Ode to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Waldo Emerson
First off, let me tell you that I am doing as well as can be expected. In spite of the flu epidemic that has had its way with several members of my family, we are in good health and of sound mind and spirit. I am writing because I wanted to talk to you about an important topic, that at this very early morning hour gave me great clarity and purpose. In my euphoria of the moment, I am still not sure if these words are a mere result of what some might call a semi-feverish state, or if in fact I have stumbled upon some nugget of truth worthy of sharing. Either way, I’ve already made up my mind to write to you, my dear friend and Comrade.
I want to share my thoughts with you about the proliferation of charter schools, online school programs and other such structures of choice that have been neatly implanted in the architecture of our country’s school system that I believe can serve to divide our minds, pit our hearts and souls against one another. If we look hard at certain structures and current norms of education society, we can see how we might have been left blind to a fundamental obligation as civic and social servants— to develop and nurture all children in this country with a common spirit of excellence and achievement, a shared sense of social responsibility, a connection to a community of greater purpose, and an understanding of relationship and interdependence.
Public education has always been the way to access knowledge and the joy of discovery, an opportunity for community building and encouraging important dispositions we typically associate with being a wise human being– such as compassionate, insightful, critical thinker and courageous, to name a few. Dispositions such as these are direly needed if we are to continue to raise children to engage in, participate in, improve upon and enliven our society. Let me be clear, this is not an attack on charter schools or on-line programs, in particular. In fact, I hold entrepreneurship and freedom to personalize one’s education experience in high esteem. However, this is a mere warning that perhaps in exchange for such fast-paced innovation, we have allowed ourselves to be divided and conquered or robbed of our ability to coalesce and transform society through one collective, large scale movement.
What are we to do but to try to expose the roots and causes of this blindness, that which may be built into our ideologies and infrastructure? Perhaps it is worth our consideration, to look at a potential toxic thread called narrow individualism and separatist thinking. These are both a mindset and a way of doing and being in the world that allows for and even encourages inequitable funding, the poor distribution of resources in education and projects and/or institutions that are self-aggrandizing or self-serving. We can see this all the way down from the smallest gerrymandered school district, often relegated to communities of color and poor people, to reputable, prestigious institutions where, in the case of the latter, the “us vs them” and hierarchal norms are often well designed and reproduced, both in architecture and in every day practice. Dear Comrade, you must know that to which I am referring, the laundry list of behaviors and vague occurrences that we bear witness to on a daily basis that are too many to include in this letter.
This morning I felt a bit run down and old, rethinking my twenty-six years in the field of education. This is a confession, Comrade, since you know quite well that I am the first one to espouse the power of good spirits and agency! But, that there is something fundamentally wrong with how we perceive and treat each other, divisive norms and institutions in constant competition is undeniable. It is everywhere and revealed in our patterns of thought, conversations, how we perceive and judge people from other schools or organizations, how we choose to channel our energy… Perhaps it is acceptance or surrender to forces of evil that in spite of all of our greatness, we seem overcome by our own fear of survival and every day unchecked, routine actions.
That which I am speaking about, of course, is our inability to be inclusive, to work together for the common good, to demonstrate how education is the great hope and glory of our civilization, to see public schooling as a valuable social and civic service institution, the great unifying force and democratic endeavor that reaches across this vast and diverse country. This is the way that I came into it, believing in it, the hope and value of education as the foundation of the great American dream. Years later, I knew very well that this is not the great American dream, by far, but simply a human dream, the universal dream of being able to get past an existence of mere survival and tribalism to an existence full of happiness, passion and self-actualization. This dream has always been elusive in the United States because so much of our history reveals the eternal flaw and folly—a self-actualization that was not meant to include all living beings, respect for our mother earth and regard for humanity. For us who know well enough, the power and promise of any dream lies in its imagery and vision– dreams have the ability to speak to us in quantum, transcendental ways, to resonate a message for our personal well being, our social well being, the omniscient power of the transpersonal realm.
As many of you know, I have spent numerous occasions in life in which I have fallen through the cracks of the structure and tradition of norms that make up our tightly knit education system. In these moments, I have found solace in innovation and alternative pathways to express voice and stay involved. These lapses have been much the fault of my own since I have stubbornly dared to expect more, to have spoken truth, to have believed in the ideals given to me—many of which I was taught at home and in the very schools I am most concerned about! This is the vision of education for enlightenment, if there were such a word to encompass all that I feel for my beloved education! It is a vision of doing something great in the world, of making a difference through the blood, sweat and steam that a human being can create within herself and within the context of a school system! In sum, I have sometimes fallen out of the good graces of those who exalt the great education traditions and have suffered financial setbacks and isolation. However, from this great abyss, I have always been given a return to the Over-Soul, as Ralph Waldo Emerson named it; the great wisdom and connection to all of humanity. It is the full knowing that we do not under any circumstances have it all under control. Herein lies the only certain mystery that affords us humility, passion for living, compassion for human suffering…the partnership with some greater energy.
All of us that have fallen to the bottom of the well, find ourselves in these bare moments, where we recognize that we are just another fallen soul. And it is in these moments in time that we find ourselves in truth and communion with revelation. It is revelation that says, we all fall and we all overcome. We rise again, like Ralph Ellison rises out of the sewer, to find power and promise in his great pen. It is the universal Phoenix, the journey of the soul, that we rise again, transcending this bleak landscape and in doing so, learn to come together as One to work for the common good.
Isn’t this what education ought to be about, learning to work together for the common good, to address the greatest challenges of our time, a time in the universe which we share?
Ought it not be about coming together in communion with this revelation?…Ensuring that each of us gets up and out of the darkness, stands tall, walks with pride and dignity and is held by collective arms, to find the source, to feel firmly secure, in body, mind, and spirit— to raise a family and teach and read and deposit in each generation a passion for discovering one’s own unique personal power, curiosity and talent?
I woke up this morning feeling the need to share these thoughts with you dear Comrade. There is simply too much division, too much attachment to survival and materialism in education. There are too many good teachers, school leaders, strong educator souls running around with the best and brightest ideas but who cannot see outside the fury of their diligence and discipline to realize that no one school in the middle of a ghetto will ever flourish, no one school director, or charismatic leader working narrow-minded and alone will ever transform a community, no organization that is trapped by materialism, fear, greed and nepotism will ever have an impact on the hearts and minds of the young people, that which should always be our centering force. For it is the young people who see right through it all, especially those who for no fault of their own have the most unfortunate fate, who have to swim through the muck of every sidewalk crack early on in their upbringing, those who we marginalize and shut out too early in society. The young people sense it, see it, know it long before they know how to utter the word hypocrisy.
Before Martin Luther King’s death, he spoke of the three great evils, racism, materialism and militarism. I want to second his speech and I also want to draw our attention to the great evils poisoning our spirit in education—they are fear, individualism, cynicism and hypocrisy. Just let those words sit in your brain for a moment. See how they are all interrelated. Seeing patterns in life and in the laws of nature is critical for our confronting these evils. Why, just yesterday as I was driving fast on the highway, I looked up into the sky and saw a flock of birds heading in the south direction. South from my perception that is. They flew together with such direction, purpose and confidence. They had an internal rhythm that appeared to be an invisible cord guiding all of their movements, down to the flap of their wings, miraculously in unison. It occurred to me that fish in the sea travel in the same way. Scores of fish turn this way and that way, together one electrified collective unit. And while driving and entranced by the beauty of their coordination and sonar like communication—it dawned on me that the birds flying in the deep blue sky and the multicolored score of fish swimming together through the deep blue ocean mirror each other. What happens down below in the great dark abyss of blue green waters is also what happens in the turquoise heavens, in the vast blue sky, in the open day light. All is one, I think, all is one in nature as all is one and the same in the spirit of education.
So what do these laws of nature have to teach us about how we must confront the great evils poisoning our education system? I believe that our greatest potential and hope for the future lies in our willingness to relearn how to work together, to open our eyes to the wholeness of our collective experience, to reach out to your education Comrades, across race, religion, gender and across the generations, to collaborate, to build coalitions, to offer help, service, support, real encouragement and positivity. Pay attention to the smallest detail that defines who we are as a community and how we engage with each other, the time it takes to communicate and respond to a hopeful email, for example, the words we use to express ourselves in text, in email, over the phone, in a meeting, the how we choose to make our Comrades welcome in the field, to show them what it’s like to fly guided and unafraid, to honor our word above all else, to extend a helping hand to everybody who says they want to do something great– and most importantly, to do so in the NOW, even when we feel overextended or busy. How we behave with each other is indicative of the character of our field, it is first and a priority. Only then can we turn our attention to the outside world and consider education. Building community, amassing energy, coordinating our efforts, flying together, inside and outside our ivory tower institutions, this matters.
Look, Comrade, I know there is so much more to say but I have lost my wind. I told you- I’ve been up since early morning and still, I’m a bit feverish. I need to rest now. I will write again, I promise. Today is a new day.