jueves, 3 de marzo de 2011

For P.S. 22 Chorus, There’s No Place Like Home

Choir Director Gregg BrienbergWhen the wheels were up on the two Continental Airlines flights from Los Angeles carrying the 64 Staten Island public school students home from their star turn singing the finale at the Academy Awards, the chorus squirmed in their seats with triumphant joy. But on Tuesday evening, they landed with a thump.

Lugging their bags through the main terminal at La Guardia Airport, the children were besieged by reporters who had one main question, according to Gregg Breinberg, the chorus director: How did they feel about the fact that Andy Cohen, a senior vice president for programming at Bravo and the network’s main public face, savaged their performance of “Over the Rainbow” on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Tuesday?

Mr. Cohen called the performance “awful” and “horrible.”

“A public school chorus singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ ” he marveled. “I literally — if I wasn’t going to go out to some parties I would have slit ’em right then. It was the worst. I was looking for a knife to stick in my eyes, it was so terrible.”

Outside Public School 22 on Forest Avenue on Staten Island on Wednesday morning, as the fourth- and fifth-graders returned to classes, hugs and high fives, Mr. Breinberg was almost overcome with emotion.

“In the terminal, it should only be, ‘Thank you for what you did for our school, our community, our city, our state, our country,’ ” he said. Tears brimmed in his eyes, and his voice caught. Mr. Cohen’s remarks, and the news media response they induced, he said, have tainted the children’s experience. “I feel kind of sorry for a grown-up man to have to use 10-year-olds as a platform for getting attention,” he said. “Shame on him. Shame on him.”

But on their first day back, the chorus was cheerful; the members reveled in front of news crews outside the school, burst into bits of song and gave interviews with the ease of Hollywood professionals. “We’re making the best out of everything,” said Victoria, 11 (the school asked that the children’s last names be omitted for their privacy), “not because we’re superstars or anything, but it’s just because we sing to make you happy as a gift to us.”

Elizabeth, 10, said she was focusing on the standing ovation the chorus received. “I would think in my head just to ignore the negative things they say to us and think of the positive — what the other people think of us,” she said. “We know that we are good enough, so words don’t hurt me.”

Mr. Cohen, for his part, issued an apology Tuesday night on the Bravo show he hosts, “Watch What Happens Live.” “Those P.S. 22 choir kids did not deserve that,” he said. “Heck, I am a product of public education. Anyway, I am sorry.”

For their five-day adventure, the students and 15 chaperons stayed at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel and Spa, and on top of their Oscar moment at the Kodak Theater, they visited Disneyland Resort, where they sang in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle; they performed with Katy Perry on Oprah, and ate a meal at Twist Restaurant where Oprah picked up the tab. “They definitely felt like celebrities,” said Deborah Santamaria, a guidance counselor who served as a chaperon. “The whole trip, they were treated like stars.”

Back home on Wednesday morning, the children spoke of dreading making up the work they had missed, and they discussed how they would navigate friendships possibly strained by their new fame. Mr. Breinberg, who first drew attention to the children when he posted their performances online, was focused on insulating the students from Mr. Cohen’s words.

“Maybe we’re not ritzy and glam, but I think we brought the Oscars back down to earth,” he said. “I prepared the kids for that, that there’s always going to be your trolls out there on the Internet and in real life. I feel sorry for the troll out there who made such a disgusting statement at the expense of our children.”

Melissa Donath, the school’s principal, did not dwell on the controversy. “We are not going to let anything get them down.” She said. Well, maybe one thing: “They have tests to prepare for,” she said, shooing the children away from the cameras and into the school in time for 8:15 classes. “It’s back to business.”