Unlearning Long Divisions: Introduction
The prison fence is an obvious structure that divides us, but we are separated in other more subtle structural ways, by how we build wealth—or are not able to, by huge opportunity gaps, by our own judgements, assumptions and inabilities to listen and know each other, by our geography, by neighborhoods, lifestyles, and cultural misunderstandings. America has always had its separations, during slavery and then under Jim Crow, of class, race, cultural groups and religions, but it seems that the rancorous voices of political campaigns, talk radio, online comments, and the addition of big money have all turned up the volume and deepened the divisions between us. Much of it is fear-driven, no more evident than how we perceive people who are behind bars. The ideas in the following posts come from my interactions with my inmate students, who taught me how to unlearn many of my own assumptions—and to see them and my country in new ways.
A community can use all the skills of its people.
— Maori proverb
All of us are gifted and talented. Students who return to school after dropping out often lack confidence and experience in being students, making them unaware or unsure of how capable and gifted they are. Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences intrigued my inmate students when I mentioned them one day, so I put a list on the bulletin board. Since then, Gardner has added two more to his original seven: visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intra-personal, linguistic, logical-mathematic, plus naturalist, and moral/existential. I found them all within the men in my classroom, often manifested in surprising ways.
Mr. Romero smiled when he came into class, but then put his head down and worked, saying little to any other students and contributing nothing to class discussions, almost disappearing into his small stature at the back of the room. Every student needed to take a turn at facilitating a weekly discussion on current events, and I wondered how Mr. Romero would handle it. When it was his turn late in the semester, he walked in, took his place and quietly announced that he hoped everyone in the room could have a chance to add to the discussion that day. Some hot-button topics came up with several men talking at once, but Mr. Romero simply smiled, raised his flattened his palms and brought them slowly down. The room went silent. Without saying a word, he had total command of the group. When another shy person spoke up, he said, “Do you have anything to add to that? If you do, we’d like to hear it.” Unlike other people who led the group, he put his own report at the end, showing us that leadership could be more about listening than talking. He showed us it could be quiet, controlled, inclusive and about the group, not about himself. I sat and watched, amazed.
Mr. Zimmer rushed in from science class after seeing a frog dissected, saying, “I’ve never in my life seen anything so exciting–I love everything in that class! I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was in grade school.” He got A’s in science and could not get enough extra work.
When asked after three weeks into a new semester what they had learned about themselves, Mr. Finch said, “I didn’t know I could sing! That choir is the best time of the week for me—I get into it and I don’t even know I’m in prison. I sing better all the time too.”
Students in our art program would proclaim similar surprise at what they could create. Mr. Bell lamented one day, “I’d rather dance than do anything else.”
When we read poems aloud, the class would ask Mr. Richards to read his own, beautiful words strung together from his childhood world in Jamaica. Mr. Carmel, dignified and reserved, wrote words of wisdom at the end of every assignment about living with integrity, about loving people and the meaning of life and death, most of which I copied for myself to keep at home. He would fit into Gardner’s moral-existential intelligence.
I know someone with Down Syndrome, who is tuned into other people’s emotions in extraordinarily perceptive, compassionate ways. When I look carefully at the world around me within my circle of family and friends, I am amazed by how things balance, how what I cannot do, someone else can, how our different parts fit into a whole. Even though we all harbor unknown gifts within us, it reminds me of the many opportunities the people around me have had to develop and use what we do well.
Isn’t this what school is for? A place to figure out our students’ talents and abilities so that they can add them to a needy world? For many people, what we love most is also what we do well, and what we do well adds meaning and purpose to our lives. Many of my students came from failing schools, and they had little exposure to the arts, music, or even adequate instruction in the basic skills. “I didn’t know I could…” was a familiar refrain. Their families and communities need their gifts—to heal from poverty and deprivation, to grow and thrive so that everyone has a place and a part to play. The rest of us need them too, so that their gifts can spread out and mend our fractured, divided world. Otherwise, what immeasurable loss, for the people who never grow into who they were born to be—and for the rest of us who are not enriched from what they have to give.
We can all help. We can take young people to concerts, museums and art galleries, sharing our own gifts and passions; we can invite them into our workplaces; we can develop book clubs and poetry circles and help facilitate groups for problem solving and conflict resolution, building community in the process. Who knows how many quiet problem solvers, leaders and philosophers could have a reach beyond their own lives? How many artists could discover the depth of their gifts? How many people could become doctors and nurses? How many more musicians could enrich the world?