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.