When the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus pulled up at Hialeah Gardens High School, many students didn’t know much about the famous late Beatle.
Some wondered if he was on the bus himself. One insisted to her friend his last name was “Legend.”
But when the educators who drive the bus-turned-recording-studio-on-wheels played the 1971 song “Imagine” and other Beatles tunes, the kids understood the messages. They know what it’s like to yearn for a world without violence.
“My cousin got shot,” said sophomore Yvette Smith. “It [had] a big impact on me. … We need to have peace in this country, because, all this shooting needs to stop, needs to come to a stop.”
On a hot morning last week, Smith and three thousand of her classmates arranged themselves on the school’s football field in the shape of a peace sign. A photographer shot the scene from perch high above them, sitting in the bucket of a cherry picker. Drones circled, too, capturing images of one of the biggest human peace signs the national music education program has ever staged.
For about two decades, the bus has rolled up to schools around the country, hoping to keep the memory of Lennon and his music alive. The vehicle is on the road for 10 and a half months a year, with three engineers who live on board. On it, kids have a chance to play musical instruments, record in a studio, write original songs and even star in a professionally shot music video.
The organizers teach kids about careers in audio and video production. But their bigger goal is to foster dialogue about peace. Smith and her classmates said that message is as urgent as ever.
She was hopeful their symbolic stance would inspire others.
“I think our school can make a difference in a way. With this peace sign, maybe it’ll bring, like, open eyes to other people,” she said. “I think it’ll open eyes.”
Her friend, Jeremiah Clements, a senior, wasn’t so sure.
“I really don't see how a picture is going to make a change, to be honest,” the senior said.
Clements has also been hurt by gun violence in his community. He recently moved to Hialeah from Liberty City, where he witnessed a shooting.
He argues guns are the problem.
“When I used to live in my old neighborhood, I had saw somebody get shot in the head, and it was really bad,” he said. “Every time I hear a gunshot, I get scared. … Every time I hear something that's really loud, I get scared. … I just feel like our world would be much safer without guns.”
It’s by design that students are having these conversations. The educators who drive the bus around the country say kids make lots of connections to their own lives when they hear about Lennon and the Beatles. For one, Lennon’s death was the result of gun violence. Also, he struggled with the U.S. immigration system.
When the bus stopped in Hialeah Gardens last week, educators related Lennon’s immigration battle to the current political fight over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Students drew pictures to express how they felt the immigration system should work in this country.
“A lot of the things he talked about, he sang about and fought for, are, unfortunately, in many cases, still very relevant today,” said Brian Rothschild, co-founder of the nonprofit organization that runs the bus.
The Lennon bus also played a part in an a capella festival sponsored by the Betsy Hotel in South Beach this weekend. A few hundred high school and college singers, mostly from Florida, gathered for the event. It culminated with a showcase at Miami Beach Senior High School on Saturday night.
The show’s closing number was an a capella version of the Beatles’ “Come Together.” It was arranged by Grammy Award-winner Ben Bram, who worked on the “Pitch Perfect” movies and the TV show “Glee.” India Carney from “The Voice” sang the solo.
Separately, the University of Miami’s a capella group, BisCaydence, recorded a version of “Come Together” on the Lennon Bus. It’ll be posted soon on YouTube.