Last week we had the pleasure and privilege of attending our
middle granddaughter’s graduation from a Chicago public magnet high school. The
ceremony was held at the Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place in Chicago
because the school auditorium was too small for the class of over 450 and all
of their supporters. The event was lovely if long, and we especially enjoyed
seeing a certain young woman prance across the stage with grace and confidence
to receive her diploma. The class stats were mind-boggling: every student was
headed to a four-year college, and they’d logged countless volunteer hours in
the community, won numerous academic and athletic championships, and earned $56
million in scholarships! Memorable and impressive, to be sure. That’s part of
the package of a top-notch magnet school.
The part we didn’t anticipate happened when the Special Education students walked across the stage to pick up their diplomas and certificates. Part of the mission of Whitney M. Young Magnet School is “To give students with disabilities the same high school opportunities as their non-disabled peers.” In addition to a sizable faculty and staff, the school has a Best Buddies program that pairs regular and special ed students. Some of these students could not make it across the stage without physical support; a couple had trouble following the directions. But each and every one of them received the same response from the audience of parents, friends, and peers: loud cheering and applause with great gusto. This is a truly inclusive community where high-achieving students whose academic success is often a given appreciate and celebrate the success of those who have overcome obstacles to be able to march across that stage. Their genuinely joyful response was uplifting.
When I commented on it, I was assured that those who have attended
multiple Whitney Young graduation ceremonies experience that every year. Being
part of that kind of school culture, with genuine inclusion, prepares students
to work and live with others regardless of their circumstances. It gives me
hope for the future.
Another school shooting… Yesterday one student was killed
and eight injured by gunfire at a Denver-area charter school. We barely react
any more. We’re too accepting of this “new normal.”
Education Week reassures us: “With two large-scale school
shootings in 2018—17 killed in Parkland, Fla., and 10 killed in Santa Fe,
Texas—public fears about school safety and gun violence are high. But the data
show that, on the whole, schools are one of the
safest places for children.” Is
that supposed to be comforting? Schools should be safe places. We should be
doing more to keep all schools safe. But we don’t know how.
Just last week Florida’s House of Representatives passed a
controversial bill that would permit classroom teachers to carry guns in
schools, and the Governor is expected to sign it. How can this be the answer?
Even if I had been thoroughly trained to use a gun, my fear of guns and the
reality that many of my high school students could have overpowered me and
taken it away suggests that teachers toting guns might only add to the problem.
We are called to the profession for our love of learning and desire to empower students
to experience that. How many teachers are drawn to policing? What would be the
impact of gun access on their relationship with students?
Wouldn’t we be better served addressing key issues?
What drives shooters in the first place and what
we might do about that?
What can we do about access to guns by
individuals who show signs of being unstable?
How can we better identify those individuals?
Why would any civilian need bump stocks and semi-automatic
rifles? Can we outlaw those?
I had high hopes that the courageous students of Parkland
would drive a serious discussion that led to meaningful problem-solving here. I
was naïve. But we need to look at the root causes of school shootings and
address them directly, instead of settling for dangerous “band-aids” like
arming teachers, band-aids that themselves might just lead to more wounds. Our
students deserve that. So do our teachers. The time is now.
I don’t do heights. I don’t much like snakes, mosquitoes or heat and humidity either. How then, did I find myself 94 feet above the jungle, walking 940 feet between three strong metal towers on a swaying bridge? By climbing fourteen flights of steps in 98ﾟheat with 90+% humidity.
A better question might be why, or even how? The answer speaks to educators. Our trip facilitator knows me well and he knew the situation. He’s helped me overcome my limits before, though perhaps never so dramatically. We talked about the canopy walk before I even left the safety of my home. He knew how to help me choose to go.
He said, “You can do it, I know you can, and I’ll help. Just
take your time – we won’t rush you. And you won’t want to miss it.” He made me
believe in myself enough to overcome deep-seated fears because I believed him.
I could, he’d help, I could take my time, and I’d be sorry if I skipped it.
It’s worth noting that when we kayaked the Lake Country of
Italy with him two years earlier and I chose not to take a clumsy funicular up to
a frightening height, he didn’t push me. Instead we had a wonderful paddle. So
if he said this wasn’t to be missed, I wouldn’t miss it.
And I had additional support to see me through. Our kayaking
buddy Ada, with whom we’d taken two other trips, had seen my bypass the funicular
and knew I wanted to do this terrifying climb. She promised to walk with me. I
would not face this scary challenge alone.
So I climbed. At halfway up I questioned my sanity, but I
kept going. When we finally reached the top of the first tower, the view of the
jungle’s canopy was breathtaking. The drop to the ground below looked gentler
than it must have been, and I finally caught my breath. Dripping in sweat,
cursing the heat and humidity, I did take the time to do a 360ﾟview.
My husband had patiently climbed right behind me, but at the top I lost him to his
camera. While he clicked away, taking pictures I knew we’d both be glad to have,
I headed out on the walkway toward the middle tower, determined to complete the
walk before I lost my nerve.
The first half felt fairly stable, and I found myself
looking ahead and around rather than down. This
isn’t so bad, I thought to myself. I stopped briefly at the middle tower,
winded and dripping with sweat. I need to
finish this, I thought, and I can do
Sadly the second 450’ swayed far more. Whimpering, I practiced
self-talk. I wanted to quit but knew that the closest path to the safety of the
ground was straight ahead. Happily my friend Ada walked back to join me. I kept
my eyes on the back of her neck and hung on to the coarse rope cable to gain an
illusion of control. My legs were trembling when we reached the far tower, but
I had done it – I had completed the dreaded canopy walk and was alive to tell
Now I just had to make my way down 14 more flights of
stairs. Since everyone else was captivated by the view, I worked my way down
slowly. I wanted to kiss the ground when I reached it, as I had after my son
talked me into riding Big Thunder Mountain in Disneyland, but the mud seemed
unappealing. Finally the others joined
me and we hiked back to the lodge though the jungle. Dehydration and fatigue
sapped my energy, yet I was triumphant! I had just done something I’d been sure
I couldn’t do. I could have been faster, more graceful, less noisy in my whimpering,
but I’d done it nonetheless. And now, when I face new challenges, I will be a
bit more confident because of this triumph.
Next month I’m going to model a semi-transparent dress in a runway
show. I’ve had garments I’ve designed on the runway before, but I’ve never had
to model them myself, and this garment is particularly problematic. But I will remind myself that I completed the
canopy walk, and that will see me through.
Why write about this in a teaching blog? Because sometimes
our students feel as apprehensive as I did. We may not understand why, but we
need to recognize their fears and help them conquer those fears. Those who don’t
share my acrophobia may never really understand how hard this walk was for me,
but they can help me succeed by acknowledging my true feelings and showing me
how to overcome them. We need to tell our students, “You can do this. I’ll help
you. Take your time. You’ll be glad you did.”
And in collaborative, constructivist classrooms, we need to
encourage their classmates to support them the way Ada supported me. I am
reminded of a presentation in our American Lit class by a student who struggled
with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. When he stood up to speak, he started
biting his arm. Quietly the other members of his group stood up, surrounded
him, and nodded encouragingly. He was able to present his part of their material.
With their support, he triumphed. Far less dramatic situations happen in
classrooms every day, and teachers and classmates can make a difference.
Students who overcome their fears and do something they thought they couldn’t become
empowered to tackle additional challenges. It’s up to us teachers to help that
We just returned from an amazing ten-day kayaking trip in Cuba, and I’ve been thinking about how much I learned and how I learned it. Though we love to kayak in foreign waters – a wonderful and different way to explore new places – a bigger draw for this trip was my long-time wish to return. In 1954 my family spent part of winter break in the first resort hotel in Varadero Beach, Cuba, during Batista’s regime. I knew nothing of the politics or corruption there, so for me the trip was wonderful, set apart from our other frequent family travels by two distinct epiphanies.
First, my beloved brother Peter, gazing at the wondrous
expanse of silver-white sand, challenged me to help him figure out just how
many grains of sand there were covering the shoreline. I would never have
thought about that without his prompting, and we spent endless time collecting
sand, estimating the number of grains each time, and trying to extrapolate
those findings into a likely total. Peter introduced me to a new way of
thinking about the world around me.
The second involved the local children we befriended. I
don’t remember the name of the boy, but I will never forget Marielle. I’ve
always loved languages so, although I was only seven, I had brought a
Spanish-English dictionary. I worked to learn phrases so I could talk with
locals. A bit older, Marielle wanted to learn English and often glanced
longingly at my book. She lived near the hotel, so my parents agreed to walk me
to her home before we left so I could give her the dictionary to keep. This was
not the first time I’d visited a place with a different living standard from my
own affluent suburban upbringing – our parents were invested with our
understanding that diversity. Other places had failed to make a lasting
impression. This time, though, I visited the home of my new-found friend. Her
family had so little, a dramatic contrast to the lifestyle I’d always taken for
granted. That visit taught me not to take my comforts for granted, not to be so
This long-awaited trip to Cuba reinforced that learning. We
had the privilege of staying in casa
particulares, private homes owned by Cubans who rent rooms to tourists. The
Cuban economy uses a dual-currency system: Cuban pesos for locals who are paid
by the government, and Cuban convertible pesos, worth 25 times as much, for use
by tourists. This system creates what our wonderful guide Roberto calls an
“upside-down pyramid.” Professionals like his doctor father and teacher mother
must live on a miniscule salary in Cuban pesos, while those who manage to work
in tourism improve their financial standing dramatically. Having lived through
the 1990s economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union left Cuba
stranded, he himself changed his career path to tourism so he could help
support his family. Putting any political judgments aside, I found the
resourcefulness and friendliness of the Cubans we met inspiring.
lesson I bring back from this experience is our common humanity. Two of my
favorite experiences emphasized this. Our hosts just outside the old town of
Trinidad welcomed us warmly. When Marisol said, “Mi casa e su casa,” she really
meant it. Hot and sweaty on arrival, we were treated to Canchanchara, the traditional drink. Once fluent in French and
Italian, I’d made little progress in my study of Spanish before the trip, and
Marisol and her husband and son spoke virtually no English. But we communicated
with gestures and smiles and my occasionally looking up words in my second
Spanish-English dictionary. The next afternoon, when we returned from a hike
through the old town after a river paddle, again sweaty and tired, we sat on
their back portal. Her son came to invite us back into the gardens where it was
cooler, and they surprised us with refreshing limonada. The pictures I’d brought from our 1954 trip fascinated
the family, and we felt a strong human connection.
The next day we
visited the beautiful city of Cienfuegos, where we were treated to a stellar
performance by a local choir. Music is a constant in Cuba, and we’d enjoyed
singers and bands throughout our trip. This time, however, felt very personal.
The choir began with a heart-felt rendition of the American song Shenandoah, moving me to tears. The
other pieces were in Spanish, but their spokeswoman kindly explained the
content of each before singing. I loved the piece about the person who though
he could sing, who really sang like a duck as exemplified by their quack-quacks
during the song! During their last song
they invited us to come up and dance with them – a wonderful experience!
Afterwards they invited questions and comments. Overwhelmed, I barely managed
to get my words out… but I told them that I could not sing and was the duck, making
them all laugh, and that I had loved their performance because they made me
realize that for all our differences, we shared a common humanity that too
often gets forgotten. My tears weren’t the only ones.
group is as good as any I’ve heard, yet they struggle to raise the money to
record their work, and they must sell their CDs to pay for their trips to
competitions despite how professional and accomplished they are. Once again I
was reminded of how much I take for granted.
All of which
made me think about why I became a literature teacher in the first place. Not
everyone has the opportunity to travel widely, to meet people from other places
who live very differently from ourselves and to realize how much we still have
in common. We appreciate many of the same gifts: a laugh, a smile, a song,
friends, sharing a good meal… But anyone who can read simply needs a library
card and time. Through stories and books, we can discover so much about the
rest of the world.
I was excited to see some progress in the 80s and 90s –
albeit excruciatingly slow – to have children’s textbooks include a variety of
people, so that all students might see themselves reflected on the page. As a
teacher I helped include books in the curriculum that showed my students very
different lives. If I were still in the classroom now, I would look for even
more ways to do that. The canon is broader than it used to be, but educators
can be more strategic in what they choose and how they use it. I used to tell
my freshmen that Romeo & Juliet is a story they can recognize: two
teenagers so “hot to trot” that they sneak around behind their parents’ backs,
heedless of possible consequences. When my sophomores read the riveting memoir Warriors Don’t Cry, they had to imagine
what it was like for Melba Beals and the other eight students to integrate
Little Rock High School, to face down the hatred and opposition of
segregationists. When my seniors read The
Plague by Albert Camus, they faced a world where medical care could not
save the victims. Well-written stories bring other worlds to life. We need to
include them in our curricula. Our students can and should learn that while
much divides us, more unites us. The human experience transcends local