"If I Wasn't Me I Might Be You"
Copyright John Farrell

If I wasn’t me, I might be you,

And if I was you, what would I do?

Would I treat you differently if I could see

That when I looked at you I was looking back at me?

If I wasn’t me I might be Jerome

If I was Jerome I wouldn’t have a home

I would sleep out on the street

And if by chance our eyes should meet

Would you look at me or would you look away?

If I wasn’t me I might be Claire

And instead of legs I’d have a wheelchair

I will never sing or talk

I will never dance or walk

But I can feel when someone cares for me

If I wasn’t me I might be Shirley

A fading shadow of the woman I once used to be

But the strangers came and the strangers stayed

They took my memories away

And what you see is all that’s left of me

If I wasn’t me, I might’ve been Ahkmed

But if I had been Ahkmed I’d be dead

A victim of a senseless crime

In the wrong place at the wrong time

Then darkness came and took my life away

If we weren’t us, we might be them

And if we were them, then they’d be us

We could tear down the walls of hate

And we cold open up the gates

There’d be no them.

We’d all be us.

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Background About the Song
from songwriter John Farrell

“It isn’t us against them, it’s us against us.”

When I wrote these words in my journal, I was thinking about the war in Iraq, the growing gap between the world’s richest and poorest people, and the increasing rudeness and intolerance I was seeing and sensing around me. I was saddened and perplexed that so many people, groups, corporations, and governments seem to view the world as “Us against Them.” When nations go to war, leaders demonize their enemies as being evil. When individuals or groups discriminate against others, commit violent hate crimes, or torture or kill, they treat their victims as if their lives are worthless because they are “different.” When corporations recklessly destroy the rainforest, and do it with disregard for the people, plants and animals that live there, they are in effect saying, “our wants are more important than your needs.” The list of “Us against Them” behaviors and attitudes goes on and on. The idea I wanted to express with the song is that “all of us – and all of life - are connected,” and that if we tried harder to understand how others felt we would act more thoughtfully and compassionately.

As I started working on the song, I was trying to convey these big ideas about war and injustice, but it wasn’t working. The words sounded “preachy” and the message wasn’t coming across in an engaging way. I stopped working on the song, but kept thinking about it, and then one day several months later some seemingly unrelated inspirations converged and the song idea matured.

It was a cold, spring day in early April and a blustery wind was blowing surprise snowflakes through the air. I was stopped at a traffic light en route to my friend Frank Hodge’s book store, Hodge Podge Books, in Albany, N.Y. As I sat there waiting for the light to change a middle-aged woman wearing a long wool overcoat, with a canvas brief case of some sort slung over her shoulder, came pedaling her bicycle through the intersection. I smiled to myself, admiring and identifying with her unwillingness to let the cold or snow change her commitment to ride her bike to work. I grabbed a pen and wrote in my journal “If I wasn’t me I might be you.” Even though I didn’t know her or speak to her, I felt I had just connected with a kindred spirit. I had empathized with her situation.
The second part of the inspiration came from a powerful book called “The House That Crack Built,” which I purchased at Frank’s store that day. The book was written by Clark Taylor and Illustrated by Jan Thompson Dicks, and it is a cumulative verse written in the style of “The House That Jack Built.” The subject matter is the devastating effects of crack cocaine use and the chain of people and transactions that connect the wealthy and powerful drug lords to the suffering addicts on the street, in this case including an infant born to a crack-addicted mother. The book startled and disturbed me. I had never seen a picture book deal with this type of topic before but I quickly realized how effective the presentation was. I was also reminded how important it is to find ways to discuss issues that are unpleasant or troubling without being judgmental and divisive.

I combined the impact that “The House That Crack Built” had had on me with the ideas “It Isn’t Us Against Them,” and “If I Wasn’t Me I Might Be You” and I began writing a song about empathy. The first several drafts of the song included a verse about a crack-addicted teenage mom with a newborn baby, but during one revision I decided the song worked better with that verse removed and I deleted it.

The verses that remain are about people I know personally, or composites of people I’ve met or read about. Claire is my niece whose first name is Annie and her middle name is Claire. Shirley is a composite of a few people I have known who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Jerome is based on some homeless men I have met while volunteering with Midnight Run, a non-profit organization that brings volunteers together to share food, clothing, and fellowship with homeless people in New York City. Ahkmed is based on a Muslim security guard named Mohammed who was killed on September 11 during the terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center. Since 9/11 there has been a deliberate attempt by many voices and organizations to define all Muslims as evil terrorists who are anti-American. This isn’t fair or true, and it inspires fear, hatred, and acts of vengeance. By including a Muslim man as the victim of violence, I hope to encourage listeners to question the prejudices that have created such deep divisions in our world.

I don’t know the reality of being homeless, or the challenge of living with Alzheimer’s or Cerebral Palsy, and I have never been the victim of a violent crime, but I can try to imagine how it feels, and when I do it makes me want to be more thoughtful and understanding in my interactions with others. That’s why I wrote the song.

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Lesson Plans
Suggested for Grades 4 and up (ages 8 and older)

Theme: Empathy as a bridge to understanding others.

Purpose: Students will empathize with the characters and circumstances
introduced in the song and video “If I Wasn’t Me I Might Be You.”

Objectives: To introduce the topic of empathy, stimulate discussions and
elicit responses

To encourage students to examine and express their feelings
regarding people who are different than themselves

To imagine how it would feel to be someone else

Materials: Song lyrics
CD or MP3 recording of “If I Wasn’t Me I Might Be You”
Video of song

Steps: Introduce, Discuss, Listen, View and Respond


Ask students to tell you what they think the word “empathy” means.

After hearing their responses you can ask them to look the word up or share the following dictionary definition with them.
Empathy The identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, etc. of another person.

Ask students if they think that empathizing with another person might lead them to change the way they feel about that person, or gain a greater appreciation for what that persons life is like. To initiate the discussion the group leader might tell about a time that he or she experienced empathy for another person and how that experience affected him or her.

Before Listening:

Tell students that they will be listening to a song (and watching a video) that was written with the intention of stimulating listeners to think about how it would feel to be someone different than they are. If you would like to learn where the song idea came from and how it was developed you can read the entry above from songwriter John Farrell.

Listen to Song and/or View the Video
Just before playing the song or video ask students to do the mental exercise below as they are listening.

Exercise: As you listen to the song imagine that you are one or more of the characters mentioned in the lyrics or depicted in the photographs. Think about how you would feel if you were one or more of these people. Listen and/or view song.

Suggested Response Activities

1. Group Discussion

Ask students to talk about how they felt as they listened to the song. You can use the following questions to stimulate the discussion, or make up your own questions.
Did the song make you feel happy or sad? Why?

Did the song make you think of anyone you know? Why?

Do you think people really live like the people in the song?

If you met one of the people in the song what would you do?
What would you say to them?

If you could do something to help one of the people in the song what would you like to do?

2. Write a New Verse to the Song

Invite students to write a new verse for the song using the same writing style that John Farrell uses in his song. They can write about a person they know or they can create a person from their imaginations.

Begin by writing “If I wasn’t me I might be _________”

3. Create a Character by People Watching

Ask students to imagine that they are someone else, someone whose living conditions are very different than their own. Ask them to think about what their life would be like. To prepare for this exercise in empathy you can do the following activity:
Exercise: Go somewhere where there are lots of people around, places like a shopping mall, a city park, the bus or train station, a fairgrounds or a parade. Observe the individuals and families you see there. Allow your mind to rest on one person, one family, or a small group. Observe them carefully from afar.

Make note of what they are doing, what they are wearing, how they are interacting with others. Make up a story about the person or people you are watching and put yourself in the story as one of the characters.

Who are you?
Where do you live?
What are your hopes and dreams?
What are the problems you have to solve?
How does it feel to be this person?

Write a letter or story telling about your life as this person. Include details about your feelings and concerns, and your plans for the future.

4. Drama Activity

Invite students to create a “role playing” scene in which they act out the role of one of the characters in the song interacting with other people. It could be a chance encounter with a homeless person begging for food or money, a visit to a nursing home where you meet someone who has Alzheimer’s Disease, or a scenario that the students create themselves. After acting out the scene discuss the feelings experienced.

5. Make a Short Empathy Video

Students can to create a short film dealing with the theme of empathy. Below are some options for the style of the video.

Create a documentary style film featuring interviews with classmates and others responding to questions about empathy.

Create a video based on a “role playing” scene done in the Drama Activity.

Create a video involving an imaginary interaction with one of the characters in the song. (Jerome, Shirley, Akhmed, or Claire)

Create a music video about empathy

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