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“Hey,” asks Broadway composer and singer Lynn Ahrens, “do you know about the USA? Do you know about the government? Can you tell me about the Constitution?” And she proceeds to tell us by singing her way through the Preamble to our founding document. “We the People, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility …”
If you’re a citizen of a certain age, then you can hear the classic Schoolhouse Rock tune playing in your head.
Obviously, ABC-TV’s Schoolhouse Rock (1973) intended to teach us about the USA and the Constitution, and so did Congress when it mandated (not so long ago, in 2004) that every recipient of federal funds, whether an educational institution or a federal agency, should celebrate the signing of the Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787, by holding an educational program about the Constitution. Over this week (Sept. 17-23), there will be a wide variety of programs in schools and agencies ranging from posters to plays to testimonials. Some of the most moving of those testimonials will come from new citizens.
Often over the two decades since the creation of Constitution Day, the celebration of the “blessings of liberty” is paired with a naturalization ceremony and the swearing-in of those who have chosen to become US citizens. For me, born in the US, and taking for granted the power of the assertion “I am an American” for most of my life, seeing the broad range of people who have studied and passed the citizenship test and who have renounced their former allegiance to another country, was a truly moving experience.
At St. Petersburg College, our students have often served as study coaches for those seeking citizenship. In 2019, I attended a large Constitution Day swearing-in at which one of my longtime friends, a Canadian by birth, took the oath. He told me that he was glad he took it on Constitution Day because that made Sept. 17 his Citizenship Day.
So, at some point in Constitution Week, take a listen to Schoolhouse Rock and think through why those 39 new Americans thought they should “spell out the things that we should be.” Sometimes paraphrasing isn’t good enough; sing the whole preamble under your breath like every kid in 1973 when they took that American government test. You will not be sorry.
Susan Demers is the Public Policy Dean at St. Petersburg College.