The Indomitable Dignity of the American Educator, Part II

Minnesota School, 1908

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 low 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, what A.S. Neill describes as “the scared little man”. 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 deep-set that I was barely conscious of it. It became part of my identity, and when I went into teaching it was still there.

Outwardly I validated this fear by getting on the political bandwagon against the blossoming of corporate-backed anti-public school policies in the 2000s. I have spent years filled with angst about the dumbing down of our society, about the long-term effects of the overuse, and misuse of digital media, the attendant decline of reading, the culture of 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 implode. I’ve worried, and worried, and worried, and I have achieved…worry.

It is not that none of these terrible things can’t or won’t happen. We may very well be at the edge of the Edupocalypse. What occurred to me, however, is that living like a rabbit beneath a hawk is no way to live. Regardless of whether I’ll have a job in five years, my rabbit mindset isn’t helping anyone, least of all myself. Fear of the near future is endemic in American society. In his collection, <i>Fates Worse Than Death</i> (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, aren’t they? 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 in isolation. Yes, we must stand up to our enemies, but when we do so 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 spear in the ribs. 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. As Vonnegut describes, we’re talking about something much more pertinent here: enslavement. Now, we must show that same level of commitment and dignity in our every day service. One might argue that teachers are doing so, and have always been doing so. I would agree. The challenge, though is to get mainstream society to see that we are. 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 simply laugh them into silence.


Filed under education general, K-12 public schools, Lost Apple, teachers

7 responses to “The Indomitable Dignity of the American Educator, Part II

  1. Sandra

    “And regardless of whether I’ll have a job in five years, regardless of whether American society will descend into a Hobbesian dystopia in the near future, is my rabbit mentality helping anyone, least of all myself? This fear of what might happen in the world is endemic to American society.”

    My favorite line! You give great perspective to these times where “fear” and the associated anxieties grip the world’s population. As a non- educator, I observe the devastating effects of layoffs, and the fear left in its wake 24/7 for all. No one works with any kind of job security. College grads cannot find jobs, cannot pay loans, and futures appear already burdened with financial distress. The U.S. is not alone. European countries struggle with economies and unemployment; the so-called Arab Spring continues. So, “fear” is global. For teachers, young people look to you for filling their days with meaningful experiences. Thank you for focusing on their needs ahead of the noise.

    At some point, balance must be achieved to function. We each choose how to live and the boundaries of engagement. Happiness matters. I hope summer charges your batteries and the students benefit from your presence with them. Along the way, some co-workers may feel your power and join the “fearless” revolution.

  2. I’m reminded of the scene in Mr. Holland’s Opus when he learns the arts are being cut, therefore he’s being terminated:

    Mr. Holland: Jacobs would have fought this.
    Wolters: She would have lost.
    Mr. Holland: Yes, but she would have fought.

    I agree with you, Iain, on the importance of not having a defeatest attitude. I would also say it is important, though, to fight. I spoke in front of my school board this year about my concerns for high-stakes testing. Did anything change? Yes, I could look at my class and when they sighed about taking another test, I could look them in the eye and say more than, “I know. I know.”

    If one doesn’t resist corporate reform (assuming it’s anti-educational) isn’t a teacher who practices its policies enslaved by it? Perhaps striking what seems to be a paradoxical of inner-peace but outward resistance is the key.

  3. “paradoxical balance”, not simply “paradoxical”…left out the word balance.

  4. Deanne

    You are so dead on! We simply need to keep doing what is right, not just for our students, but for ourselves and our profession as well. Our strength is our passion for teaching and our love for our students. It is indisputable and undeniable to anyone who cares enough to see. Yes, tragedies like Newton and Oklahoma have made that clearer to some in society, but I am certain that the heroic behavior of the educators involved was not a surprise to any of us in our field. The minute we lose our focus which is our passion for teaching and our love for “our kids” (as some already have) we come across as disgruntled union thugs who are p*ssed off about losing our “tenure” and having to pay our “fair shar.” Derrrrr. Let corporate education reformers cut their own throats. Greed has a away of backfiring on even the cleverest of men and good always prevails, at least eventually. In the meantime, as Twain said, and I paraphrase….. let’s not let school ruin our (students’) education.

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