Want to Make America Great Again? Better find a teacher!

By James E. Copple

Forget slogans, politics and vitriol – if you really want to “make America great again,” just pull up a folding chair for a Utah elementary school production of “The Lion King.”

It was the stereotypical gymnasium, and 11-year-old granddaughter Annicka was cast as both tree-frog and wildebeest for her Eagle Mountain school’s performance of the iconic musical. When I heard, I changed my schedule and caught a flight from Washington, D.C., to the Beehive State. And as we watched about 80 young students tackle this complicated production, I thought about Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.

I have seen The Lion King performed in New York, London and Chicago – the music is inspirational; the costumes are stunning; and the sets are dazzling. How would an elementary school pull it off?

I have 19 grandchildren and have attended innumerable sporting events, recitals, concerts and a host of other performances. Sometimes, you hold your breath as they block a goal in a hockey shootout or dance across stage without falling. Behind these events, you always find a coach or a teacher, but this Lion King challenge unleashed particular emotions I couldn’t check.

At some point, a teacher decided “we should do this” and began research, fund-raising and soliciting the support of parents and colleagues. Children were auditioned and assigned roles; parents chauffeured them back-and-forth to evening rehearsals. Finally, for four amazing performances, children stood on a stage and imagined a career in the theatre, the ballet or a recording studio – their minds set free to dream and imagine, like a vision that pulls them into the future.

We all experience such moments of hope and grandeur. Maybe it was sorting through baseball cards with a dream to pitch in the World Series. Maybe it was participating in mock Congress, wondering if you might one day stand on the floor of the Senate and make a speech that would move hearts and minds. Those moments of dreams and preparation were likely encouraged because a teacher, parent, coach or mentor said it was OK to live your fantasy. And maybe you discover, looking back, that fantasy became reality – that as an adult, you are living your youthful dreams.

It isn’t our nation’s military prowess that makes America great. It isn’t in our capacity to deport millions of freedom-seeking refuges. It isn’t about indicting a whole religion because we are afraid. What makes America great is the willingness of teachers, coaches, parents and mentors to encourage children to take risks; to stand on a stage and belt-out “Circle of Life,” even knowing most notes will be off-key.

We are a nation of dreamers because we have been given the freedom to dream. We can see ourselves in the future doing amazing things, because we are a nation of immigrants who came to this country to find or follow a dream. We sing, dance and compete, believing we can do the impossible. I saw 80 young people dancing, singing and reciting the lines of a major musical whose only comparison to Broadway might be the title of the production – or the realization those professionals once stood on a stage in an elementary school and dared to be seen.

To the teacher who dreamed of this possibility; to the coach who said you could block that shot or perform that Salchow jump: You are what makes America great. You may be under-funded and feel unseen, and we may lose sight of your gifts of vision and imagination. But every weekend, there is a recital, competition or performance where children dare to dream, and that is our great American promise.

That is the greatness of America.

(By the way … For all its greenstick charms, Mustafa’s headdress in the Pony Express Elementary School production of “The Lion King” really did take me, if only for a few moments, back to the African savanna.)

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