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Suburban Rhapsody

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Guest blogger Annabelle Gurwitch: You haven't really lived until you've been treated to your middle school choir performing a choral arrangement of the epically overwrought, operatically embellished rock ballad that is Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." But that's just one of the things I learned this week.

At 8:13 PM on Tuesday, seven hundred or so parents assembled in the auditorium of the Walter Reed Middle School in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. The facility itself, if it were a pair of jeans, might best be described as "gently worn," but is known nationally for two reasons: The music department regularly wins national competitions, and an image of our school was mistakenly identified as the Walter Reed Veterans Hospital during a speech by John McCain at the 2008 Republican Convention, the memory of which never fails to give me a chuckle as I drop my kid off in the mornings.

What followed was absolute magic. The soaring soprano vocal line seemed well-suited to their prepubescent voices. Having 13-year-olds posit the questions, "Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?" in four-part a cappella harmony seemed a perfectly natural artistic expression of the sentiment my seventh grader expresses each morning when the alarm goes off: "What if we're really asleep when we think we're awake and awake when we only think we're sleeping? Can I stay in bed just a few minutes longer, Mom?"

By the time the boys in their black-and-white pants accented by red satin cummerbunds and bow ties intoned, "He's just a poor boy from a poor family," I was laughing so hard, tears came to my eyes. It was riveting, hysterically funny ... but also poignant . Though Queen's Freddie Mercury once claimed the song was a "mock opera," you can't help but wonder if it wasn't real emotion that led to his penning the lyrics, "Sometimes I wish I'd never been born at all."

It's hard now to imagine the world where Freddie Mercury's sexual orientation wasn't openly acknowledged, let alone accepted. I mean, the band's name was Queen, for goodness' sake. In fact, after public denials, he only acknowledged his HIV status the day before his death from AIDS-related pneumonia.

Sitting in the auditorium, I thought about our responsibility to the children standing in front of us. I like to think we've come so far, poised as we are to begin post-"don't ask don't tell" military recruitment. Yet college students around the country are still in shock over the recent suicide of the closeted gay student at Rutgers. How many Freddie Mercurys, how many Tyler Clementis, might there be amongst us?

Contemplation of this kind was decidedly not the intent behind including this song in the concert. In fact, the chorus director emphatically informed us, "This next song was not my selection. It was vigorously campaigned for by two guitar-playing members of the choir who wanted to play the solo." For the record, those boys rocked the house. I imagine we weren't the only family who went home, watched the original video and talked about not only the song, but also Freddie Mercury's life. This inspired a discussion about empathy and inclusiveness. Further investigation revealed that the band's operatic exhortation, "Bismallah, no!" wasn't merely rock gibberish, but can be loosely translated from Arabic to mean "in the name of God, no" -- a great opening for my son to discuss what he's been learning about the Muslim Empire, the current topic of study in his history class.

Research tells us that kids growing up today are suffering from a deficit of empathy, something that has been linked to increased time spent on the Internet, which has succeeded in making the world smaller but not necessarily warmer as people tend to seek out opinions and communities on the 'net which conform to beliefs and interests they already hold. Call me old-fashioned, but I'm going to insist that my son and I keep having real-world experiences together in hopes that the random universe will continue to gift us with opportunities to grow.

Now, if someone could just explain to me what in God's name Mercury meant when he asked, 
"Can you do the fandango?" it will have been a truly educational week.

Comedian Annabelle Gurwitch is the author of the new book "You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up: A Love Story." She's currently on a book tour. For more information, go to

next: Diary of a 50-Year-Old Bride, Part 4
2 comments so far | Post a comment now
Robin December 2, 2010, 8:55 AM

Just wait until HS and the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” obsession setting in, lol! =) (I always made a damn good Columbia, if I do say so myself!)

Han Gudmundson January 25, 2011, 10:04 PM

Some really fantastic posts on this website,regards for contribution.

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