Wednesday, June 6, 2018

To the Lighthouse

After a three week period in which we had a baby, moved to a new state, changed schools for the boys, and changed jobs for dad, we lately stopped to take stock of what's happened over the last nine months.

The simple answer: a lot.

Watching the national and international news has been deeply discouraging, bordering on suffocating. As a public school teacher for many years, I've lately felt almost voiceless to know how to navigate the bullying that now emanates from the highest office of leadership in America. I would tell my students at the start of every year that I have a very, very calm demeanor, and that I almost never get angry.

I am a big believer that everything is a learning opportunity. Middle school students, I find, seldom make decisions on the pure basis of trying to deliberately hurt and demean others. Instead, they make decisions without thinking deeply first, without checking in with the empathy in their hearts and minds, without stopping to consider whether it's mob mentality and false reality that drives their choices. Thus, as a teacher, my job is to challenge them to stop and think. To consider their actions from other angles.

BUT, I would tell my 7th graders, there is one thing that does make me deeply angry. And it's the only time you'll ever see Mr. Reynolds raise his voice. That thing? Bullying. When one student (or a group of students) attacks others because they are different, because they are scared, because they don't toe the line of false and insecure machismo or bravado or a certain look or style...that does get me heated. But how can we combat the attacks by those with more power on those with less when such attacks are modeled by the highest office holder in our country?

One possible way: lunch duty.

Many teachers would complain about having lunch duty--a task where we were asked to monitor the lunch waves as high school and middle school students rushed in, ate as if with timers, and gesticulated with gusto.

I loved lunch duty. I cringed seeing how my students interacted when I wasn't at the front of the class, directing our words and actions in a more structured way. So, then, why did I love having that particular duty assigned to me? It gave me a chance to connect with my students in a plethora of teachable moments. I could sit beside the students who happened to eat at tables alone, hear about their hopes and dreams, the books they loved, the poetry they wrote, and the journey they've been on so far.

I could also sit at the tables chock full of rowdy boys and ask them questions, share stories about my own love of poetry or about the movies that made me cry, or literally anything that might force them to stop the marching mentality of mob thinking.

See, lunch was always the most terrifying part of my middle school day when I was growing up. I hated the sheer volume of the massive cafeteria in Windsor, Connecticut. I hated the sense that I didn't belong anywhere. As a kid who loved poetry, basketball, but was terrified to talk in class or take a jumper on my team, I felt like I lived in no man's land. No rarefied struggle at that age, to be sure, but it seemed like everyone else did belong. They found their place. They were cool.

When I got to high school, I searched out the other people who sat alone, and together we forged our own table--a motley crew, to be sure, but one in which I looked forward to sitting every day. There were students who were labeled "learning disabled" and students who were in Special Olympics and students who were intensely shy, and students who just didn't have anywhere else to go. I loved that lunch table.

And when I became a teacher, I saw the same lunch room scene: some tables full of vociferous tweens and teens presenting as though they knew their place in the world--had it all figured out and completely belonged. And then there were the scattered lonely souls--often the same students who had endured years of abuse, mocking, and bullying.

I consistently viewed all of this first as a student, myself, and then as a teacher. But now, due to our own oldest son's experiences, I view it as a dad. This vantage point raises the game to a whole new level--a kind of emotional angst I have never before experienced.

When we are in the public eye--whether in a massive way, as the leader of a country, or a microcosmic way, as the leader of a class--we have an obligation to those who see us. Our obligation is simple, but profound: be better. As Nelson Mandela more beautifully asked, how can we get people to be better than they think they can be? 

Instead of asking, How can I get back at someone? we need to ask, How can I learn to model something better?

We can be sure of one thing in life: we all fail. We all make many mistakes and we all struggle to make our inner worlds align with our outer performances. But that fact does not necessitate any subsequent obligation to stop trying to be better.

When we have students looking up to us, or citizens watching us, the need to respond with kindness is severe and profound. It is our most lacking resource right now. Modeling basic human dignity and decency are desperate needs, and in the absence of genuine leadership, we must strive to show it more to one another, not less.

For the past nine months, I've grappled with the deep divisions I see springing up everywhere. People seem more at odds with one another than I can ever remember in my brief life thus far. There is more animosity, more hatred, more disgust towards one another. But behind all of that, there is also a reverberating dignity that is emerging. I see people who have often been silenced--those relegated to sitting at their proverbial lunch tables all alone--speaking up, and doing so with passion and unwavering commitment.

I see status quo cultural trends beginning to crack. The guise of the macho bravado is being questioned more and more, making way for sensitive boys and men to be who they really are, and show the emotions and inclinations they long to share.

I see an astounding array or books being published by writers who have been underrepresented for far too long. And when I stroll through bookstores and libraries and see these volumes on display, my heart flutters. Books like American Street by Ibi Zoboi, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, and The Serpent's Secret by Sayantani DasGupta make me feel a sense of human dignity and hope that seems unquashable, inextinguishable.

Nine months of a strange malaise is coming to a close. There has been beauty over the past nine months, to be sure. There has been possibility. There has been insight and recognition and hope. Yes., But it has also been a very long winter. In search of genuine leadership based on dignity rather than fear, love rather than vitriol, I have had to search not at the highest pinnacles of power, but rather as the rising up of new leaders--those who perhaps haven't yet peaked, but who are surely en route, and refuse to back down.

There is a lighthouse in York, Maine, where we rent. Called Nubble Light, it still shines brightly every night as a beacon to ships at sea, wondering, perhaps, where they are meant to be. We had driven there a few times to climb, as a family, along the rocky coast nearby.

But it was only this past week, when our oldest son wanted to go for a run, that we learned how close we really were to this beacon. After running a while, Tyler turned to me and asked, "Hey Dad, you think we could run to the lighthouse?" Initially, I resisted, thinking the journey would overwhelm us. And even if we made it there, we'd be unable to make it back.

But that part of me that holds onto hope, that holds onto the possible, said, "Let's do it."

Two miles later, we climbed atop the rocky coast as the sun set. I glanced up from my sons's face to see the bright light of Nubble awake for the night ahead. That beacon of clarity and hope wasn't nearly as far away as it had felt throughout our nine months living here.

The rising of dignity, hope, and empowerment often feel far away because of what gets the most airtime. But I see students who have often been scattered around the lunchroom, lonely, coming together. I see voices rising up to speak stories that have been silent too long. I see boats, searching long, who have found a place to dock.

That place is dignity.