Bending the Arc

January 21, 2013 by Bill Ivey

It has been one month and one week to the day since the shooting at Sandy Hook, and still many of us are depressed and in shock. In quiet moments at holiday gatherings, online in virtual discussions on bulletin boards and through Twitter, many of my friends and family have shared that they felt subdued this year compared to in normal years. This is in no way meant to diminish, share, or hope to begin to understand the grief that parents and family members of those who died must be feeling; it is simply the truth of our reality.

Over the weekend following the news, one of my online friends started a private discussion about how best to react in public. Everyone agreed that this should not be about either appropriating grief or self-promotion. Everyone agreed that whatever happened in the short term, it's what happens in the long term that really matters. For some of us, that translated to putting our voices out there. For others, it meant maintaining a respectful silence.

Another of my online friends brought up the fact that children are dying every day of gun violence, but the media - and thus the country - pays little attention. Indeed, Children's Defense Fund has cited statistics showing that approximately eight children a day die by gun violence. That means over 300 kids since that horrible day, more than two Sandy Hooks every week.

It seems we are indeed embarking on a serious national conversation on gun violence. Gun control itself is of necessity part of this conversation, but so are many other issues - our culture's attitude toward mental health issues, questions of insurance, what Gloria Steinem has called the cult of masculinity and the supporting cult of femininity, and looking at root causes deeper down: poverty, sexism, racism, and other prejudices.

And meanwhile, the issue of climate change hovers over us, casting its own shadow of uncertainty and doubt. It can all get overwhelming pretty quickly....

... and then I step into my classroom. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, my Life Skills class was talking about microaggressions, those subtle moments when a person, generally oblivious and well-meaning, insults you or otherwise makes you feel marginalized - for example, asking someone who, unbeknownst to you, is lesbian if she has a boyfriend. They had a great discussion about the role of intention in such moments as well as how the comments are received regardless of intention, and quickly saw the connection to stereotypes (which they articulated) and privilege (which they didn't articulate but understood at a gut level). Several of them said they have never really experienced microaggressions, and one of them said she wished the world were more like Stoneleigh-Burnham. I told her I was actually working on a blog on just that very topic.

Similarly, Carroll Perry, a newly retired teacher at my son's school, said at their baccalaureate service last spring, "There has been progress, and there will be a lot more. The cynics forget that people like you are coming on to the scene, and that you view today’s challenges not as insuperable problems, but as your stewardship." I look out at you students here, and I completely agree.

Today, for the second time in history, we hold the inauguration of a Black president. President Obama's re-election, as he himself has said, proves that 2008 was not an anomaly. Earlier in his career, when he was still a Senator and candidate for president, he had the opportunity to speak at a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He noted, "Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice..." (Obama, cited by Howe) When a 7th grader says "When you start to get interested in boys or girls or whatever you find interesting," when another 7th grader says "I just don't see what the big deal is if Black and White people go out together," when I suggest to the drummer prior to an Upper School Rock Band performance that I wouldn't drum in a skirt and a Senior comments without missing a beat, "But we wouldn't think any less of you if you did," you can feel that arc bending.

The long struggle for social justice may get overwhelming at times - of course it does! But as long as we are in it together, as long as we see steady improvement, as long as there are people like you taking your place in the world, there will always be hope.

Written by Bill Ivey

A dedicated member of the faculty, Bill Ivey is the Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. He teaches Humanities 7 and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program. Among his many hats, Bill also coordinates social media for Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

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Filed Under: Middle School, Martin Luther King Jr, Teaching, gender, Inauguration, Obama, discrimination, In the Classroom, sandy hook, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School