I was sad to hear this morning of the passing away of Pete Seeger. It reminded me if this article I wrote six years ago. It appeared in the March/April 2006 issue of The Interpreter magazine.
I am a hammer
On the way to work last spring I heard Pete Seeger singing “If I Had a Hammer.” I hadn’t heard that song since I was a child and I was overcome with emotion. The station played it to remind listeners what the original sounded like as this classic activist empowerment song had been co-opted as a GOP battle cry for the then- embattled Tom “The Hammer” DeLay.
The song brought back emotional memories of my childhood because I grew up singing it with my parents and I grew up believing in “love between the brothers and the sisters, all over this land.” I learned to be the bell, I learned to be the hammer. I learned my values from that song.
Songs are a powerful form of interpretation.
The song brought back memories of this past year’s May Day parade in Minneapolis where I witnessed a young girl beginning to form her values. Each year my wife and I host friends for breakfast and then walk the eight blocks to the parade route. The parade features kids and adults working together, twining the green root of spring re-awakening with the red root of humanity’s struggles.
As part of last year’s parade, people dressed in black carried black banners with the names of every person who had died in Iraq as a result of the war. Thousands of names passed by in silence. It was very moving, but even more so because I had a friend’s 10-year-old daughter at my side. It was her first time at the parade and I was helping to interpret the changing scene of characters parading past our grassy street corner. She knew what the names meant and she understood it was supposed to be sad. Frankly, I think she was also a little bored. How did this war in a far away place she had never been link to her everyday experience as a 10-year-old American girl?
Three-fourths of the way through the banners, a young boy in black walked by with a sign around his neck. Written in white paint was the name of a young boy, the same age as the girl to my side. She read his name, his age and how he died from a shot to the head. “That boy was my age!” she said, half excited to have made a connection and yet profoundly confused and saddened. She turned to me and said, “What was he doing there?”
It never occurred to this child that there were kids, just like her, living, learning, and growing up in this place called Iraq where this thing called a war went on each day.
Parades can be a powerful form of interpretation.
Don’t ever doubt that interpretation done right can have a powerful, life-changing effect on the lives of the individual people that make up an audience. This is especially true for children. As a naturalist, my interpre- tive bias is toward nature. Author Rupert Sheldrake points out that, “Even if we cannot remember an intuitive sense of connection with nature in childhood, the fact remains that in our formative years we establish patterns of relationship with the natural world that continue to influ- ence us unconsciously. They affect our desire to get back to nature. They shape our subsequent careers.”
Those patterns of relationship are formed to a large degree by how the world around us is interpreted through music, television, parents, friends, professional interpreters, and, yes, even the occasional parade. Like many of my colleagues, I am an interpreter both on and off the clock. Interpretation is a way of seeing and being in the world, which doesn’t stop when we punch out for the day. An interpreter strives to help others make a connection to the world and it is through those connections people form their values.
Pete Seeger dreamed of a hammer to hammer out danger, to hammer out warning. He wanted to make his voice heard. As professional interpreters, we make our voices heard every day while we forge emotional connections between the audience and the resource. We help people understand their world.
What sense of vision and values will your interpretation instill in future generations?