Archive for February, 2013

THE WISE MAN AND THE MOUNTAIN

February 24, 2013 Comments Off on THE WISE MAN AND THE MOUNTAIN General

 

 

THE WISE MAN AND THE MOUNTAIN

I think we all wonder at times if it is sensible to spend time reaching out to others and advocating for their rights and needs.  After all, we are truly very busy with our work and our families and other responsibilities. And, as we persist in trying to make a difference for others, we sometimes wonder what we are actually accomplishing!

We need some sources of support and encouragement to keep us going. I think we often need to return to our philosophy of life. What do we value and what is important to us? When I reflect on such thoughts, my mind often returns to a folk tale that a beloved older relative told me many years ago.  Here it is:

There was once a small village by the side of a tall mountain. The adults in the village were very worried about their young people, who they thought were becoming greedy and unconcerned about others.  They held a community meeting about this problem, and decided to ask for help from a very wise old man who lived nearby in the hills. He was said to have special powers to change hearts from absorption with self to love and concern for others. To everyone’s delight, the wise man agreed to come to the village to speak with all the young people.

On a warm and sunny day, the wise man arrived. He called all the young people to him and led them close to the side of the mountain. He explained that they would all climb up the mountain until they reached a fresh spring of water. There, he told them, they would all learn a great lesson of life. First, though, he pointed to the many stones of different sizes and shapes that lay all around them on the ground. “Each of you,” he said, “must choose a stone to carry up the mountain. Choose carefully! In life it is important to choose that which is worth carrying.”

As the young people milled around, considering different sizes and shapes of stones, they fell into three groups. The first group quietly laughed and said such things to each other as “Does this silly old man think we care about stones to carry up the mountain? What for! So what? Just find the smallest and easiest stones around here.” They all found stones so tiny they could barely be seen in their hands.

The second group looked around cautiously. As they spoke with one another, they said things like, “This man seems nice but strange, and we don’t want him to cause any trouble for us. Let’s find stones of bright color big enough for him to see but easy to carry.” They found stones that made a good appearance but weighed quite little.

The third and smallest group of young people talked seriously among themselves. “This man is very wise. We should respect him.  If he wants us to carry stones of importance, let’s pick the biggest ones we can carry. Surely we are doing this for some important purpose.” They picked up large and heavy stones.

Soon, they all started up the mountain with their stones. The climb became steep and the sun grew warm.   The wise men urged them on toward the spring.  The young people with the tiny stones were proud of themselves for being so smart and making their climb so easy.  The group with the stones of good appearance but little weight was glad as well that the stones were not a great burden as they climbed. The group with the larger stones was finding the climb quite difficult. Looking around and realizing how light the stones of many of the others were, they almost felt foolish for burdening themselves in such a way. Still they persisted, because they believed that the climb with the wise man must have some great purpose.

Finally they all reached the fresh spring of water. Now they could drink and refresh themselves and the descent from the mountain would be much easier. But, after they all drank the water, they realized that they were very, very hungry. “Wise man,” they called out, “What did you bring us to eat?” The wise man answered, “I have brought nothing. It is you who have carried the food.” Then he closed his eyes, reached out his hands, whispered magic words, and changed all the stones into delicious loaves of bread.

The sweet smells of fresh bread filled the air.  But the young people with the tiny stones now realized that had almost nothing to eat. Those with stones of good appearance but little weight had only a little more and it would not satisfy their great hunger. It was the group who had carried the largest stones who would have their fill. When those with the smaller stones began to complain, the wise man silenced them. “Listen carefully,” he said. “It is what you agree to carry in life that will sustain you. You must learn to carry heavy duties of responsibility as well as the burdens of others in your village. Reach out to all in need, and go to sleep each night exhausted from work and care. Then you will be greatly loved, and find the only true joys of life.”

I’ll leave you with this story and without further comment. I hope you will enjoy reflecting on it as much as I do.

Written by Beatrice S. Fennimore, a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children.

THE DAY I CROSSED THE DEER

February 17, 2013 Comments Off on THE DAY I CROSSED THE DEER General

THE DAY I CROSSED THE DEER

 

In my last blog I shared a story about what happened one morning when I stepped out into the street to help traffic make its way around a stalled car. That is my very favorite story to use when I speak about the realities – political and personal – of “sticking ones neck out” for the greater good of others. Since that blog was quite long, todays will be short! I hope you will enjoy it.

I love the process of advocacy and, while there are potentially negative ramifications that we need to anticipate, the joys of reaching out to create change should be emphasized as well. As we move daily through the complexities of our lives, our eyes must remain open to the bright sparks of happiness that result from our constant awareness of the needs of those around us.

I live in Pittsburgh near beautiful Frick Park, which is bordered by the rolling hills of lovely and historic Homewood Cemetery. The busy street that runs along one side of the park and cemetery later reaches the intersection I wrote about in my last blog. Although this is an urban area, many deer live in the park. At night, they often wander through the cemetery and out into the adjoining neighborhoods. As I leave my house early in the morning to run or race walk, I might possibly see one on a neighbor’s lawn, or even in the street. As dawn nears, they manage to safely make their way back into the park.

Early one beautiful summer morning, I was out running on a street across from the park and cemetery. A pedestrian on the other side of the street pointed behind me and shouted, “Look! Look!” At first I could see nothing, so I shouted back, “Look at what?” He replied, “Look at the doe behind you!” Sure enough, a doe had been running behind me on the street. I stopped to look at her, and she stopped as well. The doe looked quietly at me, and then turned to prepare to run across the then quiet street. I stepped into the street to look for any approaching cars and, sure enough, there was a car approaching from the other side. I ran into the street and waved my arms to warn the car to slow down. As I did this, the doe stayed still on my side of the street. The car did slow down and stop, but the driver signaled his questioning annoyance through the window. I pointed to the doe, which then ran gracefully across the street in front of the stopped car, made a beautiful leap over the cemetery wall, and ran into the woods. The driver looked at me in absolute amazement and slowly pulled away; I often wonder if he had trouble believing that the event had actually taken place. I was so delighted as I continued to run – so happy that the deer was safe and so glad I could help.

When I got home I told my daughter, a former member of her elementary school safety patrol, that I had been “a crossing guard for a deer.” It made my day, and it continues to make my day as I think about it now. We can see some of the good outcomes of caring about others – and as we design our lives with the intentionality of contributing to the common good we should believe in the possibility that many other results, just as wonderful and charming, take place without us ever knowing.

Enjoy all the ways in which you “cross the deer” in your own lives!

Next week I am going to share a folk tale once told to me by a beloved relative and explain how I also use it when I speak with others about the concept of child advocacy.

Written by Beatrice S. Fennimore, a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children.

WHO IS DOING THE REAL WORK? (PART II)

February 10, 2013 Comments Off on WHO IS DOING THE REAL WORK? (PART II) General

WHO IS DOING THE REAL WORK? (PART II)

My last blog entry talked about the importance of real life “on the ground” efforts to create change or make things better for other people. While not wanting to appear to over-emphasize the difficulty of personal advocacy, I also want to recognize the reality of what can happen when individuals speak up! I often talk with students in my classes about the importance of advocating for social change in the real-life situations that confront them daily. During our discussions, it is not uncommon for students to share what we might call “war stories” of some past initiatives in controversial situations during which they experienced a surprising amount of difficulty. Simply wanting to make a change for the better in a fairly simple situation, they had found themselves embroiled in unexpected tensions. They felt that they had been misunderstood by others, and were still uncertain about what had been accomplished.

I always listen carefully to such stories; we all need to hear them and think about them. One possible response to these experiences in our lives is to decide to stay out of other people’s problems! The response that I encourage, however, is development of belief that the courage and concern for others that we demonstrate in such initiatives will always have some positive outcome. We may be more immediately aware of any unexpected problems we encountered, but in the long run we will have made a real impact in some good way on others and on the situation that we addressed.

At this point in class discussions, I often tell one of my favorite personal stories related to the above issues. As a long time runner and race walker, I have always preferred to go out to exercise in the quiet morning hours before sunrise. When I am done, I like to buy some coffee and have a relaxed walk home. One morning, as I walked home with my coffee, I had a very illuminating experience. Approaching an intersection that would become busy in the soon-to-arrive morning rush hour, a dilapidated old car spewing smoke came to a complete halt right in the middle of the street. The driver quickly got out and started to walk away. I called to him and shared my concern about the dangerous situation his car would create for others; he shrugged with discouragement and said there was nothing else he could do. (This was before the era of universal cell phones!)

Standing there alone, I faced a choice. I could just go home and hope for the best, or stay where I was to try to help ongoing cars avoid an accident. Deciding to stay, I placed myself by the car in the street to await the imminent morning rush hour. I hoped a police car would happen by very quickly. As many cars soon began to approach, I started to wave my arms frantically to warn oncoming drivers about the stalled car. Delays began to build up in both lanes as cars needed to swerve around the stalled car. I was feeling quite virtuous until an inconvenienced driver looked at me and shouted a stream of epithets. This was the start of a steady stream of loud insults and tirades, aimed straight at me, as drivers passed. I soon realized with considerable discomfort that the inconvenienced drivers thought it was my car!

Holding my ground and continuing to direct traffic, I watched with some fear as an infuriated driver stopped next to me and rolled down his car window on my side. Truly purple with rage, he screamed, “You are an idiot! A COMPLETE IDIOT.” My reply that it was not my car and I was just trying to save people from being hurt was ignored as he pulled away. By then, a group of people who had been gathering across the street to watch this growing fiasco crossed over and offered to help me “push my car to the side of the road.” They didn’t believe me when I said it wasn’t mine! (Who in their right mind would stand in the street directing traffic and putting up with verbal abuse if it wasn’t their car?)

Soon the car had been successfully pushed out of the street, and traffic regained its normal pace. I retrieved my coffee from where I had left it on the sidewalk and walked home. As I walked, I was furious about the way I had been treated. How could people be so mean and insulting to someone trying to help in a potentially dangerous situation?

My negative thoughts turned to delight, however, when I realized that I had just experienced the perfect advocacy story! (And I have told it many times since then in my classes, usually to the laughing enjoyment of my students as I describe the behavior of the drivers I was trying to help). It is a funny story! But it is also a true reflection of what can happen when you try to do help others in difficult public dilemmas. After I share the story I break it down into the very elements that so often make advocacy for others difficult.

First, I had made the choice to become publicly involved in a problem that did not affect me directly. Then, I stepped out of my comfort zone to try to change the outcome of what was a potentially harmful situation for others. While I might have expected gratitude, I had no control over the ways in which others interpreted my actions. In this case, by involving myself in a difficult problem, I made myself the target of misplaced anger and blame. And people acted badly! Even those to whom I had tried to explain the situation were not willing to listen. Of course it was my car – why would anyone stand out there trying to direct traffic unless they had something personal to gain? Naturally, my first response as I walked away was anger and discouragement. My efforts to help had caused me quite a bit of trouble, and I could never actually prove that I had saved anyone from anything. (This is the exact point in which it is easy to say “…that is the last time I am ever going to stick my neck out for other people”!)

Yet, in reality, the likelihood of an accident was very high. I knew that cars approached this particular intersection speedily. They were either coming up a hill that would make it hard to see the stalled car until it was too late to put on the brakes, or they were making a blind turn because there were a lot of trees on the intersecting street corner. Someone could have been hurt or even killed – maybe a parent driving children to the nearby schools. I knew my efforts were worth it, even if I seemed very silly or irresponsible to others.

I think this is a good story to keep in mind as we persist in “working on the ground” in real life situations that create risks and unfair dangers for others. It is not short-term accolades or easily demonstrated outcomes that we seek. And it is not just our immediate actions that are important; our spirit of caring for others outside the context of our own direct needs changes us and changes others for the better. These are important ideas for teachers! We so often try to help our students in very difficult situations, and just as often we have no real way of knowing the ultimate outcomes of our efforts over the years. And we so often give our time and caring to initiatives in our schools or districts that result in controversy or criticism. Teachers, do not get discouraged. As I said at the end of my last blog, we are the ones who are “working on the ground” to make the real changes that affect the real lives of others in important and lasting ways. Never let short-term troubles blur your vision of the permanent effects of all the good that you do!

Stay tuned for next week! I’ll have a short blog about another advocacy adventure with a car that had a very happy ending!

Written by Beatrice S. Fennimore, a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children.

WHO IS DOING THE REAL WORK? (PART I)

February 3, 2013 Comments Off on WHO IS DOING THE REAL WORK? (PART I) General

WHO IS DOING THE REAL WORK? (PART I)

My blog has been focused overall on the concept of child advocacy – of standing up for something every day. I believe that each and every teacher can in some way have a positive impact on the huge, seemingly intractable social problems that we face in the United States of America! Teachers are on the front line of the poverty, violence, and other forms of social neglect and injustice that are undermining the health and safety of children in this nation. They see the truth in the lives of children, and they have the power to address the most serious problems facing children in this nation. However, their use of this considerable power will make them neither famous nor wealthy. In fact, teachers must try to address tremendous challenges in the lives of children today in a context of considerable public disrespect for them and for the work that they do. It would be very easy for any teacher today to feel a sense of professional defeat. But, for the sake of the children and the future of this nation, we must never, ever give up!

I was so fortunate some years ago to have the opportunity to hear Dolores Huerta speak at the Children’s Defense Fund Summit on the Cradle to Prison Pipeline at Howard University. As the co-founder with Caesar Chavez of what would later become the United Farm Workers (UFW), Dolores knows very well the dangers and potential accomplishments that are inherent in the struggle for social change. She spoke movingly about the idea of “working on the ground.” After careful consideration of her words, I decided that working on the ground means taking responsibility for the often unseen and thankless tasks that confront injustice through real life work with real people in the actual situations that undermine liberty and equality. When we do this we often also confront the real life conflict inherent in speaking the truth and acting for change – including many difficult forms of resistance from those in power and those who disagree with us. It is all too easy to glorify standing up to social injustice in the media; in reality we might often stand alone or with just a brave few as we face resistance and retaliation that can bring considerable professional and personal risks.

Teachers, let’s stand together as we accept the possibility of resistance and retaliation because we are advocates who will not be silent about the social injustices that are undermining the children of our nation The history of the United Farm Workers stands proudly with the history of every human rights movement around the world. The history of every struggle for human rights ultimately honors the courage of those who made the personal sacrifices necessary for the good of all.

Our dedicated efforts as teachers to create justice for children can and must be done in the context of our own schools, programs, and classrooms. We need not become famous or widely recognized in order to do work that is of critical importance to society! In fact, our work “on the ground” is the real work that will create the real change for all the teachers and children of the United States of America.

Written by Beatrice S. Fennimore a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children