It’s so cozy living in the abstract. Concepts and what-if’s assume their own comfort zone. Intellectual gamesmanship is, after all, the hallmark of the ordained, and everyone wants to be considered noteworthy, at least once. Later today, a Sunday, the airwaves will be full of impressive prognostications about politics and sport. Scorecards will be tallied and likely losers declared. It is the nature of our world it seems, this crowning and dethroning business. If only defeats were as short-lived as victories, we would all get better sleep. But they are not. Defeats linger like the laughter of the one who slipped away.
I almost lost a student this week, and, while I know I should be grateful he survives, I still find myself thinking of all the faces flowing through my classroom in the last five years. The oldest should be graduating from college in the spring. Some will be, and I wish I could be there to add my cheer. More will be found trudging towards their goal at a slower pace, which is to be expected in this stubbornly pessimistic time.
My youth was framed by an almost reckless optimism that seeped into the songs. I watched from my childhood perch as “We shall overcome” roared past my window. I danced to “War” and then witnessed one end. I rode the highways in Florida singing “Sunny” at the top of my lungs with my high school buddies. The Delfonics, James Brown, Cat Stevens, the O’Jays, Neil Young, Jethro Tull, the Temptations, Donny Hathaway–I reached for them all and found in their yearnings some hope for me and my generation. I still am not sure what my students listen to on their iPod’s, but I do know they never seem to smile or sing along.
Older people always think they had it better, and maybe that is what I am sipping now. But I still see the look on my students’ faces this week. I see them processing over and over how close one of their own came to leaving. It is impossible to be young and black in DC and not know of some fresh life stolen. Few seem to have the illusion of invincibility ascribed to youth. They know all too well what dangers await outside our door. Too many tiptoe through their days as though walking on glass. The question is not whether they will be cut, but how deep.
In their brief lives, there have been tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, and genocide. They know about shark bites and Metro accidents, drunk drivers and hijacked cars. My students have endured 9/11 and several wars. They have seen their neighborhoods change, and their schools reshaped. Many buildings look much better now, but others have closed for good. They know firsthand the topic their presumed inabilities have become as adults fight over education. The recession thrives in too many of their households, and the hope Obama represented seems a lifetime ago.
On Thursday, as I extolled the joys of inquiry in my debate class, one student challenged me. We are preparing to discuss whether or not restrictive policies targeting teens are discriminatory. We were discussing the presumption of guilt as a societal hurdle when one young man said, “It’s not like anything’s gonna change just ’cause we say so.” Others registered their accord, and soon we were dissecting the role of youth in DC, America, and the world.
I tried attacking each of their claims of futility using analogies of every stripe, from sports to cooking shows. Young people became the herbs of flavor you add to a meal just before serving. Teens stood limbered and ready like a relay runner, arm extended backward, waiting for the baton. Their time to excel and extend the race would come; it always does. Still, nothing. Finally, I reached for the obvious, lifted the nearly extinguished bottle of water off my desk, and asked the ageless question: half empty or half full? They laughed at the tiny rim of liquid near the bottom. “Ok,” I said. “But imagine the water line was here,” I continued, pointing to the middle. “Now, what?”
“Empty,” a vocal girl in the front volunteered. “Especially if you leave the room.” We all laughed together. Then I attempted the whole explanation about perception and optimism. But as the bell ended the lesson, the young man who started it all observed, “Optimism ain’t easy.”
“Isn’t,” I yelled as they exited the room. “Isn’t. And don’t forget to do your homework.”
Their assignment is to annotate Dr. Kings “Mountain Top” speech, the one he delivered the night before a stroll on a hotel balcony violently ended his life. I have asked them to look for his use of rhythm and metaphor to make his points. They are to study cadence and rhetoric, and on Monday we will take turns reading it aloud. It is my deeper hope that they will see in his vision of the “promised land” some semblance of themselves, and their time, and their promise. I have a recording I will play at the end of the lesson, allowing them to ride first hand the ebb and flow of his magnificent voice. We will work hard to link his passion for progress to their own fierce protections of family and friends. To hear them tell it, everyone, it seems, is “my manz,” and loyalty is the attribute they value most.
I will do my best to fortify the innate sense of wonder that must accompany youth if its challenge is to be fulfilled. I think I’ll play the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can,” a song I blasted from my car the day after President Obama’s victory. I rode up and down Seventh Street, and then Pennsylvania Avenue, blaring and waving as fellow Americans of every dimension signaled a “thumb’s up.” It has a strong beat, so maybe they will take the time and listen.
Optimism isn’t easy, and so much of the media exists to flash its yellow warning lights at every crossing. Hungry for green, uncluttered roads, we chase celebrity sightings looking for a sign. We scramble to any scene of unexpected triumph, like we did with the miners in Chile, even as we rubberneck the accidents along the way. Optimism is the thing that keeps us moving. Without it, creativity dies, and prospects diminish.
I told a cherished friend once that “only the dreamer can kill the dream.” It sounds right, but I know it is not entirely true. The times can squelch it, too. We need–our young people need–a better chorus if they are to sing their songs with abandon. Education is part of it, but not all of it. While waiting for this latest cloud of doubt to pass, teachers must find in the words and formulas we peddle some shiny trinket or two to fascinate and entice.
Young people need to know the “rest of their lives” really is a long time, time enough to grow, time enough to mend, time enough to imagine. Optimism may not be easy, but neither is riding a bike in traffic. “It gets better” is a lesson we all need to hear if this nascent century is to finally shed its cumbersome training wheels.
Earth, Wind, and Fire anyone?