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It is a Sunday afternoon.  My planning for the week is largely done.  Most household tasks are done.  I have sent off one book review, will finish reading a book for another with about an hour's effort.  

I have some time to reflect without a previous focus.  I read things from papers, glance at postings here and elsewhere, handle some email correspondence, some of which connects me with the frustrations and angst of my fellow teachers because of my roles as union leader for my building and someone others turn to for advice about their lives as teachers.

In the midst of all this I wrestle with conflicting emotions of my own, as embodied in the title of this piece.  Those conflicts are about continuing as a teacher.  They are about what I present to young people, such as the students of education for whom I gave this keynote address yesterday at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

They are also about hopes and fears about the environment, about the economic future of many in this country.  It is about wanting to believe in an audacity of hope versus a sense of despair that nothing I or anyone else can do seems to make a difference.

So I sit at my computer and try to sort it out.

Despite the conflicts I feel within me, despite the conflicts of emotion I perceive among many I know personally or whose words I read, in books and online, ultimately I can only be answerable for myself, how I choose to act - or not act - when finding myself conflicted by such emotions.

As a teacher, I know the real question for my students, whether or not that will regularly phrase it that way, is very basic.  It is three simple words:  

Who am I?

Perhaps one problem in our society is that we give that question short shrift - not merely in how we educate, because certainly it is rare that we frame our discussions about education in a fashion that allows us to see students wrestling with this essential question.  

Our political discourse similarly seems to exclude consideration of that question.  We talk about groups of people, rather than seeing collections of persons, each an individual absolutely unique.  

Perhaps it is that some in positions of authority and power see no reason to wrestle with that question for themselves.  Perhaps they think they know, defining themselves by the power they wield, the size of the portfolios they control, the horsepower of the cars they drive, the square footage of the residences they own.  They accept definitions offered by others, allow themselves to be placed thereby, and think nothing of acting in a similar fashion towards others.

That bothers me.  

Hope versus despair -  for me, hope begins with a belief in a better tomorrow, whether for myself or for others, whether they are kith and kin or total strangers.  Despair is the sense that what I do will make no difference, for myself or for others.

Optimism versus fear - it seems the same, but it is somewhat different, at least for me.  Optimism is the belief that regardless of my limited powers and authority, collectively we can make a positive difference.   Thus change can be good.  Fear makes me unwilling to change, perhaps feeling threatened by the unknown, perhaps unwilling to trust others.  It is palpable, it causes knots in my stomach.

I still do not have a complete answer to that basic question, Who am I?  I view it as a pilgrimage, an ongoing journey towards a destination not yet fully perceivable.  Like any pilgrimage, the process of the journey is at least as important as the destination.

Some might tell me, Ken, you are a teacher.  Perhaps, but I am also still a student.  As I wrestle with how to help my students make sense of the world and the curricular material for whose learning I am supposed to help them, I have to try to see both world and curriculum through their eyes, which means I have to learn about them, as well as learn yet again and anew about things I theoretically already know well.  This is a journey that does not end.

I cannot find out who I am in isolation from the world in which I find myself, because I am a part of that world.  For better or worse, I  am influenced by and influence everyone with whom I have any kind of encounter.  Perhaps it is a friendly smile that brightens me at a bad moment, while stopped at a traffic light.  Perhaps it is hearing someone spew out racist or homophobic or sexist garbage.   Not all influences have an immediate positive impact.

On a rational basis, I can say that nothing I do has any REAL impact.  My words here may reach some hundreds, perhaps some thousands, but just in this nation there are hundreds of millions.  My classroom at most has 39 students.  But each of them interacts with dozens of others, and what they take away from an encounter in my classroom can have an effect - for better or worse - far beyond them and the other 38 young people in that room at that moment.

I see much that troubles me that I cannot fix.  At times I feel as if I am trying to bail out a boat with a teaspoon when each wave that laps over the gunnel adds gallons more to the accumulating wetness at my feet.  Maybe all I am doing is slowing the sinking of that boat by milliseconds.   But I am doing something.

Perhaps I am a fool.  Who am I?  I am someone inevitably connected with others, even though I am socially awkward.  I live in a world some of whose quality I can clearly see deteriorating before my eyes, especially environmentally.  I act as if I believe what i do or don't do, what I say or don't say, CAN make a difference.  That is my foolishness.

Who am I?  I think I am discovering that I am someone full of contradictions, perhaps not posed as starkly as those offered in the title of this piece.

By being both sides of such a conflict, I am a paradox, because that should not really be possible.  I am both hopeful and despairing, optimistic and fearful.  In understanding that, I recognize that I am human, and thus have the limitations of perhaps all humans.  I am neither as good as my best intentions, nor as horrid as my worst failures.

Why do I teach?  Why do I write?  Because I cannot not do those things.  I cannot sit back and be for myself alone, as Hillel put it more than two millenia past.  

I will probably "fail" more than I "succeed,"  although I become ever less sure of the meaning of either word.

At any given moment I can be on either side of the paired terms of my title.  Sometimes I am on both sides simultaneously.  

If asked what I teach, I almost always say students.  But that is not quite accurate.  I learn with them, which also means I teach myself.  In the process of trying to help them make sense of things, I begin to make sense of them myself.

Optimism versus fear, hope versus despair

perhaps you would not frame it that way.  But then, you are not me.  In offering this phrasing I am exploring the broader question of who I am, how I interact with the world around me, with the people in it.

I write these words sitting in a coffee shop.  The background sound is of songs from my younger days.  Half a century later I still remember many of the words.  The songs can take me back to my youth and adolescence, and perhaps also help me to remember what it was like to be that age, near the age of the students for whom I am in some fashion a key adult.  

I worry for them.  I hope for them.  

Whatever legacy I may have, lacking biological children of my own, comes from how I interact with others - in my classroom, in my writing.

Optimism versus fear, hope versus despair

Perhaps that needs to be rephrased like this:

Optimism and  fear, hope and despair  

If I am not already insane, which some who observe me or my writing might contend is not in doubt, then I have to go on.  I have to recognize that I am contained in all four of those words.  Only then can I begin to understand in part who I am now, who am I still in the process of becoming.  

What will I be when I grow up?   Will I grow up?  What does growing up mean?  Do I have to grow up?

More parts of the puzzle, interconnected, yet each interesting by itself.

It is a rainy Sunday afternoon.  Perhaps I have too much time on my hands.  Perhaps I think too much.

I reflect, and my mind takes me on strange journeys.  Words are not completely sufficient to describe, although they can help point to something deeper, something almost beyond words, a sense of knowing even if only in part.

I wrote this for myself.

I share it in case it has any value to anyone else.

Do with it what you will.



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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (18+ / 0-)

    "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

    by teacherken on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 01:14:10 PM PST

  •  for some reason this doesn't show on my page (8+ / 0-)

    if I go to my user page and look at diaries, it is not there.  Go figure.

    I am glad that it is visible to others.  I least I know I did not fantasize writing and posting it.

    "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

    by teacherken on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 01:22:34 PM PST

  •  I think we all share these internal contradictions (5+ / 0-)

    to one extent or another. I can attest to that.

    I'd offer a more practical consideration: maybe we harbor hope in our hearts because, without hope, functioning day-to-day becomes impossible. How can one live filled only with despair? We hope in order to cope with bad circumstances and to believe that things can be better.

    Is it irrational? Probably. Is it unrealistic? At times, undoubtedly. But it's part of being a human being.

    For what it's worth, I do have hope that we have the power to improve our lives and our society. I also think that there is value in the effort, even if we are bound to fail in the end.

  •  It definitely has value. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, angel d, Onomastic, mrbond
    Our political discourse similarly seems to exclude consideration of that question.  We talk about groups of people, rather than seeing collections of persons, each an individual absolutely unique.
    Hope versus despair -  for me, hope begins with a belief in a better tomorrow, whether for myself or for others, whether they are kith and kin or total strangers.  Despair is the sense that what I do will make no difference, for myself or for others.
    I still do not have a complete answer to that basic question, Who am I?  I view it as a pilgrimage, an ongoing journey towards a destination not yet fully perceivable.  Like any pilgrimage, the process of the journey is at least as important as the destination.
    Not all influences have an immediate positive impact.
    I reflect, and my mind takes me on strange journeys.  Words are not completely sufficient to describe, although they can help point to something deeper, something almost beyond words, a sense of knowing even if only in part.

    It's good to see someone, more seasoned in a shared profession, still wrestle with the same demons with which I struggle as a relative novice in the field.

    It's good to see you using your reflective skills to work your way through, circuitously, perhaps even back to the same question, but with the peace of knowing that you reflected on your own being today.

    It's good to be reminded that I need to take the time to remember my own humanity, my own reflective process, in the midst of attempting to get so many things accomplished.

    Thank you for sharing your reflections. I appreciated reading them.

    "There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them." - Joseph Brodsky

    by Shakespeares Sister on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 01:35:59 PM PST

  •  I see it like this.... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    angel d, ocular sinister

    The difference between hope and despair boils down to an ability to spin different stories from the same facts.

    Sometimes I encourage dumb people to go out on a limb and take a hacksaw.

    by jbou on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 01:54:57 PM PST

  •  Good post Ken (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Onomastic, ocular sinister

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  •  In the midst of many excellent writings, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, ocular sinister

    this one is my favorite.

    It speaks to so much of the human condition, to the human heart.

    Long ago while fighting for my child's life, while fighting to create hope for his future, I learned that small things can matter greatly in ways not foreseen.

    And that continues to be true.

    We just don't know how a word, an action, a decision will impact a life. Perhaps the life of someone we've never even met. It is not a small thing.

    I call it "seed planting." Casting all the good we can out into the world, no matter how small or seemingly humdrum. It all matters. Even on the worst of days, in the worst of times, it all matters.

    Thank you so much for this Ken.

    "I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it." President Obama

    by Onomastic on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 02:24:23 PM PST

  •  Identity and hope (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Identity: In a commodified culture transmitted through mediated channels on behalf of corporate interests, all we are is demographics.  They set the discourse and pit the groups against each other. No attention is paid to our interconnectedness because they want division, not solidarity. We're subdivided into groups, but not realizing how they overlap: audiences, consumers, producers, shareholders, markets, the public, citizens, taxpayers, civilians. We need to come together. That is ALL.

    Re: Hope: Hope is never enough. It's an ideal, but worthless without ACTION. To combat despair I try to avoid the pitfall of choosing hope over experience aka. first order thinking, aka. insanity - if something isn't working, do more of the same. For example, a second marriage is, technically, choosing hope over experience. In fact, given the divorce rate, a FIRST marriage is a triumph of hope. I have never been married, but my partner of almost 16 years has been, twice.
    My philosophy: there is always a better way, usually more than one, but certainly we have not reached the pinnacle of what we may be. Thus I am searching for one of the better ways. I'm not a joiner: If everyone else seems to be doing the same thing, then it's probably time to try to do something different because things can be better.

    Re: teaching: When I started college I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher - the utility of positive influence for the greatest good extrapolated over lifetimes was at the maximum, but I knew I would never see the result. You must know that the lessons seep into your students - I'm still processing what I learned from my favorite philosophy instructor and he died last century. Professionally, I opted for a different direction, but this idea remains:
    I am always gratified to be appreciated in my own lifetime, because it seems to be more than we can ever expect.

    Thanks for your thoughts Ken!

    I have some questions...

    by ocular sinister on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 03:50:43 PM PST

  •  T/R'd. Another wonderful diary, Ken. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ‎"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." -- Anatole France

    by Mehitabel9 on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 05:20:49 PM PST

  •  Ken, I've spent 15 minutes (0+ / 0-)

    looking for the blog post I wanted to send your way. It's from 5 years ago, and it's written by Doug Noon, an elementary teacher in Fairbanks, AK. In digging around, I found a post of his from 2007, where he was quoting teacherken. Maybe you know him. I'd love to be a fly on the wall with you two chatting over a beer about education...

    At any rate, I'm responding to the part of your wonderful post here where you're talking about your influence, who's listening, etc.  He ends with this:

    According to the IRA report on her keynote address:
    Edelman ended her talk with an anecdote about Sojourner Truth, the antislavery and women’s rights advocate whom Edelman called her role model. One white man heckled her once, saying her efforts meant no more to him than a flea bite. “The Lord willing,” she replied, “I’ll keep you scratching.” Edelman told the conferees to be just as persistent—”I hope that you will commit to being a flea,” she said, “for justice for children.”

    Work for justice. Commit to fleadom.

    How will the coming generation, or the next, live? The mystery of teaching, for me, is in the wonder of never knowing. It’s hard work. I’m guided by faith and commitment to teaching as a spiritual path. I grow from it because I’m called on to be a better person than I want to be every day, every moment.

    Whose world are we building? I imagine several possibilities, and I’m having a hard time continuing without a clear answer.

    Check out Doug's Commit to Being a Flea

    •  I know Doug's work well (0+ / 0-)

      when I was recruited a few year's back to write for the Lesson Plans blog at the NY Times, the editor asked me for other people, and Doug's was the first name I suggested to him.  Doug was included.

      The second blogs here under a pseudonym so I am not sure I want to identify her/him, but the Times picked him/her as well.

      Doug is in a very different setting, but like me and some others I know, things very deeply, beyond the bounds of his own classroom setting.  That's part of what makes his writing so interesting.

      "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

      by teacherken on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 08:20:42 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  reflection (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    something teachers do.

  •  I know my answer to your questions (0+ / 0-)

    This was a question I asked myself in the context of parenting, not education.

    My son is a "low-functioning" autistic.  While he has been making progress over the years, at age 11 he is still in pull-ups and is just now at the very beginning of a transition from echolalia to responsive speech.

    My wife (we are now separated) and I had different reactions to his diagnosis.  Using the glass/half analogy, I viewed the glass not just as half-full but shortly to be refilled.  She viewed the glass not just as half-empty but cracked and leaking.

    My son lives with me; my wife lives elsewhere.  She loves our son dearly, and is actively engaged in his life.  But she can't "handle" him by herself for more than a few hours.  As a result, she visits him at my place, and hasn't had an overnight with him for years.  I believe that has everything to do with her negative basis of thinking, which, not so incidentally, pervades her general attitude about life.

    I'm not judging my wife.  I am simply stating that attitude is of paramount importance.  There is a fair likelihood that our son will never achieve a level of independence as great as I would wish.  I still celebrate every tiny milestone on the road.  

    Life is already challenging; why approach it in despair?  Everyone in our lives is watching for what we can teach them, regardless of whether that is our profession.  An attitude of bold optimism, tempered within the context of a realistic assessment of conditions, is of utmost importance, if we are to be of service.  

    And that is the point, isn't it?  To carry of message of unselfish devotion to others, so that they may act in their own lives with compassion.  Otherwise we are just feeding the beast, and the beast wins.

    Ancora Impara--Michelangelo

    by aravir on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 06:46:54 AM PST

  •  Ken, (0+ / 0-)

    I was going to write a diary (actually started one) titled On Disillusionment.  And the inspiration was a diary I read by a fellow kossack who felt disillusioned and also by what I considered to be a move toward disillusionment in some your recent writings.  I don't blame anyone.   I was disillusioned for quite some time myself.  Who could blame us?  We progressives were trying as hard as we could, but we were losing and we were losing badly.  You would have to be a little disingenuous to not become a little disillusioned.  But, then the Madison protests happened and I started to attend.  It sounds simplistic, but the act of attending the protests and actually being there and feeling it resulted in a reinvigoration.  The moments of being downtown have been some of the most inspiring and best moments of my life.  And the point of my diary was going to be that if it is at all possible that people like you Ken, need to come to the protests.  I can't speak for the other locations as I have not been to those protests, but the Madison protests are medicine Ken.  They are the medicine to cure your soul.  They cured mine.  They work magic I tell you.  Formally apolitical people become political and engaged and energized.  People begin to crave knowledge and understanding.  I sometimes stand at rallies and quietly say “finally” over and over again to myself.  Finally people are getting it.  My wish for you and other disaffected people is to come to Madison.  I know it's hard and not possible for many.  I understand.  But, if you can find the way, come.  If you need a place to stay let one of the Madison kossacks know.  We will help.  

    The fight is just beginning Ken.  And we need you and the rest of the progressives to be energized and with us because this is going to be a long fight and we can win.  We are winning.  

    Even one of the local pop radio stations sneaks in a little shout out to the protestors.  It is one of those stations that “plays everything” and has cute little comments in-between songs.  The comments are the same today, except now the guy will sneak in a single word here and there.  The word is “Winning”.  

    Peace to you Ken.

    Fascism: The conservative notion that killing people makes them work harder

    by madtowntj on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 08:01:58 AM PST

  •  It's worth noting... (0+ / 0-)

    ...that conservatives don't seem to have this problem.  Is it their platform or something innate to the conservative outlook?  I don't know.  But it does seem to be an advantage.  Conservatives don't seem to bother with this business of "optimism" or "hope"; they seem to approach it much more simply (as you might expect):

    "If it's right, then FIGHT FOR IT."

    Why are you worrying that your own efforts aren't enough to make the whole world turn around??  You're doing your part, and that's what matters.  (Well, that and getting others to do their part, too.  You're certainly doing more than I am...)  Asking whether it's worth it to fight for what's right (or actually concluding that it's not) is something I've heard liberal after liberal ask when things look tough, and with that kind of attitude it's no wonder that nothing seems to get done--to say nothing of making liberalism look weak; I mean, what kind of person would ask such a question, hmm?

    The '60s were simply an attempt to get the 21st Century started early....Well, what are we waiting for? There's no deadline on a dream!

    by Panurge on Fri Mar 11, 2011 at 06:56:07 AM PST

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