SUMMIT, NJ - Most of those who filled the gym at Washington School on Tuesday morning weren’t alive when Peter Yarrow was at the height of his career. Most of them never saw him perform with the folk trio of Peter, Paul and Mary. Most of them weren’t even sure what a record is.
But they did know Puff. Everybody knows Puff, that magic dragon who lived by the sea. And as Yarrow wove modern, humorous touches into his classic song – little Jackie Paper’s “other toys” now included an iPad – the children laughed and sang along.
But when Yarrow asked them why Puff “ceased his fearless roar” and his head was “bent in sorrow,” they knew. Puff had lost his friend. Puff was lonely. They understood. Years and generations dissolved as Yarrow’s story of the friendless dragon struck a chord, and interactive assembly gave way to a discussion about bullying.
The assembly was divided into two groups, with younger students at the first assembly, and the older ones later.
Yarrow talked with the children about the civil rights movement of the 1960s, about their fight against injustice and inequality. The students listened enthusiastically and added their own comments about what they’d learned in school, like Rosa Parks refusal to give up her seat on the bus, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and segregation of black students from whites. It was history, schoolwork, memorized facts, until Yarrow asked everyone with brown eyes to raise their hands, then said those with brown eyes would not be allowed to sing anymore. This announcement was met with shouts of protest as Yarrow said simply, “Sorry, you don’t look like we do. You can’t sing with us.” He asked the girls to stand up if they’d ever been picked on just because they were born a girl. Across the sea of faces, girl after girl got to her feet.
The kids got the message. When Yarrow told them that their own struggles to be accepted among the other students and not bullied are not that different from the civil rights people were fighting for in the 1960s, they got the message even more. They talked about times they’ve felt alone, times they’ve been bullied or seen others bullied.
When Yarrow sang “Don’t Laugh at Me,” a 1998 song by Mark Wills, the room was quiet. The lyrics, about people being teased, harassed or ignored because they’re different, resonated with the students.
One seven-year-old boy said he’d been bullied just that morning. Yarrow called him up to the stage, along with a few other students, and they role played ways to help those who have been bullied. He explained that too often, people don’t step in when they see someone else being bullied because they don’t know what to do or are afraid of being bullied themselves. Others may join in, even if they don’t know the victim. Under Yarrow’s gentle instruction, the children put their hands on each other’s shoulders, looked each other in the eye, and said things like “I’m sorry those kids are being so mean. Do you want to come and play with us?”
Even teachers got in on the discussion when two of them came up to the stage and told about times they had been bullied as children. This time, little hands rested on adult shoulders as the children reassured their teachers – and the still-painful memories – that they’re not alone.
One of the most sobering, and unifying, moments came when Yarrow asked the students how many of them have been bullied, or even afraid to answer a question in class for fear of being teased for getting it wrong. Every hand went up.
“Look around you,” he said. “Promise me you will make your school an environment where it’s not acceptable to call each other names and put each other down. It’s up to you, kids.”
The assembly ended with a rousing rendition of “This Land is Your Land.” The younger students sang with their arms twined around each other. The older group swayed their arms, fingers held in the symbol for peace.
“When we sing together, something magical happens,” Yarrow said. “Instead of feeling alone, we feel close to each other. Kids don’t sing together as much as they did when we were young, and that’s sad. It creates a feeling of community.”
Yarrow continued his thoughts later, during a private luncheon held at the Summit home of his longtime friend, Esther Harper and her husband, Peter. He talked with invited guests about the “Don’t Laugh at Me” program he’s involved with as part of Operation Respect. The program, which includes music and curriculum, is available to schools at no charge. He talked about the importance of stopping bullying at a young age, before it escalates, before children who bully become adults who bully.
It’s a subject near and dear to his heart, as his friends the Harpers have had to deal with bias. His longtime friendship with Esther is the reason Yarrow made the trip to Washington School to share his message of peace, love and respect.
Other luncheon guests included Summit Mayor Ellen Dickson; former Mayor Janet Whitman; Rabbi Avi Friedman, head of the Interfaith Council; Chuck Rush, Minister of Christ Chuch; four other members of the Interfaith Council; Summit Police Chief Bob Weck; Washington School Principal Dr. Lauren Banker and other school district officials; Marilyn Pfaltz, chair of the Newark Concervancy; Karen Olsen, CEO of Family Promise; Michael Miller, former chairman of Toys R Us and trustee of Operation Respect; and Henry Stifel, longtime friend of the Harpers and founder of the Christoper Reeve Foundation.
“I love Summit,” Esther said. “I moved back here to be with my family and raise my kids here. It’s a wonderful town, which is why it was so important to me to have Peter here to share the vision and message of Operation Respect.”
Harper said Yarrow’s immediate offer to come to Summit is just how he is.
“He calls himself my Puff Dragon Daddy,” Esther told The Alternative Press later about the legendary folk singer, who also sang at her wedding. “I sent him a two-line email telling him we’d had a bias incident, and he said he was coming out here. He’s always been there for me and my family. He’s always been there for the world. He’s one of the great peacemakers.”