Saturday, December 9, 2017

Through Troubled Times

            We’re living through a moment in which all of us around the nation and world are in desperate need of ways to come together. When leaders are not focused on finding ways to deepen our understanding and acceptance, we cannot wait for them to decide that these things matter. We must step forward and take the lead in whatever ways we can.

            In my job as a teacher, I teamed up this fall with an inspiring colleague to host a “one read” program in which we invited students, parents, staff and community members to read and discuss the book Outcasts United, written by Warren St. John. The book chronicles a soccer team near Atlanta made up of refugee teens and the extraordinary coach who helps them grow and find their place in a new land. At our book discussions, we invited Syrian and Iraqi refugee families to talk at the school, and also heard from one of our school’s teachers who fled the war in Bosnia more than two decades ago. These conversations provided a depth of awareness that many of us did not have. We left one session inspired by with the words of 16-year-old Abdullah, who has been in America for a year after fleeing both Iraq and Syria: “I have something to fight for,” he said, “and that is my future.”

            As adviser of my school’s community service club, I’ve worked with students in volunteering at an extraordinary refugee assistance program hosted in a Jewish temple in town. I’ve also helped my students rake leaves and sell candy to raise money for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico and Texas (our donations to Puerto Rico support a nonprofit that provides solar energy to residents, and it was founded by a 15-year-old). And I’ve joined with these amazing teens on Friday nights as they make lunches and deliver meals to homeless and other low-income individuals in Manhattan.

            As co-coordinator of a peer-mentoring club, I’ve helped train juniors and seniors to lead freshman discussion groups on issues such as friendships, bullying and stereotypes. In their last discussion, the freshmen and upperclassmen discussed the “bystander effect,” and pondered the reasons why we often fail to step in when others are in need. We compared stories of people who have not stepped in with the story of Wesley Autrey, who more than a decade ago dove onto a subway track to cover a man who was having a seizure as a subway car passed above them. The students read and asked themselves: What does it take to find the strength to help someone in need?

            As a journalism teacher and adviser, I’ve steered my students toward a close study of how the words “fake news” have evolved over the past year, and what this issue has meant to our own sense of media literacy. I’ve also advised ambitious student reporters who have taken on meaty issues such as mental illness, gun control, political involvement and sexual harassment for their stories in our student-run newspaper.

            At our annual state teachers’ convention, I attended workshops on Islam, opioid abuse, sexual orientation, gender identity and culturally responsive classrooms. At my church, I’ve joined an anti-racism committee formed by one of our church pastors. At home, I’ve read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power to consider the ways in which America’s outlook toward race changed throughout the previous presidency. I’ve started reading Isabel Wilkerson‘s The Warmth of Other Suns to better understand the impact of the Great Migration on our country. And I’ve continued reading Nikole Hannah-Jones’ New York Times Magazine stories on school segregation, to gain a clearer view of how this issue has deepened instead of lessened over the past half-century.

            I know I’m just a teacher, writer and citizen with a few areas of influence, and I can’t change the world. But I can do my part to help. And I’m ready for more. After years of considering it, my wife and I are finally looking into solar energy. I want to read the new John Green novel that delves deeply into mental health. I have a student reporter who wants to do a story in which she gives $10 to a few people with the requirement that they find unique ways to give the money away, inspired by a New York Times story we read. And those service club kids are still raising money for hurricane relief, and they want to spend some time with senior citizens at an assisted-living center before the holidays.

            In his song “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” Nick Lowe asked questions more than 40 years ago that seem more than relevant today:

As I walk on
Through troubled times
My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes
So where are the strong?
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony

I don’t know all the answers to Lowe’s questions. But I do know that I’m not giving up. 

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