Richard Rogers, from “Sixteen Going On Seventeen”
We begin our morning with music.
Not always, of course—I’m no Mary Poppins. I’m imperfect in practically every way. But today, songs were a scheme to get my almost-four-year-old to stay at the breakfast table, keep eating breakfast and interact with her sister and me. It started because I was humming “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (but seriously, I’m nothing like Mary Poppins), and then continued into a medley of songs from The Sound of Music.
Luci has seen The Sound of Music, even though she’s not yet four, because it’s amazing and also it’s not Frozen. Of course, she hasn’t seen all of it. Like a good romantic comedy, Luci’s Sound of Music ends with a wedding. And that’s only if we decide to continue after the puppet show, which is clearly the real climax of the show. For her, there’s no Austrian Anschluss, no Nazi flags, no duplicitous nuns, no chase scene through a cemetery (which is on the roof… how?), no over-the-mountains hike to freedom. Seriously, this story has it all. And for the first 60-90 minutes, it’s even pretty great for a preschooler.
I would say it’s completely great, if I didn’t run out of songs to sing before Luci quite finishes her breakfast, and start singing this gem:
“I am sixteen, going on seventeen—wait, that’s not how it starts. How does it start?” Luci shrugs. “Ah, OK, I remember. You wait little girl, on an empty stage for fate to turn the light on.”
So far, so good. Luci is a little girl, with a performer’s streak that wouldn’t be averse to an empty stage. I’m not the hugest fan of “fate,” but this song could be worse. Oh but yes—I forgot— it is worse.
“Your life, little girl, is an empty page, that men will want to write on.”
After that, I “can’t remember” any more words. Pity.
The real trouble with turning off The Sound of Music before the end is that I grew up not knowing that Rolf turns out to be sort of the worst, a novice fascist who ghosts Liesl to join the Nazi party and then tries to sell out her whole family as they flee the country. If you stop with the wedding, this is just a romantic scene in a thunderstormy gazebo, in which two teenagers sing to each other about their respective ages. They are sixteen and seventeen, and apparently this Means Something about them.
I don’t think we’ll stop watching The Sound of Music with our daughter (remember, it’s not Frozen, and that’s important), nor am I prepared to take it to the end to reveal Rolf’s full character arc, but “Sixteen, Going on Seventeen” does tempt me, for the first time, to do some 1990s-era fast-forwarding. Though I watched all of The Sound of Music growing up, I do recall my mother having major reservations with The Little Mermaid. (I do too, but my problem is mostly with “Kiss The Girl,” a song about kissing a someone physically incapable of saying no.) My mom’s argument was that even on land, we should “reprimand our daughters,” when the occasion required. I’m inclined to agree.
She had a point, because songs, they get in your head. I still know all the words to both “Kiss the Girl” and “Part of Your World,” even though I wasn’t technically allowed to watch the movie. I’d memorized “Sixteen, Going on Seventeen” long before I was sixteen, but sixteen-year-old me was nowhere near agreeing with Liesl’s assessment of the situation:
Totally unprepared, am I,
To face a world of men!
Timid and shy and scared am I
Of things beyond my kin!
I need someone older and wiser
Telling me what to do!
You are seventeen going on eighteen,
I’ll depend on you!
At sixteen, I was not necessarily “prepared” to “face a world of men,” because no one seemed to think it necessary to describe the world for me in those terms. The world was mine as much as anyone’s, and I was raised to be curious, not shy and scared, of those different from me. Yes, there were older and wiser people telling me what to do, but those were not, shockingly, seventeen-year-old boys. Let’s be clear: there are few contexts in which a seventeen-year-old is the older, wiser one.
I think about this song long after we finish breakfast (having moved on to “So Long, Farewell” and “The Lonely Goatherd”), as we walk to the library and play in the park. I think about the world that I’m preparing my girls for. I hope I’m being honest, but I also hope that they grow up trusting and listening to the right people, being curious and strong and adventurous, not fearing the unfamiliar but learning from new experiences. Mostly, I hope that they tell their own stories, rather than waiting for and then repeating, as Liesl does, the story that a man writes for them. I hope that no one tells them to “go home” when they begin to live into their gifts and callings, and if someone does, I hope that they have the strength to keep it up anyway.
I watch Luci chasing falling leaves by the lake on the way home, jumping after the flakes of gold that whirl down in the strong breeze. “Can we stay here and catch leaves forever?” she asks me. If only, my dear. If I could freeze time, and make it a sunny October day, and you three forever, maybe I’d be tempted. Instead, I’ll go to work learning a better song for you, preparing you to face with confidence the world that awaits you.
What will this day be like?
What will my future be?
It could be so exciting
To be out in the world
To be free!