Vol. 62, On Education and Courage
“You can’t run for office in this country unless you’re a millionaire or you know a lot of millionaires.” This offhand remark from one of her sixth-grade students dismayed public school teacher Tierney Cahill. When she told the kids that in a democracy anyone can run for office, they dared her to prove it—by running herself. She accepted their challenge on one condition: that they, her students, manage the campaign.
Since my daughter has become school-age, I have seen the wonders of teachers. You hear about the selflessness of teachers, but you don’t really get it until you witness it. Teachers are people like any other. Some are happier than others, some have challenging home lives, some are deadpan, some are disorganized and distracted. Yet all of them have to give an enormous level of focus, attention, and time to the development of multiple children at once.
I have heard it said that teachers are failing our kids, yet I have seen no such proof. Of course, my daughter is not in a failing school. But even in failing schools I’m sure we would find dedicated and concerned individuals who are expected and required to put in extra hours, money, and elbow grease. Is there any other profession in the world where you are expected to buy your own supplies? And with recent budget cuts, teachers are having to buy their own paper for making photocopies.
If all teachers had to do was teach, that would be a hard enough assignment. But on top of teaching—assessing students to know the level of every student in the class, masterminding plans to spur them forward in their intellectual and developmental growth, conceptualizing and creating teaching materials, teaching to the curriculum and the tests—teachers have to handle paper work—permission slips, attendance records, medical records, and parent-school communications; prepare children for assemblies; create artistic and cultural presentations for annual holidays; prepare work and report cards for parent-teacher conferences; post work on bulletin boards and around the classroom; attend professional development meetings; and meet the criteria of the administration and visiting educational dignitaries. It is a wonder that teachers can string a sentence together by the end of the day.
So when I hear that a teacher like Ms. Cahill—who is also a single mother of three and a compulsive giver of her time—ran for office as an instructional tool to her students my mind is blown. All over the world there are these amazing individuals who are giving of themselves as teachers, and then going the extra mile to actually impact the lives, minds, and aspirations of their students.
In Ms. Cahill’s words, at the core of her decision to run was this:
As I looked at [my student’s] face, I realized that we ask children all the time to be brave. We ask them to be leaders, to say no to peer pressure, to turn down drugs, to step away from the crowd, and to be unafraid to take on challenges. We’re really good at expecting that kind of courage from children, but how often do they see adults step up? How often do we actually model that you can do or be anything you want in life?
Ms. Cahill’s statement made me think about courage. I have thought about how difficult it must be for children to learn new things, but I never thought about it as something that takes courage. That the daily lives of children are full of moments that require them to step forward courageously.
After reading this passage, I immediately thought of another teacher, Jackson Shafer of the Bronx High School for Performance and Stagecraft. He came to my attention during the presidential primaries. Someone forwarded a video of Mr. Shafer in the classroom with his students talking about race, inspiration, and Barack Obama.
Yes, it was great to see how these kids were inspired by Barack Obama, but I was even more impressed with Mr. Shafer, a teacher who completely connects with his students, sees the humanity in them and pulls them forward to think, imagine, grow, and be. (Just as a side note: I discovered the video was shot at the initiative of the Obama campaign and then used to bolster the campaign without permission from Shafer or anyone at Shafer’s school.)
Watching Elisa Piguave, a ninth-grader who is struggling with English, talk about how she was inspired to push herself to learn English really touched me. She covered her face when the camera turned on her, but then she brought down her hands and spoke with strength and conviction about her belief in her ability to learn to speak and write. Watching her—with her face full of pride, power, and life—I thought, that’s what education is about.
I am suddenly re-envisioning education as the process of nurturing courage. Nurturing the courage for students to connect with the reader/writer/mathematician/
scientist/artist/speaker/thinker in themselves. Nurturing the courage for students to take the next step, and the next, and the next. To dare to imagine themselves as bigger, smarter, more full of potential than they ever imagined themselves to be. Watching the blossoming of courage in the classroom is not so different than the blossoming of courage needed to take risks in life, to commit to art, to leave a way of behaving behind and pick up another way of life, to enter a relationship or leave a relationship, to be any old way you wish to be, to become the person you have always (often secretly) known you wanted to become.
When I listened to Mr. Shafer’s students read their own “Yes, We Can” speeches, I teared up. I was touched by seeing these children use their intellect and creativity to nurture themselves. I was touched by the ferocity in their expression of their self-worth and personal possibility. I was imagining that level of courage for myself, for my daughter, for all of us human beings walking around this planet numb, afraid, tired, bored, and dulled. We owe it to ourselves to seek spaces where we are encouraged to believe “yes, we can.”" To hunt down experiences in which our courage is nurtured and nourished. To create opportunities to make wild leaps toward proclaiming the majestic person we can and will be.
For those of us outside the classroom, with no teacher to lean on, we now must nurture the courage in ourselves. Take cues from the courageous among us and start making our own tentative steps toward full self expression. As your heart is beating fast, as you stand on the cusp of some courageous act, there is no denying that this is what we live for: the courage to be/become the shining vision of ourselves we know we were meant to be.
Yes I Can
by Nelson Trinidad, 9th grader, Bronx High School for Performance and Stagecraft
Yes I can fight my fears
Yes I can be a leader for those who need to be led
Yes I can unleash my pain in a positive way
Yes I can be more dependable
Yes I can be more responsible
Yes I can make all of this happen
Even though I have this load on my shoulders
I can move forward in the world no matter what happens
Yes I can
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam