Quote of the week #8: June 16, 2013

image

illustration ©2013 jpbohannon

“Mythical heroes are of obviously superhuman dimensions, an aspect which helps to make these stories acceptable to the child. Otherwise the child would be overpowered by the implied demand that he emulate the hero in his own life. Myths are useful in forming not the total personality, but only the superego. The child knows that he cannot possibly live up to the hero’s virtue, or parallel his deeds; all he can be expected to do is emulate the hero to some small degree so the child is not defeated by the discrepancy between this ideal and his own smallness.”

Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment

Advertisements

A good story … and a story of goodness

Adams Daramy

Adams Daramy
photo © 2013 Malvern Preparatory School

Last summer, an African student at my school asked me to help him with his college application essay.  I was surprised–I had never taught him, had never actually met him before, although I knew who he was.  He was very polite, wide-smiling, and serious about his studies.  When I read his essay, I knew why.

Adams Daramy was born in Sierra Leone during the height of its civil war, the brutal Blood Diamond wars.  By the age of six, he had witnessed mutilation and rape, had seen dead bodies in the street and children trained to kill, and had eluded mass killings and general thuggery. He had seen vultures pick at not-yet-dead bodies and had barely escaped being forced himself into the military.  He told me of the favorite intimidation tactic of the rebels–chopping the limbs off civilians–and how once he was forced to stand in one of two lines and how his line was spared, but the other were not.  And all this by the time he was six years old.

His mother, wisely, got him out of there.

Because of the wars, Sierre Leone had no infrastructure to process Adams’ coming to the United States, so Adams had to live for a year in the Ivory Coast.  He worked that year as a tailor’s apprentice, sending money back to his mother and learning still yet another language–the French spoken in the Ivory Coast. In his college essay, he described how wonderful it was having a morning coffee at a shop down the street before he went off to work.  He was now seven, the age when most of the children we know are taking their first steps off to school.

And yet, in his essay, he did not dwell entirely on the bad. He recalled how kite flying was a favorite activity in the coastal town of Abidjan and because of his tailoring skills, how he was able to make some wonderful and beautiful kites.  He was proud of them and smiled brightly when telling me. But mostly, he wrote about his mother. He wrote about her love, her sacrifices and her courage.

This was all in 2001.

Fast forward now to 2013.  Adams had made it to the United States and lived with an uncle who had also escaped the horror that was Sierre Leone.  He enrolled in a good prep school where he succeeded in academics, athletics, activities and service. For his senior year, his classmates elected him president of the Student Council.  And all this success–the academic challenges, the championships on the track and field,  the rewarding service, the broadening activities and the solidarity with his classmates–all this came about while he was working long hours as an aide in a retirement home, sending the money home to the mother he had not seen in 12 years.

Yesterday, Adams Daramy graduated from high-school.  For the past three months, his classmates have been working very hard fund-raising and pestering a sometimes intractable bureaucracy to enable Adams’ mother to travel to the United States and be present at her son’s graduation.  On June 3, his mother was denied a visa.  The offices of Representative Pat Meehan worked overtime to see if they could have that decision changed, though they offered little hope. On June 4, the decision was reversed and she could come. Now, intricate travel plans had to be quickly expedited.

At midnight, ten hours before Adams Daramy would graduate from a prestigious American prep school, he embraced his mother, Grace Sankoh.

It was the first time in twelve years he had seen the woman he had written about so lovingly in his college application essay.

As with all graduations, there were speeches and homilies, awards and recognitions yesterday.  But nothing spoke so loudly about goodness and hope and friendship and love than the reunion of Adams Daramy and his mother.

Endings, beginnings, and start-overs

Before I began teaching at the school where I currently teach, I worked in an advertising agency. During the interview process at the school, the headmaster asked me what I thought would be the greatest difference. My answer was “Endings.”

dandraper       mrchips

In the advertising world, it was not unusual for some print ad for which I had written copy  nine, twelve, eighteen months earlier needing to be re-tweaked  later. We are changing our direction, the headline is too “downtown,”  we want to downplay the price, emphasize the sponsor, etc., etc.  Things never were truly complete. They were signed-off on, yes. But they were never done with.

Teaching, however, is one of those professions where there are periodic endings, arbitrary endpoints where the slate is wiped clean, one can review what went right, rue what went wrong, and learn from both.

It is the end of May now, but I know that I and many of my colleagues are already plotting out projects and readings, weighing shifts in focus and shifts in technique, and (always on my part) constructing schemes to stay better organized in the upcoming school year.

And besides a chance to start anew, the end of a quarter, a semester, a school year offers a chance to bury the past and move forward. To begin again.

I used to have the Beckettian quote, Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better, posted on the wall of my office. At the time, it was a personal mantra for me, for my own work. I was not thinking of teaching. This year it has become a buzzword/phrase throughout education.failbetter1

All over in print and on the web there are articles about the value of failing, about the necessity of failing, of the embrace of failing. And we as teachers know that as well as anyone–for ourselves, if not necessarily for our students.  For what is the end of each term but a chance to review our failings and resolve to “fail better” next time.

Now with the end of the school year, there is also the spate of “commencement speeches” that must be heard. Those talks given to graduating seniors in colleges and high-schools around the country that are especially inspiring, especially poignant, especially relevant.

David Foster’s Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon University has become legendary. For a long while it was shot all over the internet, and then capitalism took over and someone decided to release it as a book.  It has been abridged and made into a wonderful short film, This is Water. Like all great commencement speeches, this is wise, humorous, and relevant without falling into clichés. It emphasizes compassion and empathy, warns graduates of the sometimes benumbing world of adulthood, and charges them to make their world better by understanding it more tolerantly.

Lately, Neil Gaiman’s 2012 speech at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia has been parsed and tweeted, analyzed and blogged about. It has been highly criticized and highly praised. It is about creativity and about personal freedom. And, of course, at this time of year, it is all over the place and referenced almost every time you log on.

And even Jane Lynch, the wonderful actress who has appeared in so many of the Christopher Guest films and now stars in the television show Glee, even Jane Lynch keeps appearing in my in-box and my twitter feeds and blogs that I follow because of the inspiring speech she gave in 2012 to the women of Smith College.  It too is forthright and wise and commanding.

But it is the nature of graduation speeches to address an audience as they START OUT into something new.  One of the joys/perks of teaching is that one gets to START OVER.  My best and frequent companion these days is a 7-year old boy with whom I play a lot of games.  Often when something goes wrong for him in a game we are playing, he is the first to yell, “Start Over” (though just as often he simply  changes the rules!)  Who knew that the gaming-strategy of a 7-year-old is the same spark that keeps good teachers fresh, engaged and effective?