Today the sun is shining. Yesterday we met many of next year’s 9th grade students and their parents at an open house (I was there as a boys’ soccer coach). On Thursday I was at the Cosmos Club in DC as my alma mater, Haverford College, welcomed newly accepted applicants for next fall (and attempted to persuade them to enroll), including two of my students. Today we also finally work on our taxes, already knowing that the only question is how much we will get back from the Feds, as we always get money back from Virginia.
All of these are things about which to smile, or to feel good. And yet I cannot escape from a sense of deep sadness. It is not yet a question of dreading what may come next, although that is clearly an influence. It is something potentially far more debilitating, the possibility of the loss of hope.
As I have noted here before, a teacher’s day and week are often so overloaded with things that must be done that it can be hard to sit and reflect, that is, beyond that reflection on what I must do for the immediate tasks as a teacher. And the sense of purpose, of being there for my students is often what keeps me going when I am exhausted or frustrated.
But praise from others for my teaching, positive evaluations from my superiors, even thanks from my students — present and former — cannot insulate me from the reality that in my quiet moments I confront. And that reality is that all that I do may be without purpose. And that thought is debilitating.
I teach because I hope to make a difference in the lives of my students. I hope that they will be better able to think their own thoughts, to defend their ideas, to dialog with those whose ideas are different. I also blog — sometimes because I believe that something I post may likewise make a difference in the life of someone who encounters my words, or the words from others that I encounter and choose to pass on electronically. And when I look at the small part of the universe with which I normally deal I remain hopeful because on that small scale I can see a difference, both in the impact I have on my students, for example, as well as how working with them changes me in a positive fashion.
Yet as soon as I raise my eyes to a broader horizon, hope begins to fade. There is much about which people post here that could illustrate this — threats against judges with whom people disagree, acceptance of torture as justifiable by far too many in our leadership and in society as a whole, willingness to demean those different from us. Let me reflect on this last — we can read about the National Guardsman who in his training at Fort Knox heard Arabs and Afghans referred to as things such as ragheads — this brought back the painful memory of Marine Corps training where I heard Vietnamese referred to as dinks, slopes, and gooks. So long as one sees one’s opponent as human, it is hard to kill and even harder to torture. But if one can acquire a mindset that perceives that “other” as less than oneself, one has started down the slippery slope that so easily leads to My Lai, to Abu Ghraib, to throwing people out of helicopters and planes in Vietnam, to ‘extraordinary rendering.’
And were one to take advantage of map.google and look at satellite images of places one knows well, one can far too easily see the destruction of the natural world on a large scale. Of course, were we not so oblivious we would see this happening all around us every day. When I go to the mountains and drive out I-66 where I used to see farms and fields and woods I now see Sam’s Club and townhouse condo communities and office parks.
When I teach my students about the horrors and atrocities about which the world chose to stay silent in the past, and they ask me about how we remain silent and ineffectual today — in Darfur, or as we did in Rwanda so recently — what answer can I give them that allows them to hope that their lives will be different?
If you have read to this point, you may be expecting me to now express a worldview that is negative. I will not, for then I could not go on. And I know many who would counsel me not to worry about the “big picture” for precisely that reason. But I cannot ignore, I cannot close my eyes and ears, and I will not be silent.
When I was a child one lesson that I learned in many ways is that sometimes one was confronted with choices. One might do something that would seemingly make no difference, but would do so merely because it was the right thing to do. Each of us probably has memories — either of ourselves as children, or of children we have observed — who will do something that is of no benefit to them, and may even expose them to some kind of risk, of ridicule or even of injury, but nevertheless do so simply because it is the right thing to do.
Were I a parent, I would want my children to be able to understand why people do things that are so harmful — from fear, from rage, from selfishness from whatever motivation — so that they can examine their own motivations and not act for such ignoble if understandable reasons. As a teacher I want to empower my students to be able to ask those questions, of themselves and of others, to determine for themselves the “whys” of the world, and to hope that somehow along the way they will also develop a moral sense that is far broader than “what’s in it for me, for mine?”
I do not know how to define courage, because it is not a term relevant in my own day to day living. I know that I teach not because I have hope about the big picture, because I do not. Were I to ‘realistically” look at the world on a big scale, suicide or selfishness would be the only “logical” responses. Blaise Pascal is famous for his ‘wager” — either there is a God or there isn’t. If there isn’t a God, it doesn’t matter if I act as if there is or not. But if there is a God, and I act as if there isn’t, I will very much be found wanting at the end. Therefore I should act as if there is God. Some may perceive my way of operating as an exemplar of that wager. It is not.
I really have little hope on the large scale. But I will act as if all things are possible. I know that on the very small scale with which I interact I have hope — that this child will learn to write better, that another student will begin to believe in her own ideas. I can believe that with help a student whose parents cannot even read in their native language, having grown up in a nation where schools were closed because of revolutions, can herself earn a graduate degree. I can experience an adolescent who has known nothing but anger and disappointment in earlier days come to experience — both receiving and giving — love and acceptance, and know something of success.
I cannot and will not remain silent about “larger” issues. Even as I have little expectation that anything I say or do will have meaning beyond a very narrow part of the world where people’s lives tangentially touch mine, I feel the obligation not to acquiesce to evil in any way. I will speak and write even at what I perceive as the very real risk that continuing to do so could result in the loss of my profession, my freedom, or even my life. I view those risks as very much on the increase in this nation. I do not take them lightly, but they will not paralyze me, in word or in deed.
If I act without integrity, then I cannot hope that my students will maintain integrity. If I become paralyzed by fear of what may happen, then I can be certain that the alternative which I would not fear cannot happen. If I do not model how it is act even if one has little hope of making a difference but doing so merely because it is the right, the moral thing to do, then I cannot expect that my students will have the example of what that kind of life means.
There are many terms people have used to describe me, as a teacher and as a person. There is only one that is meaningful to me, and that is one that in my own eyes I still have to earn. It is that I live with integrity. I will be 59 in about 6 weeks. I am still learning what integrity means. I do know this — that insofar as i live without integrity, I deny hope to others. For lack of integrity equals surrender to fear, to shame, to despair. If one encounters someone who goes on despite the frustrations, the lack of recognition, even the isolation, some encounter when they go against the grain but follow their conscience — while also recognizing their own fallibility — one gets a window into what is possible for oneself. And then hope is not lost.
I have met several such people in my life. The encounters were quite challenging — and the effects still playing out in my day to day existence. At least one of the persons would consider my describing him as such silly, because he would say he is simply living a life centered on God, and as a monk that is no big deal. One, now dead, was one of the most loving people I have known, a person who maintain his childlike qualities as well as anyone I have encountered. He was a major influence on my from when I met him as my freshman advisor at Haverford in the fall of 1963 until his death a few years ago. And one I will describe as a person — a Shetland sheepdog who knew only one way to relate to the world: with love, with delight, with affirmation.
Having received these blessings, I am duty and honor bound to pass them on to others. And thus this diary.