Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Toni Morrison: Will you teach at my imaginary school?

 I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.
                        - Toni Morrison          

Yesterday I stumbled upon this quote from Toni Morrison and I was blown away by the simplicity of her insight.  I mean, as if I needed any more reason to love this woman, as if she hadn’t already earned her spot on the Wall of Writers in my classroom (right between Gwendolyn Brooks and Anne Frank) several times over.  She is clearly one writer/ teacher who walks the walk.    

Her message, so beautiful and simple as only she could state it, “If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else”, is a message too often forgotten.  There is a “I’m just trying to get mine” mentality that is pervasive with students today and this mentality comes from the folks who teach them, both directly and indirectly.  I believe it is this selfishness that has led to much of the inequity and disparity that exists within our educational system.  Politicians and “reformers” are quick to decide what is “best” for disenfranchised populations without considering what effects these changes might have on the population.  Few of these reforms truly consider how to EMPOWER students, parents, and communities. 

Also endemic to this reform mindset is an undertone of blame. The rhetoric around The Achievement Gap, Failing Schools, AYP, Takeovers, Turnarounds, Persistently Dangerous, and No Excuses all suggest a subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) blaming of the students and their communities.  Earlier this year there was a piece in Forbes that gained some attention called “If I were a poor black kid”.  I’ll be optimistic and assume that writer Gene Marks’ goal was not to further dis-empower children growing up in poverty, but to demonstrate the potential that technology holds for the expansion of knowledge.  His conclusion, however, makes that a difficult argument to accept, as he speaks directly to this blame mentality.

Technology can help these kids. But only if the kids want to be helped. Yes, there is much inequality. But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it”. 

In truth, there is plenty of responsibility to go around, but dwelling on it does little to EMPOWER students and communities. 

During summer school I worked with a text that I feel embodies the mission of empowerment that Toni Morrison is suggesting.  In The Other Wes Moore, author (Hopkins’ alum, Rhodes Scholar & US Army Captain) Wes Moore parallels his experience with that of the “other Wes Moore”, a man who grew up in the same neighborhood, at the same time, under similar circumstances, with the same name who is currently incarcerated for his role in an armed robbery and murder. 
The text really spoke to my students primarily for what it is NOT.  It is not a prescription for how they should live.  It is not a preachy text espousing that education is a magic potion that will lead you out of the ghetto (though Wes does stress the importance of education).  It does not ignore the realities of growing up in concentrated, generational poverty. In other words, it doesn’t say “NO EXCUSES”.  From my interactions with Wes, I’m certain that he is not “Pro-Excuses”, in fact he’s probably the last person who would make excuses for anything as he stresses personal accountability, but he does recognize realities.  He acknowledges his own struggles and advantages and attempts to EMPOWER others though sharing his experience. 

Our first of two new-student orientations is this afternoon and I’m excited to see 60 new faces who will join our program in a few weeks.  What makes me even more excited, however, are the folks who accompany them, the parents (especially the fathers), grandparents, advocates, siblings, children, and friends who support our students in their academic endeavor.

 I have the utmost respect for the students who walk through our doors.  I can only imagine what it’s like to walk into a school at 19, 20 or 21 years old with less than 5 credits (of the 23.5 necessary to graduate).  These are the students I am committed to serving and I will keep Wes’s story and Toni Morrison’s words in mind as I address and welcome our new students this afternoon. I will keep these words with me all year, especially when things get though (as they always do). 


  1. Great post! Toni Morrison is amazing, and I use her fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and quotes in my classroom. She wrote another really interesting article called "The Reader as Artist" that is required reading in my AP class.

    It seems like the media and edu-tainment field has invented this dichotomy of "no excuses" vs "only excuses". Also, no excuses quickly becomes a smokescreen for dictatorial, do whatever we say or else, kind of mentality. (KIPP anyone...)

    Keep up the good posts, and I hope your orientations go great.

    1. Thanks Steve- Controlling and framing the dialogue is so important in education now a days. Like you said you can either be "no excuses" or "pro excuses" just like you are either a reformer or anti-reform and if you are anti-reform then you want the status quo.
      This type of dialogue is certainly not unique to education, but it doesn't do anyone any good.
      Thanks for the feedback.