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Out of Tune

Saturday was little Jillian’s 3rd birthday party. Jillian is one of Simon’s classmates, and holds a special place in my heart. She’s the one who cried every morning at drop-off, resulting in Simon’s characterization of each school day as “Jillian cried”, she’s the one who prompted an unexpected conversation on race last year, and she’s the one who took over the stage at KIP’s spring program last May and performed and unplanned encore.

Her family planned a low-key affair at a park near her home, exactly my and Simon’s speed. The party included a nice mix of Jillian’s family and her school friends. As everyone chatted with everyone else and talked about our varying experiences with motherhood, the conversation got loose and I couldn’t help thinking how rare such interracial socialization is in most quarters of Louisville. At least, it’s rare in my experience. It seemed sad to me that it took preschoolers to make it happen, especially since on this sunny and warm, pretty much perfect late summer day, we all seemed to be very much the same.

Kids are a great unifier, and I was awash in a sense of communitas when it came time to sing happy birthday to little Jillian. I put aside my normal self-consciousness about singing in public (my voice is weak and my range is narrow), started to belt out “Happy Birthday” with abandon, and then Oh My God! Realized that all of Jillian’s family was singing a different tune.

And I do mean totally different. And it wasn’t just one or two members of her family—it was all of them! And there was rhythmic clapping to go along with it, too. I quickly shut up, and immediately my mind began to race. Was this a family thing? A sorority thing? (Jillian’s mom was in one, and three of her sorority sisters were at the party.) Or was this a black thing?

Well thank goodness for Google. Because I sure as heck couldn’t ask Nicole at the party. If what I dug up is to be believed, it would seem that what I heard was part of Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” that he wrote for MLK, Jr. It seems that it is common in some African American circles to sing this version in place of or in addition to the traditional version.

Did everyone know this but me? And if Jillian comes to Simon’s birthday party, can she sing it and teach us? Because I think this version is really awesome!

P.S. Some things never change…. Simon played with several friends at this party and had a really great time. But in keeping with his standard form, he spent the first 15 minutes or so sitting in the mulch, alone, watching others from a distance. The difference between this party and the last one we attended (a gym based party) was that he warmed up to the crowd on his own and I didn’t stress about his watching from afar or try to push him at all.

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