Ultimately, what I came to see about myself as a teacher is that it doesn’t really matter what is done to me by the system, or those forces trying to degrade or outright dismantle it. Or, rather, I simply can’t let my fear of what might happen control what I do. What matters is my dedication to my students.
Having said this, I can already guess the hackles that might be rising with some. What I am saying flies in the face of common sense, or worse, validates the ideologies of corporate reformers. But before growling sets in, let me clarify that I am talking about a shift within my heart, not a shift in my awareness or my values.
The truth is that I spent my youth working jobs I wasn’t necessarily happy with, and living every day in fear. The anxiety came from the sense that I did not belong in those roles and that I might somehow become trapped in them. It was an ingrained fear, so ingrained that I was barely conscious of it. It became part of my identity, and when I went into teaching it was still there. Even my classrooms reflected it: spare, functional rooms, lacking in personal touches, or never full set up to my satisfaction; I wasn’t unpacking all my bags because I didn’t want to get too comfortable in this hotel. Again, I am talking about a fundamental lack of commitment to craft and calling.
I outwardly validated this fear by getting on the political bandwagon against the destructive anti-public school policies of the 2000s that continue to this day. I have spent years filled with angst about the fate of our dumbing down society, about the long-term effects of overuse of digital media, the decline of reading, the increase of youth violence, all compounded by an over-quantified, test-driven schooling that leaves no room for critical thought or creativity, and that in fact suppresses both. And I have also worried about my job, whether I will have a career from which I can retire, or if it will all blow away like smoke when the unions blow up and my kids poor test scores sink my evaluations. I’ve worried, and worried, and worried, and I have achieved worry.
It is not that none of these terrible things won’t happen. They may very well happen. What occurred to me, however, is that I have been living like a rabbit beneath a hawk. And regardless of whether I’ll have a job in five years, regardless of whether American society will descend into a Hobbesian dystopia, is my rabbit mentality helping anyone, least of all myself? This fear of what might happen in the world is endemic to American society. In his collection, Fates Worse Than Death (1991), Kurt Vonnegut writes about the social psychology behind nuclear arms, observing that it is our fear of being enslaved, rather than our fear of death that drove the madness of the arms race (today that threat has been largely replaced by terrorism, ecological decline and global pandemics). Yet considering slavery in ours and our perceived enemies histories, he writes:
[T]he last time Americans were slaves, and the last time Russians were slaves, they displayed astonishing spiritual strengths and resourcefulness. They were good at loving one another. They trusted God. They discovered in the simplest, most natural satisfactions reasons to be glad to be alive. There were able to believe that better days were coming in the sweet by-and-by. And here is the fascinating statistic: They committed suicide less often than their masters did (143).
Vonnegut, the Twain of our time has been accused of being a curmudgeon, but really he is one of the most hopeful and optimistic of our great thinkers. He is not suggesting that we make peace with some inevitable fate. He is exhorting us to get straight with ourselves about the limitless power we possess to transform our lives and the lives of others. Daisaku Ikeda writes:
Those who are facing stiff challenges are earnest. That seriousness provides the power to discipline and strengthen oneself and achieve remarkable growth. That’s why adversity can be considered “the mother of happiness” (World Tribune, 1/21/2011).
Well, that’s all very nice, but what about those corporate reformers? They’re still going to wipe out equal education for all and decimate the teaching profession? It doesn’t really matter whether one has strength and dignity in the face of the storm. The storm is still a matter of fact is it not? Certainly. How can I deny that it is not? Nevertheless, two things compel me: (1) I do not want to live my life in fear, and (2) I cannot possibly motivate students to win in their lives if I am not modeling victory in my own.
When I look at teachers today, I see a million volcanoes, each smoking away in isolation. Yes, we must stand up to our enemies, but when we do we must absolutely win. Moreover we can have no doubt about our victory. I have said before that the slander and opposition we receive should be worn as a badge of honor, rather than felt as a pike in the ribs. More than our rage, much more than our rage, it is our indomitable dignity that will win the day. We have shown society glimpses of that dignity in the teacher sacrifices at Newtown, but that is only death. Now, we must show that same level of commitment and dignity in the every day of our service. One might argue that we are, that we have always been doing so. I would agree. The challenge, though is to get mainstream society to see it. Let us get our internal houses in order such that we cut figures so compelling, so undeniably compassionate and dedicated to service that when billionaire philanthropists hurl volleys at us, our friends and neighbors will simply laugh them into silence.