings of Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, along with quotes from the Bible, the Beatles and Malcolm X, he put together an upbeat rendition that joyfully celebrates our unity within diversity.

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” he sings with a Bobby McFerrin-ish vibe. “Love is all we need.”

In a smooth and snappy video shot by Northview junior David Tay, with equipment and guidance provided by alumnus Steve Harryman, art students display signs bearing some of those quotes, along with drawings of cultural icons like Bob Marley and Muhammad Ali.

Northview Chorale students get into the act too, providing lush background vocals and swaying happily. Baldwin saluted the students and their teachers, choir director Judy Pellerito and art instructors Tricia Erickson and Tanya Lockwood, for putting such pretty icing on the cake.

“They worked really hard to do it,” said Baldwin, now an art teacher at Gwynn Park High School in Maryland. “The whole staff was really supportive of it. It was really a group effort to get it to be what it was.”

The video is an uplifting tribute to Northview’s caring culture, said high school Principal Mark Thomas.

“His goal was to find a way to unite as opposed to divide while also offering a ‘teachable moment’ to our students, staff and stakeholders concerning the culture we should all desire and promote in our school, community and country.”

Message Still Resonates

While sorting through the loose ends of our school-year coverage, I found the video to have just as much resonance half a year later – perhaps more so, given all the political drama that has transpired since the election. Baldwin said its message “absolutely” applies today.

“It’s always something to keep in mind,” he told me. “We’re all human at the end of the day.” His hope for viewers to take away? “Just being able to be proud of our country, and for us all to enjoy it.”

I don’t know about you, but to hear this beautiful song refashioned for this ugly political moment, with beautiful young people singing, holding hands to hearts and swaying to the beat, gives me goosebumps.

It also gives me hope, as students so often do as I write about the daily miracles of learning that happen in our public schools.

To hear students singing “America, America, God shed his grace on thee” may even bring you to tears. It sure does for me.

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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