Precious few, if any, administrators, principals, school boards, educational theorists, or department heads talk about love or its place in school curricula. Education debate and policy centers primarily on reform options, assessment, school funding and consolidation, testing, core standards, uniforms, resource officers, mainstreaming versus inclusion, achievement gaps, the effects of poverty on learning, safe schools and bullying, technology, age-grouping, school choice, vouchers, privatization or charter schools. Essentially the focus is on systems of delivery and containment, safety, methods of instruction, measurement of “outcomes,” and the pursuit of equality. While at heart these issues concern the well-being of children, the process of discussing them is mechanistic, riddled with mind-numbing jargon, and certainly does not involve the students themselves.
After the massacre in Parkland, Florida, much of the talk focused on “hardening” schools. I wonder: a hardened school might a better fortress, but would it be a better place to learn and grow? Principals all over the country are consumed with how to put their schools in lock-down or get more funding for protection and resources. And no one—parents, principals, teachers or superintendents—can come to a consensus on what hardening schools actually means. Does it mean live video feeds to police? The ability to trigger gates to shut down halls? Panic buttons? Armed teachers? Metal detectors and swipe cards? Florida added $400 million for school safety when in its recent legislative response to the Parkland shooting. That much money might make Florida school children more protected. But it bandages over larger societal ills and merely keeps fear at bay.
The North Branch School has a mantra, repeated at graduation every June. Love is what it’s all about. All of the kids—7th, 8th, and 9th graders—having read their graduation speeches, stand together in the Ripton Community House and shout those words as loud as their voices will carry.
I try to keep it simple. On the first day, and as often as I can, I look at them and I say in every way I know how: I love you. I love who you are and who you are becoming. I love your idiotic, idiosyncratic gestures and the fumbling ways you move yourself forward. I love you because you are flailing, hopeful, persistent, strange, and lovely. I love you because of what your mind can do; because of what you accomplish or what you try to accomplish; because you are human and finding your way. I am not merely an educational technician. I am a human being, like you, filled with passion, yearning, questions, hopes, struggles, and dreams. We are in this together. Even when you are paralyzed, inert, lost, stubborn, resistant, or stagnant, I love you and will push you onward.
The real work of teaching is in how to walk the line between toughness and tenderness. I mean toughness in the sense of holding to high expectations. I mean tenderness in the sense of love and patience. No matter, we end up at the same place every day. How can we better learn what love is? How to make it, and how to preserve the world by putting love into the world.
We want our schools to be more than than fortresses. We want them to be luminous places of unvaulted striving. I think of Malcolm X, who described what learning in a prison was like, who discovered books and the power of knowledge in a constant lock-down, with real guards, iron bars, and locked cells. His own cell was close enough to a dim light on a landing that stayed on all night. This allowed him to read through the long hours of the night. He would lay on the floor with his books flat to catch enough illumination to read by. When guards approached, he dashed back to his bunk, and when the guards had passed he went back to reading by the glow of that one dim light. Malcolm read everything he could get his hands on. He discovered the history of ancient black civilizations, African colonization, Gandhi, the history or American slavery, religion, genetics, and philosophy. He wrote that “ten guards and the warden couldn’t have torn me out of those books…I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life.”
He was in love with his learning and the possibilities therein. We want for our children to feel like this when they go to school. That they feel their school is more than a place of mere instruction, That it portends possibility and mystery. That it should be more than merely hardened and safe. That it should be bathed in transformative light.
We read 1984 this winter, and discovered, along with Winston and Julia, a place called the Golden Country. Winston thinks of it by day and knows it from his dreams:
“It was an old, rabbit-bitten pasture, with a foot-track wandering across it and a molehill here and there. In the ragged hedge on the opposite side of the field the boughs of the elm trees were swaying very faintly in the breeze, their leaves just stirring in dense masses like women’s hair. Somewhere near at hand, though out of sight, there was a clear, slow-moving stream where dace were swimming in the pools under the willow trees.”
Winston’s dreams are but one gateway into the orchard of love. There we find ourselves with Winston and Julia in that world beyond, transported from the gray, concrete oppressions of IngSoc and Airstrip One. The Golden Country presents the dream of unity, wholeness, safety, and tenderness which, incidentally, are dreams that entrance my students.
Again and again we find ourselves doing things that require us to have faith in love, doing things which soften our hearts. Or we see the strange ways love manifests in our lives and in the life of the school. One example is the maple tree we planted two years ago in memory of Ana Martinez-Lage, the mother of two former NBSers, Amalia and Marina. When Marina left the school, Lena promised her friend Marina that we would go out to the tree each January to read “When Great Trees Fall” by Maya Angelou, which had been an important poem for Marina during her time at the school.
So on the anniversary of Ana’s death, we trooped out into the wind and snow and Lena read the poem. Perhaps only one or two of the kids had known Ana. A handful of them knew who Marina was. But they participated in the ritual–a ritual of love, devotion, and memory. They were wrapped up in it, even though it was distant to them. In this manner the wider world beyond them came into them, through the sound of the poem and Lena’s faltering voice, in the wind and the gray clouds, in our standing there together in a ragged circle in memory of a life they barely knew, and in the midst of the life awaiting them all.
Sometime in February, on a Sunday before the school week, Phoebe went outside on a snowy afternoon. The sun was shining, and birds were moving in the understory and at the edge of the woods. Phoebe took handfuls of birdseed and stood as still as she could, her hands outstretched, to see if she could induce the flittering black-capped chickadees to land in her palm. She told us about it in class in morning meeting the following Monday. There’s nothing in any school curriculum that requires that students try to feed birds in mid-winter, or to speak of it in class. Yet I found myself thinking about how ridiculously beautiful and good it was. I chalked up Phoebe’s bird-feeding as a blow against the forces that have colluded to drench our nation in high-powered guns. How could you not love them when they do the things that they do? Phoebe’s act, to my mind, was in harmony with those children who recently took to the streets, conducted mass school walkouts, or headed to the state legislatures in an effort to change the violent culture in which we find ourselves enmeshed. A more loving world would have more mittened children communing with small birds.
In Night, we witness with Elie what it means to hear loving words—”the first human words”—when he and his fellow Jews arrive at Auschwitz. The prisoners are counselled: “Don’t lose heart. We shall see the day of liberation. Have faith in life. Above all else, have faith. Drive out despair, and you will keep death away from yourselves. Hell is not for eternity. And now, a prayer—or rather, a piece of advice. Let there be comradeship among you. We are all brothers and we are all suffering the same fate. The same smoke floats over our heads. Help one another. It is the only way to survive.” It is a most loving call, these words. When we read them aloud in class, it was as though they were being offered to us now, applicable to this world, today. How can we survive together, more lovingly, more as one family or world? How, against all odds, do we find comradeship among ourselves?
Later we saw that even as Elie felt his god dying inside him, his love for his father grew deeper. His prayers were no longer offered up blindly to the Master of the Universe. Rather, he prayed “to a god in whom I no longer believed” that he be strong enough to never abandon his father. We witness the manner in which his religious devotion is pared down to inchoate rage, and yet how, miraculously, his capacity for human love endures.
Love–talking about it, thinking about it, writing about it—that’s what we do. We debate the meaning and value of telling someone “I love you,” particularly if we know that someone is at life’s end. Once, a student told us how, even as his Grandmother descended into dementia, he continually told her, “I love you.”
“But why would I do that? he asked. “She wouldn’t remember it. But I realized, I had to. It was the right thing. Even for that moment when I told her, she would feel that love. It was my responsibility to put that love into the world.”
Recently, Ethan’s story about his brother brought the idea out in a similar way. He had been missing his older brother, Wyatt, who had been a ninth grader during Ethan’s first year in the school, Now his brother was graduated. Ethan had no one to rely on, no closest companion, no best friend or soulmate, and he felt great distance from his peers, who’d fragmented into separate groups.
One day, despairing that he was alone and powerless to make new meaningful connections in his class of fellow eighth graders, he ran into the woods, where he wept fiercely, and attempted to find the source of his rage. Yes, he had been mad at his classmates for not trying, for being behind in their work, for being separated from each other. But his greatest anger came from his own inactions. If he wanted the school to have more love in it, if he wanted his school to be that loving sanctuary that he’d felt when his brother was in the school, he had be the one to make it. He had to find a way to project his own yearning into the world. At the end of the story he had his conclusion: “The truest and only way to spread love and tell people not to hate is to love, to love with all your heart,” he wrote.
This is what we actually do at school. This is life, and it is all about love. Along the way maybe I can teach them a little more about how to express it. I can teach them to think logically, a little more systematically, on multiple levels or from perspectives that are not always their own. A school can indicate some values that are worth preserving. We can teach them to see the world scientifically, as something to be measured, observed, and understood. And we can help them use that kind of seeing as a way to think in terms of evidence and fact. We can help them read multiple meanings in a single action, symbol or syllable. We can help them learn to discern the overtones and undertones of speech or music or to see, as Wislawa Szymborska writes, “the roots beneath the oil paint.”
But in the end we want to release them into a world valuing life, loving life, and wanting to live in and create love. We want them to love the world, to do so fearlessly, to know what they have to do. We want them to love the people close to them, and to seek in others they do not know the places where they can love.
“We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity,” wrote Malcolm X. The nirvana we seek, the holy place we touch, the pure land we sometimes come to discover in this school has happened when they looked at each other, really listened, and saw that there are, indeed, strange and beautifully lit places where all of their hearts, overlayed and stacked like the sediments of earth, share the similar qualities and longings and vulnerabilities. When they see this, they begin to love each other. When they see this, and feel it, it is easy to love them.