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More Mr. Nice Guy 

The Day Peter Yarrow Socked it to the PTA

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By Jeffrey Felshman

One Saturday night not too long ago, my cousin Aaron told me a long, rambling story about his recent trip to Brooklyn. There he found himself standing outside a familiar bar, the same place where a few years earlier he'd savaged the folksinger Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul & Mary.

What did Aaron have against Peter Yarrow?

Well, he had met the guy, and he was just so damn nice. It's nice to be nice, but this guy was too nice. A dippy hippie, he said, a dulcet-toned doofus. As he ranted in the bar that evening, he'd noticed, standing behind him, Yarrow's daughter. She had heard every word.

On the last Sunday in June, I went to the Hyatt Regency on Wacker for the 104th annual convention of the national PTA. At the podium of the Grand Ballroom stood Peter Yarrow, who announced he would perform a song. It was called "Don't Laugh at Me."

The 1,400 delegates were ready for a sing-along, having spent much of the preceding day in heated debate over whether to increase dues. Local PTAs currently pay $1 per member annually to the national organization, and the board had recommended raising this amount to $2. At the end of the session, they had voted the increase down.

Now here was Yarrow, holding his guitar, dressed in a gray sports coat, T-shirt, and black slacks. He was one of only a few men in the room. He beamed as cameras clicked and flashed, and he smiled gently at a group of women who rushed to the front to get a closer look.

This was his crowd, Yarrow said. He was a PTA member; his mother was a teacher; his children had attended P.S. 6 in New York. He said he thought that "Don't Laugh at Me" could become an anthem for the times, like "Blowin' in the Wind" and "If I Had a Hammer" had been almost 40 years ago. He launched into a different song about all people being one.

Rhythmic hand clapping followed but quickly died. Perhaps the delegates were confused. Yarrow stumbled, invoking the names of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, the civil rights workers killed in Mississippi in 1964. He sang "Music Speaks Louder Than Words," encouraging the audience to join in. A chorus of women in casual suits or floral print dresses responded enthusiastically.

But the song everyone really wanted to hear was "Puff, the Magic Dragon." When the time arrived, Yarrow explained that as one of the song's writers he was here to tell everyone: "Puff is not about getting high. It's about the loss of innocence. Puff's daddy says Puff is clean as a whistle!" Afterward the song received a standing ovation, as many in the audience dabbed tissues at their eyes.

Introducing "Don't Laugh at Me," Yarrow said, "Peter, Paul & Mary sang this song for a group of principals at a principals' conference and they loved it. They wanted it." So Peter, Paul & Mary made a video that will be available to thousands of schools nationwide starting in the fall.

"It's part of a whole program of conflict resolution," Yarrow said, denouncing Columbine and cruelty and vulgarity in the media. A woman seated behind me started to cry. Then Yarrow sang "Don't Laugh at Me."

I'm a little boy with glasses

The one they call a geek

A little girl who never smiles

'Cause I have braces on my teeth

And I know how it feels to cry myself

to sleep ...

Between the rows of folding chairs, women passed Kleenex like notes in class. A sea of little white flags.

I'm fat, I'm thin, I'm short, I'm tall

I'm deaf, I'm blind, hey, aren't we all.

Don't laugh at me

Don't call me names

Don't get your pleasure from my pain

In God's eyes we're all the same

Someday we'll have perfect wings

Don't laugh at me

The video--which interspersed pictures of handicapped kids, a homeless man, a lonely boy on a playground, and Peter, Paul & Mary--brought down the house. Even I was weeping. It was difficult to imagine the response of fifth-graders to this video, but if these adults were asked to vote on the dues increase now there was no question it would pass.

Yarrow invited the audience to join him at the podium, cheering, "This folksinger is a member of the PTA!" Then he launched into "If I Had a Hammer." About half the audience found its way to the front. The rest of the room erupted, singing, crying, clapping. PTA president Ginny Markell hugged Yarrow and said, "I know we've been moved to action by the performance." When Yarrow waved good-bye and headed backstage, at least 30 people followed.

He hugged everyone, signed autographs, and urged one and all to lobby their local schools to order the video program. "We have all been the victim--and the perpetrator--of cruelty," he said. But today's social climate is so coarse and divisive, he believes the message of "Don't Laugh at Me" is as important as anything Peter, Paul & Mary sang in the 1960s.

"Like when we sang in Washington," Yarrow said, "institutions will tremble if we make our voices heard. Before another Columbine, before another child hangs himself, we can't let another day go by....If there's an advocacy group in this country that can do this, it's this group."

His audience was rapt. Women handed Yarrow their official pins from their state delegations, like a more socially responsible version of fans pelting Tom Jones with panties. Yarrow accepted each pin graciously.

Inside the Grand Ballroom it was back to business. A delegate had a question about a proposal to reschedule dues payments from quarterly to monthly. Another pointed out that if the PTA could avoid borrowing a million bucks, the organization would save $34,000 in interest in a six-month period. I went home and called Aaron.

"Guess who I saw today?" I asked. He couldn't guess, so I told him. Then I asked how he could have taken a dislike to someone like Yarrow, an obviously sincere, committed, and loving man. How could you laugh at someone like that?

"I don't know," Aaron said, laughing. "I guess I was in a dark place then."

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