The Need to Listen More- MLK Day Reflection

As the next election cycle begins to intensify and while reflecting on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. today, I was thinking about the way in which we engage in dialogue in areas of potential disagreement. It has been a shift away from the discourse about ideas to the volleying of tweets intended to criticize without the openness for dialogue.

I could not help recently thinking about the opportunity I had to meet Cory Booker just over eleven years ago when he was the Mayor of Newark. His commitment to improving the city took him off the path of “traditional” democratic ideas when he looked to improve the education of young people through Charter Schools. This work led Booker to an invitation to be the keynote speaker at a gala for a Boston area conservative think tank. Would this happen in today’s political climate- Booker, who was a registered Democrat, of one major city speaking to a room filled with Republicans from another major city? It is certainly hard to imagine today.

I, also a registered Democrat, was invited to attend the event last minute and was told that I should not miss the opportunity to hear Cory Booker speak. So, I found myself standing in the ballroom getting a chance to speak to Booker briefly. During his speech, I sat in awe of his presence and his skilled way of conveying his message of hope and his vision for the future. It was November, 2009 and a ballroom packed with some of the most conservative thinkers in Massachusetts were celebrating the vision of a Democrat. That night stands as a reminder to me of all that we can do when we enter into debate with the openness to be convinced and not to simply try to be heard.

In 1962, at Cornell College, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr shared, “I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”1

Dr. King’s words at Cornell College could not ring more true today. They are a message from the past that we need to embrace at schools and in our lives. Schools provide the possibility for young people to talk to each other, exchange ideas, and learn to embrace all their differences. These pedagogies exist in schools and allow us to guide students. Discussions about texts in English classes, debates in history, group discussions of data in science, and being globally focused as a school all can help answer the call of Dr. King.

Yet, we need more than just schools at the moment. Over the last few years, we have separated ourselves as a society based on our ideas. While social media platforms have connected us in unfathomable ways, their algorithms have also filled our feeds with homogenous ideas. This is compounding the separation and leading to the fear of the other that Dr. King referenced at Cornell. In Dr. Helen Riess’ book, The Empathy Effect, she shares that humans are drawn to those that are similar. Cognitive Science tells us that it requires effort to invite new people into your personal circle, because you have to look for similarities that may not be immediately obvious. Riess writes that humans make a decision about another person in a matter of moments based on the first impressions- how some looks, how they sound, and their interests. The connection can shift over time but requires people to continuously learn more about a person through shared experiences and deeper conversations.

We need more shared experiences. Moving forward, we need to be willing to listen to other people and engage in real dialogues that are meant to build relations and move us forward. We need to get better about being comfortable in uncomfortable situations. We need to once again be willing to invite Cory Booker to speak to a room full of conservatives, as well as Governor Charlie Baker to a room of liberals. Dr. King’s message was clear, separateness leads to fear and the only way to combat fear is by engaging with each other instead of tuning each other out.

Remembering September 11th

Each Wednesday morning, Brimmer’s Upper School comes together for a brief community gathering to start the day. During these meetings, after announcements have been made, for the past few years I have taken a few moments to talk with students and ask them to reflect on a topic. This year, as I prepared for the first Upper School gathering, I noticed it fell on September 11. While this year does not mark a major anniversary of the event, it was an important milestone to be aware of as high school educators.

Like most people who lived through September 11, 2001, I can still recall where I was when I heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. I still have a vivid memory of sitting in large room with other students–huddled around a TV, watching the news coverage as the second plane made impact with the North Tower and the buildings collapsed.

In the first few years following 9/11, the power of the day was felt by everyone. Teachers and students were aware of what had happened, how the world was changing, and felt profoundly connected to the loss that came from that day. At the same time, I remember talking with colleagues about how this day would look in the future.

Would it become a national holiday?

Will people still feel deeply connected to the loss?

As time passes, will 9/11 become a day that loses its meaning for many people?

As I prepared to honor 9/11 in 2019, I realized only some of our students in the Class of 2020 were born before 9/11/2001. Others were born after that day, meaning that this is the last year that most high schools will have a class of students born before this tragedy reshaped our world. Even our eldest students do not have memories of the events or their aftermath. This feels significant.

Time is constantly moving forward, and it is easy to get lost in each day. However, we mark time by the pausing to honor moments and events that are meaningful and impactful. Eighteen years after 9/11, it is necessary to pause and mark the moment. It is important to honor the people who went to work or boarded a plane that morning and never returned home; to remember the first responders who rushed into the Twin Towers and never emerged; to empathize with those who are still suffering physical and emotional trauma from the losses of the day; to celebrate the way Americans came together; and to recognize the rise of Islamophobia that came as a result of this terrorist attack and the tragedies that has caused for many people.

Time will continue to move forward; however we can continue to draw meaning and power from 9/11. While our students are removed from that day and were likely born into a post-9/11 world, it is important that we continue to honor the lives lost by guiding our students to lead in a way that brings people together for the common good.

Learning History Through Theater

In just a few weeks, the Ruth Corkin Theatre will be filled with students, parents, and alumni as we are transported back to New York City in 1899. While we will most certainly tap our feet and clap our hands to the music and feel amazed by the intricate set design and incredible choreography, it is also important to note that this year’s U.S. Musical,Newsies, offers an important history lesson to the cast and crew and those who watch the show.

Much like Hamilton: An American Musical helped to tell a historical story through song and dance, Newsies provides an opportunity to learn more about a segment of American History. Through its retelling of the 1899 Newsboys Strike, Newsies focuses on how society treated low-income children during this time period. Through dialogue and lyrics, we are given a glimpse of what it was like to be a child before protective labor laws. While early 20th-century America would shift its view on child labor laws, the United States did not ratify a change until 1938 when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Newsies is just one example of the importance that the arts and humanities hold in education. Theater engages audiences through storytelling and song, draws people into the story, and creates a connection to the characters. Angela Modany describes the process in a February 2012 Smithsonian article as “embodying empathy.” By creating connections to characters, either as an actor or observer, you empathize with their experience, gaining a deeper understanding of the historical context. The concept of embodying empathy is not a foreign one to Brimmer classrooms. Whether it is through special programming like Model UN, the Chinese Temple Fair, Winterim, and community service days, or in-classroom mock trials, debates, skits, and Harkness discussions, the Humanities and Creative Arts departments create experiences for students to build connections with people, characters, or events.

This year we have discussed the meaning of empathy and its etymology in detail. To be empathic means to be “in suffering” or to feel the feelings of another. In Dr. Helen Riess’ book, The Empathy Effect, she shares that we naturally connect to those with whom we share common experiences or traits. The concept of embodying empathy works seamlessly with Riess’ research. When students share experiences, they are both learning important topics and developing a profound connection that creates stronger empathic responses.

I look forward to seeing you at one of the performances of Newsies in March, and if you would like to learn more about the 1899 News Boys Strike in New York City, here is a link to resources produced by the New York City Public Library.