A 1974 graduate of the University at Buffalo is bringing lessons of immigration and refugees into his music classroom.
In a video posted on YouTube, the voices of the fifth grade Harmonaires at Dobbs Ferry Springhurst Elementary School in Westchester County surround images of the Statue of Liberty. They sing a song called “She Holds Her Torch For Me” and in the center of the chorus is George Swietlicki, a graduate of the University at Buffalo’s Masters of Fine Arts in Piano Performance program. Swietlicki is an immigrant to the United States, and not the only one in the group with a foreign background.
“I went around every child and asked them where they come from or where their parents or grandparents came, and I would say about half of them had a story to tell,” recalled Swietlicki.
The song is part of a short musical Swietlicki helped write, called “We Are All America.” It caps a year-long social studies lesson on the process of immigration. In his classroom, Swietlicki likes to take on the question of what immigration means to the students.
“I stop everything and I tell them, ‘Do you know I’m from a foreign country? Do you know I’m not really born here?’ They just don’t believe it until I actually tell them,” said Swietlicki.
Swietlicki was born in Caracas, Venezuela during the country’s inner turmoil in the 1950s. His Polish parents eventually moved him to England where he grew up. In the classroom, Swietlicki shares that experience, along with his perspective that the only true Americans are Native Americans.
“Is there anybody with that ancestry? No,” Swietlicki asked his students. He told them, “See, you’re all immigrants doing all these different jobs and making America work.’”
Swietlicki said the debate over immigration going on in the United States today is something to “really make you scratch your head about.”
“But it is definitely up to these young people to understand it,” Swietlicki pointed out. “They are the future of America. They’d better know about it.”
That belief is part of the reason that Swietlicki thought to dedicate “She Holds Her Torch for Me” to friends in Paris, fellow citizens in San Bernardino, California, and families across the U.S.
“Let’s not be selfish and keep the performances for ourselves. Let’s reach out to the world and do something,” said Swietlicki.
Recalling the conflicts during his childhood in Caracas – which included his own school being bombed – Swietlicki said he sees similarities in Syria today.
“What strikes me is that there are totally innocent people being killed only because of maybe a regime change or ideology,” said Swietlicki. “Whatever it may be, most people have nothing to do with ideology or politics. People are just people for the sake of living the good of humanity.”
Swietlicki said many of his students are scared by what they see and hear in the news. Some even ask that it not be talked about. Others aren’t quite as exposed because their parents try to shelter them from it.
“I totally understand that,” said Swietlicki. “They’re trying to extend their children’s childhood. But at some point in fifth and sixth and seventh grade you can’t help it. Social media is out there, their friends. They go out to a restaurant and the TV’s on there – millions of TVs. It’s different than it was 20, 25 years ago – there was nothing there. But now social media is right in your face.”
What isn’t apparent from the video is that the fifth graders hadn’t performed the song since the end of the last school year. When Swietlicki proposed its dedication and the school jumped at the idea, the children did, too. Swietlicki said they were ready and honored to do it. Sharing the song is one more way that they can embrace what’s going on in the world around them in a positive way.
“When they really put it all together and they conceptualize and they come out with it, their heart really speaks in song.”