Off-Ramp

Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

Schoolhouse Rock's "Verb" is the best cartoon in the history of the universe

I am a crusty old guy. I don't cry all the time. But I alway tear up at the end of this video, Verb, from the Schoolhouse Rock series, the same one that brought us Conjunction Junction and I'm a Bill on Capitol Hill and so many other cartoons that entertained and edified.

(Bob Dorough, from his website.)

Bob Dorough wrote the words and music, Zachary Sanders (and those wonderful backup singers) performed it. And tv stations -- are you sitting down? -- actually broadcast it when impressionable kids like me could see it, over and over and over.

To me, this video embodies an optimism I don't see in the media anymore (see the "crusty old guy" reference above). A brown or black child out on his own, exploring his world, achieving and failing, imagining a positive future based on the real people around him. (Is it a stretch to speculate that Dorough based the ballplayer on Hank Aaron, who'd break Babe Ruth's home run record the year this cartoon debuted?)

(Hank Aaron at the White House, 1978. Credit: White House)

This is the emotional heartbeart of the cartoon, but the heart connects with the brain through the lyrics. What a glorious mix of intelligence and direct, conversational communication. Check out the very first stanza:

I get my thing in action (Verb!)
To be, to sing, to feel, to live (Verb!)
(That's what's happenin')

This is a song about grammar, but it's a song about life, and how to live it. To sing! To live! And "That's what's happenin'" might seem cliche in other mouths, but it's perfect in this song, and it's true in grammar - a verb is what's happening.

The songwriters for Schoolhouse Rock did not write for what I think most people imagine as the ten-year old brain.

When I use my imagination (Verb!)
I think, I plot, I plan, I dream
Turning in towards creation (Verb!)
I make, I write, I dance, I sing

Plot is an advanced word, but a kid can learn it quickly with the context provided by the images (animation by Phil Kimmelman and Associates). And can you imagine Barney the obvious Dinosaur saying "Turning in towards creation?"

It gets even more complicated. As in Conjunction Junction, where singer Jack Sheldon takes a gramamatical detour to demonstrate "and, but, and or" as he imagines the inner life of ducks paddling on a pond, we get the textbook definition of verb, perfectly synthesized at the end.

A verb expresses action, being, or state of being. A verb makes a statement. Yeah, a verb tells it like it is!

A verb tells it like it is. A good strong verb gets to the heart of the matter. It lets you know where you stand, and what you need to do next. With passive voice, you don't really know what's happening.

Every sentence has a subject.
(Noun, person, place, or thing)
Find that subject: Where's the action?
(Verb can make a subject sing)

Who is the singer of the song? It's the little boy, of course, and he can be unafraid to his world, and his future, because he understands it through language. If we don't give kids the langauge tools to process their world, to comprehend it, how do we expect them to be happy and to succeed?

That's where I find satisfaction, yeah! (Yeah!)
To search, to find, to have, to hold
(Verb! To be bold)

All of this in less than three minutes. And we haven't even arrived at the part that makes me cry ... when our hero goes back to being a little boy and jumps into the arms of his mom, and we hear the real truth, that love is the ultimate verb.

 

 

The full lyrics to Verb, from SchoolhouseRock.tv:

I get my thing in action (Verb!)
To be, to sing, to feel, to live (Verb!)
(That's what's happenin')

I put my heart in action (Verb!)
To run, to go, to get, to give (Verb!)
(You're what's happenin')

That's where I find satisfaction, yeah! (Yeah!)
To search, to find, to have, to hold
(Verb! To be bold)
When I use my imagination (Verb!)
I think, I plot, I plan, I dream
Turning in towards creation (Verb!)
I make, I write, I dance, I sing
When I'm feeling really active (Verb!)
I run, I ride, I swim, I fly!
Other times when life is easy
(Oh!) I rest, I sleep, I sit, I lie.

(Verb! That's what's happenin')
I can take a noun and bend it,
Give me a noun -
(Bat, boat, rake, and plow)
Make it a verb and really send it!
(Show me how)
Oh, I don't know my own power. (Verb!)

I get my thing in action (Verb!)
In being, (Verb!) In doing, (Verb!)
In saying
A verb expresses action, being, or state of being. A verb makes a statement. Yeah, a verb tells it like it is!

(Verb! That's what's happenin'.)
I can tell you when it's happenin',
(Past, present, future tense)
Ooh! Tell you more about what's happenin',
(Say it so it makes some sense)
I can tell you who is happenin'!
(Verb, you're so intense)
Every sentence has a subject.
(Noun, person, place, or thing)
Find that subject: Where's the action?
(Verb can make a subject sing)
Take the subject: What is it? (What!)
What's done to it? (What!)
What does it say?
(Verb, you're what's happenin')

I can question like: What is it?
(Verb, you're so demanding.)
I can order like: Go get it!
(Verb, you're so commanding.)
When I hit I need an object
(Verb, hit! Hit the ball!)
When I see, I see the object
(Do you see that furthest wall?)

If you can see it there, put the ball over the fence, man!
Go ahead. Yeah, alright.
What?! He hit it. It's going, it's going, it's gone!
(What!)

I get my thing in action.
(Verb, that's what's happenin')
To work, (Verb!)
To play, (Verb!)
To live, (Verb!)
To love... (Verb!...)

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