Country Hit to Be NYC School Mantra

"Don't Laugh at Me" at Center of Character Education Program

When the Country Music Association takes it awards show to New York City in November, it will discover at least one country outpost already established there. The New Yorker magazine reports the city is preparing to install into all its elementary and middle school curricula a program called Operation Respect: Don’t Laugh at Me.

As country fans may recall, “Don’t Laugh at Me” — a lyrical plea for tolerance and acceptance — was a big hit for Mark Wills in 1998. It is this very song, written by Music Row veterans Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin, that has inspired the new “character education” component for Gotham school kids.

Although Wills had the hit, it remained for Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary to see the song’s potential for turning bullies into buddies. On Operation Respect’s Web site, Yarrow reports that he first encountered “Don’t Laugh at Me” at the 1999 Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas.

It seems Yarrow’s daughter, Bethany, had heard Seskin sing the song at a campfire circle. She said the effect was so electrifying that the other singers in the circle broke tradition by insisting that Seskin perform it a second time. The next morning, she took her father to a sunrise performance at which the song was again sung. He says, “There we sat … tears running down our cheeks, listening to a song that told our hearts’ stories, recalling events that we had personally experienced or witnessed in the lives of others.”

Peter, Paul & Mary subsequently recorded “Don’t Laugh at Me” and incorporated it into their stage shows. Then, in September 2000, Yarrow established Operation Respect with the aim of elevating the song’s sentiments into a way of life. The DLAM curriculum has since been adopted by several school systems.

If “Don’t Laugh at Me” succeeds in modifying the behavior of New York’s school children, perhaps supervisors there will see what they can do with the old Johnny Cash hit, “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to