There was an invigorating nip in the air yesterday morning, but nothing like the icy polar vortex of a message I found waiting for me. I heard again from that mid-western professor whom I had mentioned a few reflections ago. ”‘Student whisperer’ indeed,” she started her message in a “bah-humbug’ snort. ”….Well, higher education has one big problem because of the likes of you. We have made a college education into an American birthright. Our problem is we have to let in everybody….I hate the retention demands from the administrations to keep them around….But, let me tell you something, buddy, those people can’t make it no matter what we do. They don’t belong in any college….And, I do everyone–me, them, my profession, my university, even society–a service when I refuse to give them false hope and weed them out….If they can’t cut it, I’m going to cut them out….You can’t make gold out of lead…”
When I finished reading her “grinchlike” words, I immediately thought of Emerson, Winnie the Pooh, and Elie Wiesel: ”What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered;” “Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them;” “We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.”
How to answer her. This is what I said. It is a variation of a letter I recently wrote to the editor of our local newspaper about recent events in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York.
I told her that I have learned over my lifetime that when we violate, we commit violence. I am not talking about physical assaults such as have been in the news lately. I mean violence is done whenever we violate someone’s identity, integrity, and individuality. Violence is done when we demean, marginalize, dismiss; violence is done when we render other people irrelevant to our lives; violence is done when we see them only as an impersonal statistic or generality; violence is done when we distrust, when we disrespect, when we simply don’t care or don’t look hard enough to evoke our caring.
I asked her, who among us hasn’t been the victim of “violence by deboning,” by being stripped of the flesh of her or his personhood with sharp knives of biased generalities, prejudicial stereotypes, diminishing abstractions, and even hateful perceptions. I have. At Adelphi, I was one those “don’t belongs” tagged to be weeded out. But, it was Dr. Birdsault Viault who interceded and nurtured me. He was not blinded, as was I, to my undiscovered potential. He was not deafened, as was I, to the opportunity I presented. In spite of me, he was not deterred from mining the barren surface for the mother lode he believed lay below. He was my Jacob Marley. Instead of condemning, instead of judging, he served, reached out, connected, elevated, edified, inspired, bettered, and transformed me. Or, at least, helped me to start doing that to myself. And, that, among other things over the course of my life, has made me sensitive to living a nonviolent life as much as I humanly can, for I have learned that only light can drive out darkness, that only faith and belief and hope can overcome antipathy, and only love can be the transforming three Christmases of Charles Dickens.
Rumi said, “It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.” When we love and care about each student unconditionally, the classroom becomes so full of so many wondrous people. I’ve learned, however, from my experiences, both personal and professional, you don’t look for how to care sincerely, but to seek, find, and tear down all barriers we build within ourselves against truly caring. Every day I do stuff, exercises if you will, so that in every way in every relationship I have, I’m conscious to honor both myself and the persons around me. Sometimes that’s as simple as noticing a person. Sometimes it takes the form of a quiet, kindly word. Sometimes it’s shaped as the arc of a supporting smile. Sometimes it appears as an encouraging tap on the shoulder. Sometimes it’s more a complicated matter of quietly and empathetically listening to someone’s story. Sometimes it’s still more of a complicated matter of becoming involved and assisting someone who can’t take that next step in life. I just think there’s a thousand different ways that we can practice nonviolence in this fundamental sense. Now, I think it’s urgent that we reframe education in a very personal way, as simple acts of supporting and encouraging relationship building and community building that empower people.
I told her that her assertion creates the impossible. And, aside from being a “silver lining” optimist kind of guy, I don’t just don’t believe it; I know it to be untrue; I have proof it’s untrue. Me! Moreover, I have seen how we can be a Rumplestilkin weaving ordinary straw into invaluable gold using the spinning wheel of a compassionate heart. I say you can be an alchemist transforming lead into gold if you choose to be an inspiring, encouraging, supporting, believing, hopeful, and loving person as Birdsall Viault was for me. And if you are willing to put in the back-breaking effort, you’ll find the biggest motherlode of them all: your caring heart filled with inner joy, an inner pride, an inner sense of goodness, an inner sense of fulfillment, an inner happiness. You’ll be able to look in the mirror and see reflected a congratulating nod of a head, an enriching wink of an eye, and a rewarding tip of the hat.
I also told her that belief, hope, and love are not wishful, soft, dreamy, new-agey, touchy-feely, and Hallmarkish. They are a struggle. They’re a roll-up-your-sleeeves, down-and-dirty, get-in-the-trenches grittiness. They’re the kind that gets you up every morning and demands you make the world just a little kinder and more respectful place. And, if you get your heart broken or are disappointed or get frustrated or get angry, as will inevitably occur, they won’t allow you to wallow in self-pity, or shrivel in surrender, or retreat into finger pointing. Instead, they give you the courage and strength and energy to go on, to get up the next morning and do it again. They are harder to live with than being cynical, pessimistic, and blaming. A blamer and cynic and pessimist are never disappointed.
I told her that courage and strength to belief, have faith, have hope, and love have everything to do with loving something or someone so much that you will brave whatever may come your way because you have that much love for each of them. It’s worth the risk because it’s the only way to overcome her impossible and transform it into the possible.