Driving into the city (Manhattan to those not living in Brooklyn or Staten Island) was a breeze, unlike usual. There was little traffic on the roads, and the sun shone brightly through patches of thin clouds. Feeling amazing from the crisp, cool December air, along with having just showered and scrubbed my skin clean, I didn’t mind that my pony-tailed hair was still sopping wet. Getting up early on a Saturday had been my ritual for longer than I can recall; only recently had I stopped, and it felt good to be out and about on the weekend during morning hours once again. Sleeping in is great; sleeping in doesn’t make us grow or provide enriching experience.
We were excited. Our destination was the Tompkins Square Library for Drag Queen Story Hour, featured as part of the East Village Arts Festival, sponsored by the Office of City Council Member Carlina Rivera. Having both graduated from Fashion Institute of Technology, both myself and my co-reporter can navigate around Manhattan with our eyes closed. I insisted that she turn off Waze and navigate by sheer memory and intuition. Admittedly, the only real time spent at Tompkins Square Park was at the yearly outdoor electronic music festivals that were held back in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Unbelievably, we found a parking space on the street right outside the park; there wasn’t even a muni-meter to feed!
Bundled up once again, walking around the perimeter of the park, finally we had arrived at our destination. We entered the library, a building probably constructed specifically to house books and welcome readers, judging by its typical NYPL library-like exterior architecture. The library was toasty-warm and perennially inviting. We were a half-hour early. Perusing the stacks of new arrivals and featured books on a display near the entrance, I picked up a couple of texts focusing on the East Village (which we later checked out). We began exploring. In the stairwell, we encountered the director of the library, who greeted us with a smile, asking if we wanted a tour.
We declined, explained that we were from The Staten Islander, there to see Drag Queen Story hour with Harmonica Sunbeam. She smiled, told us we were early in her best library-voice, and led us up the stairs to the second floor, the children’s library. If ever there was a place where kids might feel welcome exploring reading, this was it. The high-ceilinged expansive room’s windows admitted ample light, a perfect place to find a book and cultivate a love for the written word on a cold December morning. And, of course, the ubiquitous category of literature that usually begins a child’s journey into reading was there in abundance: the picture book, of which there was row after row, their spines variously sized, in an array of vivid colors.
Apparently, we were first to arrive for the story hour. There was a semi-circle of chairs and comfortable cushions. We chose seats in the last row, so that we did not block the view of any kids or parents with incessant raising of cameras for the requisite photos that would accompany this story. I wondered if we were going to be the sole attendees, but as the clock ticked, the seats filled quickly. If ever there would be a library that would be excited to host Drag Queen Story Hour, the flagship library of the East Village was certainly it.
Nearing 11 AM, the seats were all taken, by an assortment of parents and caregivers of every skin tone, sub-culture, gender, sexual orientation, and personal style, with their enthused kids jumping, crawling, and playing energetically around them on the rug. There was no one group that predominated. Clearly, this was an event that welcomed everyone, where inclusivity reigned.
Finally, an announcement was made that the storytime would commence momentarily. Harmonica Sunbeam, wearing bright yellow hair and long lashes, lilac eye shadow, glistening pink lipstick with magenta lip-liner, and a hot pink My Little Pony outfit complete with a pink Jetsons-inspired padded-shoulder mock-neck top featuring a My Little Pony print with horseshoes, hearts, and stars, with yellow full-length sleeves terminating in cuffs featuring the same print, a pink skirt and leggings with My Little Pony print to match, a gigantic yellow starburst ring, large pink earrings, shiny, bright yellow boots and an ultra-wide yellow belt, looked like someone from the future, a bright future at that!
She walked to the chair that had been set out, greeted us all with a genuine smile, and explained her preferred pronouns are “she and her.” (I don’t mind use of personalized gender pronouns, but I must admit that when meeting a group, I find it hard enough to just remember names and not botch Terri for Merry, Pat for Joe! Meeting one new person, it isn’t so difficult.) I was immediately struck by her patient, caring tone of voice and nurturing demeanor. Instantly, we felt welcome and comfortable; it would have been nearly impossible to feel otherwise.
Asking if anyone knew what drag meant, one child responded that it had to do with drag racing. Harmonica laughed, but not mockingly, as she accepted this typical child-like response, instantly showing herself to be genuinely amazing with the kids; her manner could have been a lesson to anyone studying to become an early childhood educator. One Mom added to this, stating that drag meant, “…a man or a woman who dresses up as anyone they want…”
As Harmonica Sunbeam read stories, sung songs, and shared her joy of performing as herself with the audience, even we adults lost ourselves and happily participated, feeling like kids again. Always so serious, I’m sure many other of the adults are professionals who, like myself, spend far too much time with a serious expression stamped on our faces. The experience was cathartic, life-changing, even. This was more than I had expected, though I had kept an open mind.
Harmonica asked if anyone had ever been shunned, not accepted. Of course, that had been my own experience countless times, for reasons that yet baffle me. Perhaps it was because I was too enthusiastic, perhaps it was because I smiled too easily, in a world of dour faces, classrooms of kids who had osmotically picked up unconscious cues that on Earth, we do not show love without reservation. I found the book an excellent story for kids who are not permitted by their peers, or society, to fit in, kids who might have gifts to contribute to this broken world who are stifled because they do not meet others’ expectations.
The first book read, Do Cows Meow, a lift-the-flap-book, by Salina Yoon, was a standard rhyming kids’ book, reminding children which animals make each sound. This was like books generations of children have read, from all cultures. The kids laughed along, doing their best to make animal sounds. By the end of the book, even the adults had joined in. Harmonica Sunbeam truly was an ethereal light, bringing her audience to a place where we did not care about being judged as silly or “too old.”
Neither, a children’s book by Airlie Anderson, was touching. It was about creatures who were hybrids, lost in the world of “this and that.” A bird-bunny, and other unusual characters who are “neither” flew away and found the Land of All.
While one could argue that this is about transgender/alternative gender people and gender fluidity, it also covers intersex individuals, a completely under-supported group who absolutely find our world of rigid gender roles confusing and limiting. In fact, this book is about even more than that: It’s about anyone who finds that they do not conform to our rigidly defined societal expectations.
I know too well that gender role expectations elicit judgement and non-acceptance. For any male who has taught young children, been a licensed massage therapist, worked as a kids’ party entertainer, or chose a career as a doula or midwife, this book would resonate strongly. The same would be true for a female sanitation worker or firefighter, research scientist or computer programmer, or anyone else working in a setting where gender roles are fixed, strongly associated with one sex or another.
But like I mentioned, this isn’t just about binary gender roles and expectations. It could also be about age, race, religion, socioeconomic status, or any other label society likes to slap on us, keeping us from living a life of options we choose. It could even be about parental, familiar, or caste expectation, breaking out of the idea that “Jainie is so good at math” to become an artist, or the idea that a musician can’t love science. It breaks down the ageist idea that we should act certain ways at specific ages. Predication of people, saying “they should be that” hurts us all. Hearing Harmonica Sunbeam read this book was touching; I truly had tears in my eyes.
As Harmonica Sunbeam read the books and made everyone smile and reflect, the shadows of butterflies and hearts and the colorful letters affixed to the windowpane spelling out “LGBTQ+ Pride” left dark imprints on the drawn shade behind her. On the adjacent window were shadows of two birds and this quote by Maya Angelou, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an Answer. It sings because it has a Song.” This was a most fitting backdrop for the day’s event.
Next came the singing of The Itsy-Bitsy Spider. Again, everyone joined in, both kids and their parents, whose reserved demeanor was breaking down by this point. Harmonica reminded us that if she could get up and be herself, in the face of a world that much of the time does not accept her, than we can all do the same. This was a valuable lesson from a strong Soul, a person who brought us all important lessons that Saturday morning.
A different activity followed. The kids, spilling over with excess energy from the start, marched to different places each would like to go. One child, when asked, replied that she’s like to go to the library. “OK, we won’t have to travel far for that!” Harmonica Sunbeam replied, eliciting chuckles from the parents and caregivers. Her warmth and concern for the kids’ comfort was inspiring, her laughter came so easily and from such a positive place, even this simple kids’ activity was fun for all.
By now, I had come to the realization that this was far more than a simple kids’ story hour, this was a Spiritual Learning, and like most deep learning experiences, it was completely unexpected. The next book was The Kindness Book by Todd Parr. And, what’s more important than kindness? And, refraining from judging others, of course? In a globe drowning in greed and selfishness, this book is an antidote for the evils of the world. From Judaism to Christianity, from Hinduism to other major world faiths, we learn that kindness is key, the hidden center of all their teachings, the inner hub that all other (peripheral) ideas revolve around, like spokes on a wheel. We must have the Inner Strength to stand up for the oppressed, always.
The book asks, “What is kindness?” This is a question we all must ponder, if we are to ever be fully realized living beings. There is no more important lesson for kids, in my estimation. If we were all kindly, we’d be living in what some call Heaven or Paradise. Instead, people judge and hate, and the world is an outward reflection of our collective inner darkness. When the kids were asked, “Does anyone know what kindness is?” one astute child answered, “sharing things.” Yes; it’s sharing things, but it’s also sharing of ourselves, from the deepest part of each of our own unique Nature, bringing to reality some pattern or song or voice the world has never yet heard, and will never hear again.
Harmonica Sunbeam continued reading: “Kindness is listening. Kindness is keeping others safe.” How true. How strange that a kids’ story hour quickly became something entirely more than I could explain, something far off the charts, in terms of significance. I wondered if other adults present felt likewise moved, and saw in Harmonica Sunbeam, as I did, someone who loves without limit, an example of how we should all be. I felt that the answer was a definitive, “Yes.”
Next, Harmonica Sunbeam led the kids in a chorus of “Wheels on the Bus.” There’s a Monster In Your Book by Tom Fletcher and Greg Abbott was another children’s book read to the kids, to their delight. After this, the kids had some time for hands-on learning and doing, creating bookmarks that each designed individually, at a table behind the seating area. While the kids created, parents and kids took photos with Harmonica Sunbeam.
She was so good with the kids; even in her outrageously fabulous outfit, almost every child was comfortable with her, feeling safe and loved. I think that was also true for the adults in the audience, who for an hour, were able to feel like children again, children yet untainted by the world of rigid ideas and judgement, untroubled by feelings of having to be This or That.