On Joining

My mother and father are both incredibly entrepreneurial people. My father runs his own business. My mother, upon seeing a problem, which she can easily solve herself, just solves it. All through my middle and high school career she volunteered at the school. I remember her constantly taking on more responsibility, streamlining procedures and records to make teachers’ lives easier. I suspect this entrepreneurial spirit is what has led my parents for years to decry the ineffectiveness of meetings.

For as long as I can remember, my parents have railed against meetings. How they take too long. How nothing is accomplished. How the people who need to talk never do. And so it’s a little bit crazy to me that all my life, I have been a chronic joiner.

I join just about anything that has a meeting. In fact, the more meetings an organization has, the more likely I am to be a part of it. I love planning. I love speculating. I love dreaming up recruitment ideas. I love making lists of people to call. I love arguing about ideological points. I love the conflict.

I’ve been reading Grace Lee Boggs’s autobiography, Living for Change, and one of the things that keeps sticking out to me is her perspective on how organizations should be run. She stresses a “dialectical” approach to organization governance. She writes:

we must be wary of becoming stuck in ideas that have come out of past experiences and have lost their usefulness in the struggle to create the future. So over the years I have always kept my ears close to the ground, testing ideas in practice and listening closely to the grass roots for new questions that require new paradigms.

This is a beautiful way of talking about progress. One of my favorite English professors used to tell me that all life was conflict–one conflict after another. When you run out of conflicts, she’d say, you die. In Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century, Grace and her husband James write: “They [the people] must have come to the realization that there is no utopia, no final solution, no Promised Land, and that humankind will always be engaged in struggle, because struggle is in fact the highest expression of human creativity.” To struggle well is the ultimate aim.

I join things because I like the struggle. When I started Students for Education Reform at Ohio University, the first people to sign on with me were people with whom, at the time, I had massive disagreements. At first, this was very hard, especially as we built a language in order to engage in those disagreements in a respectful, affirming way. But over time, we did. I never saw SFER at OU as something with an agenda. My vision for it was always that it be a place where people could safely and honestly discuss issues in education.

We didn’t pull punches. One week I invited the Students for Liberty (the liberatarian) organization to a meeting. While I sometimes talked about the benefits of the charter school movement in our meetings, I spent that night defending the importance of a traditional public education system. This friction was important as I continued to think about and refine my opinions on education.

I constantly sought out conversations with critics of Students for Education Reform. This, too, was incredibly difficult. There were many times when I simply vented my own rhetoric to friends who knew well enough to just let me finish. But over time, I was affected by the friends I developed in the critic community.

The fruit of all of this was developing a handful of wonderful critical thinkers at Ohio University who are able to think critically about arguments from both sides of the education debate.

Still, I often find myself on the receiving end of negative commentary about Students for Education Reform. But I know I would not be anywhere close to where I am today without it. For that reason, I refuse to “un”join.

I now find myself in a similar space with Teach for America. There are many people who assume they know me because of my identification with TFA. There are people who giggle sardonically to themselves when I do something too earnestly, too naively, too optimistically, or too idealistically.

But my favorite parts of TFA are the spaces where we are allowed to be dialectical. These spaces are few, but I love being able to challenge things and to ask a lot of questions. Because I know that there is not some future point where I will be a pedagogically perfect teacher and where I will have all of the “correct” opinions about education. Instead, I need to learn how to communicate with people who actively disagree with me in a way that allows me to learn from them. I would love TFA to create more spaces like that.

My frustrations with both SFER and TFA are of the same nature–that the struggle is not prioritized. We talk often about the lack of the silver bullet in education (even Waiting for Superman talks about it!), which is recognition of the first half of the Boggses quote from above. Not enough attention is give to the second point.

As we struggle, as we treat each other more as humans, we will begin to create processes, educations, and spaces that humanize people. That, in turn, will begin to solve many of the problems we are trying so desperately to solve by stepping all over each other now.

Beliefs Without Consequences

I’m currently reading Grace Lee Boggs’s autobiography Living for Change. Grace Lee Boggs is an activist in Detroit. She and her husband Jimmy Boggs were important organizers in the 1960s during the unrest in Detroit caused by the Civil Rights Movement and Ms. Boggs stays active today.

In her autobiography, she has an entire chapter on her husband. The chapter is an amazing look at how a political-minded person with a heart for love can create real change. She writes:

…Jimmy was always taking care of others. If he looked out the window and saw someone trying to start his car, he was out there like a flash offering his help. He filled out income tax forms for people in the community and for his coworkers, white and black. They trusted him more than they trusted H&R Block and brought their friends and relatives to him. I especially recall Mike, an old Italian retiree with a throat ailment that made him barely audible. Playing the numbers was Mike’s only recreation. One year, after Jimmy had done his taxes, Mike concluded that Jimmy had the inside dope on which number would come out each day. Jimmy didn’t want to disillusion Mike because having someone to talk to every day obviously meant so much to him. So every evening until Mike died, he would call and they would go through the ritual of Jimmy telling him what number had come out that day and giving him a number to play tomorrow.

Jimmy was especially caring toward young people and elders. We watched three generations of young people grow up on Field Street, where we lived for more than thirty years. He called them “my girls” and “my boys,” kept track of how they were doing in school, and was always ready to help them with their homework or with advice about a summer job or how to get a student loan.

Today, I was registered to take the English certification exam in Michigan so that I would be able to teach English there. But I slept through the exam. I slept through the exam.

I was making plans to go out tonight when the Zimmerman verdict came in.

And it’s just… what am I doing? What am I doing that it’s okay that I slept through an exam? What am I doing that it’s okay that I spend my weekends trying not to think about anyone but myself?

TFA really pushes us to create a sense of urgency in the classroom. If my students feel that every lesson I teach is the most important thing they have ever learned, then they will be hooked. That’s the goal. And I guess I’m coming to the realization that my life lacks any sense of urgency. I slept through an exam this morning. Who does that? If I really believe that the world needs changing, then what am I doing about it?

Grace Lee Boggs writes elsewhere:

I never ceased to envy and marvel at the fluency with which Jimmy wrote and the speed with which his pen would travel from the left side of the page to the right. When he came home from work, he would lie down on his stomach on the living room floor with a yellow pad and start writing. He would wake up mornings and dash off letters to the editor before breakfast.

That’s the kind of urgency I want. I’m tired of beliefs without consequences.