School songs traditionally trumpet a school’s strengths and source of pride — academic, athletic, aesthetic. But a Newton elementary school has chosen a song that doesn’t even mention the school. Instead, it asserts — in kidspeak — what it values and feels is needed most right now.
At Mason-Rice Elementary School, morning assembly starts with a song that makes striking assertions: You’re a stranger, and we don’t even speak the same language. We eat different foods, celebrate different holidays and have different points of view.
It could be a divisive way to start the school day, but the differences are quickly defused as cause for concern. Because none of them, the song asserts, is a barrier to friendship.
The singers “reach a hand out” to each other, proffering “hello” in 15 languages.
“I made sure not only was I using languages from different parts of the world, but I added [indigenous languages of North America] Cherokee and Hawaiian,” said the song’s composer, Watertown-based Joanne Hammil. “I made it [as] inclusive as I could in 15 languages.”
Katie McIntosh, the school’s music teacher, said some new students noticed their native languages weren’t included. McIntosh told them that there are so many languages in the world, the song couldn’t possibly include them all. But she’s trying to find a way for those students’ languages to be incorporated into music class.
Mason-Rice Principal Jake Bultema said the song’s message is essential.
“We feel wholeheartedly that this song embodies the notion of caring for each other, being respectful of all cultures and communities,” he said.
The song brings to mind the 1960s song “It’s A Small World (After All),” and the 1970s song “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” But it’s more personal and direct.
Hammil described in concrete terms what the song says to children: “I see another kid, they look different from me, what am I gonna think? Am I gonna think, ‘Ooh, they’re creepy?’ Or ‘Ooh, I don’t want to talk to them on the playground?’ No. I don’t know your name, but I’d like to know who you are.”
The chorus is sung four times, the first three with unique sets of "hello" in different languages. The fourth time, the hellos merge in three-part harmony, a musical representation of what the song is about.
“We can merge cultures and retain our own identities,” Hammil said, “but be something magnificent when we blend together.”
It’s challenging for young kids to sing in three-part harmony, so Hammil wrote that section so that every part starts on the same note.
Hammil’s aim for balance notwithstanding, one of the 15 languages gets an honored spot in the coda.
“There are languages whose word for 'hello' means more than hello,” Hammil said. "'Shalom' in Hebrew means peace and goodbye. 'Aloha' means mercy, peace and affection. But 'namaste' is the most beautiful and all-encompassing way of saying hello. It’s an ancient Sanskrit word. It basically means: I greet and honor all that is best and beautiful in you with all that is best and beautiful in me.”
And that is the name of the song.
Bultema said he thinks the song’s message will endure.
“When we reflect on what we’re hoping for our students, when they leave us as fifth-graders into middle school and forward in life, at the top of the list, we’re hoping that we’re building people who are going to contribute to society in a way that’s respectful of everyone,” he said.
He said he’s not concerned that other schools could make it their school song.
“To be honest, if we had a whole country that adopted this kind of song as their message,” he said, “I think it would be fantastic. The message is loud and clear and we can all benefit from hearing it, whether we’re in kindergarten or retiring.”