I’m glad that Fred Rogers, one of the great figures from my childhood, really did say (quoting his mother) that in times of trouble and sorrow, you should “look for the helpers.” It’s a quiet, rainy morning in These Parts, but social media streams and news reports are full of ugly misunderstandings. “I just can’t believe that Those People would Do That” … but for different groups of friends of mine, “Those People” and “That” are utterly different. Some of my friends see “Those People” are the outraged residents of Ferguson, MO and “That” as the riots, the “destruction of property,” and even the distrust of the police. For other friends of mine, “Those People” would be the complacent, privileged folks who complain about the riots, “destruction of property,” and distrust of the police … and “That” would seem to be a deliberate refusal to understand, or coded language with several hundred years of oppression and violence behind it.
I hate writing about those people and that in this space. I’d much rather write about joyful learning community and building meaningful things together. But if you want to build community and build things together, there has to be a foundation of mutual respect … or at least a willingness to listen, to acknowledge that “Those People” have a perspective, however misguided it seems to “us,” that makes “That” appear to be reasonable, or appropriate, or the least bad option, or “the only choice under the circumstances.”
Look for the helpers, Mr. Rogers said. But that’s hard to do from a distance, hard to do when This Group and That Group dismiss each other (and each other’s sources of information) with yelling and labeling. I wouldn’t claim that anybody learned how to yell and label in their factory-model school experience; reducing the complex other to a simple label is one way that we humans deal with an utterly complex environment. But I think of Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y I’ve known, for whom the label seemed more real than the real person who had been labeled. I think of all the labels and categories that factory-model schools create, of how difficult it is to shed one label and put on another … of how difficult it is to bear multiple labels if those labels are seen as somehow contradictory. “X can’t really be that smart,” said One Ms. X many years ago, “because he hangs out with those losers.” And Another Ms. X, a whole string of them, wouldn’t put the “academically gifted” label on B, even though his brilliance was obvious to anyone who talked with him, because B already had two other labels for unrelated health conditions. “How can T be gifted and need special services?” asked More Than One Ms. X and Mr. Y, even though T’s physical challenges and blazing intelligence were utterly obvious to anyone who spent any time with her.
After a decade or so in a world where one label per person is what you’re “supposed to” see and acknowledge, is it really surprising that people go into a wider, more diverse world and want to see one label per person there, too? For years, friends of mine on both sides of the Ferguson issues heard a simple narrative: “Just do the work, and you’ll get a Good Grade and go to College and get a Good Job.” Some believed it or wanted to believe it; some tried and got rejected; some refused and got dealt with by Ms. X, Mr. Y, and Powers That Be. But all were shaped, one way or another, by this powerful, simple narrative … a narrative that encourages yelling and labeling, shaming and blaming, even pain and punishment (immediate, summary punishment) for those who don’t comply with orders and directives from Powers That Be.
And yet even my friends who bought into that narrative completely, who found “success” as they define it by following those simple, linear steps, seem worried, even frantic, about their children and grandchildren. Ms. X, who became a teacher because she “just loved school so much,” rejoices that her grandchildren aren’t attending public school. Mr. Y, who thinks “education is the way you get ahead in this world,” celebrates Z, who’s making good money and a good life without a four-year college degree. “Opportunities like this are rare; you should seize it,” said More Than One Power when I asked them about leaving The System to do what I do now.
That wouldn’t have happened ten or fifteen years ago. But it’s happening now, and it’s breaking down the simple labels that so many of us relied on for so long. And when the simple labels are gone, you have to look at the deep complexity and deep humanity of “Those People” … at least for a minute or two. And when you do, you might even start to understand why they did “That.”
And that’s why, in the midst of despair and violence and profound misunderstandings, I see hope … and I’m looking for the helpers who will share and spread that hope. I’m not sure the Latin Family will be talking about these issues directly today or tomorrow; we have a lot of other things to do, and the issues may be too close, too personal, and too raw to address directly. But in the days and weeks to come, as we use the Tres Columnae Project characters and stories as prisms or mirrors into our own stories, I’m hoping we can be among the helpers in some way that we haven’t begun to imagine. That’s the power of a joyful learning community that builds meaningful things together … and I wonder what other insights and discoveries await us in the days and weeks to come.