Friday, September 18, 2009

In the Teaching Trenches--Transformative Social Justice Work?

Last night, I went to see Rafe Esquith, a man who will make you feel like you've wasted your whole life. I'm sure he doesn't do it on purpose. But here's a man who's spent the last 25 years teaching some of the poorest children in the nation--every child in his inner-city L.A. school gets free breakfast and lunch, and most of them don't speak English as their first language. He's gotten so good at teaching that he could have left any number of times, but he chooses to stay.

He brought some of his school's children with him, and they did a presentation which incorporated passages from Shakespeare's plays and rock and pop songs, which they sang and played on the guitar and harmonica. Amazing.

I know from reading his books that he's kept a rigorous schedule, coming in early and staying after class. While I admire that dedication, I do wonder what he's sacrificed for his vision. Was the sacrifice worth it?

One of my friends who went with me says that saving children is the most important thing we can do, and she's likely right. But some part of me (the grandchild of a Lutheran minister who heard many a tale of family concerns taking a lower priority than congregational concerns) wonders about the sacrifices that his children have also made for their father's vision. I think too about the societal structures that haven't been changed, so year after year, Rafe Esquith still has just as many kids who need him. Would his time have been better spent working in that arena of social justice.

In the end, I suspect the most important thing is to use our gifts and talents in whatever arena they're most valuable. If Rafe Esquith had decided to change society by running for school board, maybe he wouldn't have accomplished as much. Maybe some of the children who he has saved will go on to provide the transformative visions needed by so many social institutions.

My discussion with my friend reminds me of similar discussions with non-believers, who scoff at the idea of monks praying: "Why don't they get out there and do something useful?" But they are doing something useful, and some would argue, an activity that's more important than anything else they could do. Those of us in the dirty trenches of social justice work need some contemplatives out there praying for us.

1 comment:

Dale said...

Oh, I think so: we should do what we can do joyfully. There's something about people doing the work that's right for them -- all the people who've had a big impact on me have been people who work from the heart like that, whether they're lamas or bookbinders. I don't really believe so much in abstractly deciding what's going to be good for people and then doggedly doing it: I suppose I think the heart makes better guesses than the head, about what's going to be good for people.