“I love you and I’m so glad that I’m here today,” Yoko Ono told an auditorium full of elementary schoolers, teachers, and special guests at New York City’s Patrick Henry Prep this morning. The 81-year-old visited the East Harlem school along with the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus, a mobile studio that’s gone around the world since 1998, letting kids learn about songwriting, recording, and music videos, with many getting the opportunity to lay down their own tracks.
PS 171 was the perfect stop for Ono and the bus. The pre-K to 8th grade school is focused on social justice, arts education, and previously hosted a Beatles festival featuring Sid Bernstein, the promoter who organized the Fab Four’s first visit to America. Ono took to the small stage following brief speeches by the PS 171 staff, executives from the Berklee College of Music and SESAC, and New York City Council Member Daniel Dromm, as well as a performance of Lennon’s “Instant Karma” by a multi-cultural group of students that had everyone singing along, from teachers down to the pre-K kids.
Though some, if not most, of the children probably didn’t grasp the magnitude of Ono’s fame, her short remarks got them to stop squirming or playing with their stuffed animals, even if her opening remarks were a bit over their heads. “Many, many things are happening now in our society, but if you keep smiling, that’s going to change the world,” she told them. Ono, decked out in a silver jacket, black fedora, and tennis sneakers, then read what she called an “affirmation” for the children.
“When you wake up in the morning, go to the mirror and look at yourself. In the morning, you won’t look too good for yourself [laughs] but you have to start liking yourself. So, I will say it and then you repeat it: ‘I am beautiful. I am very intelligent. I am healthy in my body and in my mind. Today’s a good day, thank you, thank you, thank you. It will be like this now, and forever. I love myself. I forgive myself. I will listen to you, no matter what.'”
Sitting on the bus afterward, she explained that she writes these kind of affirmations for anyone she speaks to, from the rich to the working class to the kids, who enthusiastically participated in the call-and-response section. “They may not remember it exactly, but their bodies, their minds, will take it with them,” she told us.
Ono also revealed that she never expected the bus, which travels 10 months a year and has several staff members living on it, to become a project that would reach students around the world. It even visited Lennon’s hometown of Liverpool last year, which she said was an amazing trip.
“I didn’t imagine it would be like this, a state-of-the-art studio. At first, I thought this would be like an ice-cream truck, small. Now it’s so big,” she said. Ono readily accepts that a room of pre-schoolers up through fifth graders might not understand the enormous popularity of Lennon’s work. “They don’t need to know about us. They just need to be allowed to make music.”
Working with the children also offers Ono a respite from thinking about all that’s wrong in the world today. “This is a positve bus, not a negative place. It’s a place for children to express themselves. Recording studios are expensive, so we make it free. And now schools are cutting music and arts programs. I don’t know how they can cut that. So we provide this for the kids to come and play and learn.”
And on a day filled with so much positivity, we decided to ask about Yoko’s current friendship with Paul McCartney, who called Ono “a badass” and said he had no grudges against her in an interview with Rolling Stone last October.
“People, the media always want to think we’re in a boxing match, that we’re fighting, but we’re not. We were never enemies,” Ono said with a smile, miming a flurry of punches. “People ask Paul, ‘How could you say that now?’ but it’s been like that for a long time.”
The event marks the kickoff of the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus’ New York City residency. It will stop at schools in all five boroughs, finishing up on October 9th, what would have been Lennon’s 74th birthday.