In February, I went to a conference in D.C. My wife came down to join me afterwards. We don’t get out much, and I’ve barely seen much of my East Coast environs, barring last year’s visit to Philly. At the top of our list of things to see was the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial. It was the newest memorial, and also slightly controversial.
As we approached the memorial, we read quotations from MLK’s speeches that are engraved along a wall that leads up to his statue. We then walked around the central monument, which depicts MLK with his arms crossed, embedded in a chunk of granite mountain that appears to have slid forward from its face (Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope). His hands are sinewy and strong, veins bulging, and his eyes gaze stoically across the water. There is a sense of calm and might, but also a deep sense of tragedy. The unfinished look of the overall work contributes to this sense.
We took our obligatory picture, and then my wife asked if I could take her picture in front of one of the quotations we had passed earlier along the wall.
“It reminds me of you,” she said, somewhat shyly. We walked back over and I took her picture in front of the quotation, which reads:
“I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their heads.”
She seemed to feel that the reason why I am a teacher and work hard each and every day related to something like the sentiment expressed in that quotation. I couldn’t quite see myself in it, however.
This post is my explanation of why.
A little further down the wall, I saw another quotation that did speak deeply to me and about what I am passionately committed to in my work:
“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalty must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”
I took a picture of this one as well. We then walked away from the MLK memorial towards the Roosevelt memorial, which is a long, meandering wall and pathway of red stone with various niches and spaces for reflection along the way. Quotations from F.D.R. are sprinkled next to reflective pools, waterfalls, and scattered stones. But it was a quote in a little niche from his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, that reached out most to me. And it links together in theme with that quotation from MLK:
“The structure of world peace can not be the work of one man, or one party, or one nation . . . It must be a peace that rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world.”
This theme of common purpose, of a struggle for a global, overarching vision through cooperative effort, is what drives me and motivates me to do the work that I do. I was flattered by my wife’s belief that I do what I do because of a deep-seated passion for social justice, but there was a cognitive dissonance I didn’t feel comfortable with in that first quote. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but it seems to have to do with some underlying sense of martyrdom (“I have the audacity to believe. . .”), a stance of personal virtue, nobility, and provocation that I don’t fully identify with.
A passion for a moral mission, bordering at times on the messianic, is a trait of some that enter into teaching or social service as a profession. It is common for teachers to speak of teaching as a “calling,” as if they have been drawn into the vocation by a force beyond their ken. I am frequently talked to by others who are not teachers as if I have forsaken the realm of mere mortals and ascended into an alien sainthood, given the wary respect and sympathy attributed to a monk — that is, with an incredulous, I-would-never-do-that-myself-but-god-bless-you sort of attitude.
This has always rubbed me the wrong way. Teaching is a profession. It is a career. And yes, it is a tough one, and it is especially tough when teaching special education in a high needs school in an impoverished inner city area. But I moved into this tough career not simply because I wanted to make my world a better place (yes, I am an idealist), but because I wanted — purely selfishly — to develop myself as a leader and a person, to learn firsthand the ground level effects of political and policy decisions, and become a part of something much greater than myself.
I have no illusions that I am changing the world simply because I may impact a handful of childrens’ lives in the confines of one classroom. I realize this is sacrilegious to say. This is critically important work and the impact on one child’s life cannot be diminished. But I believe strongly that the larger system within which we work impacts our nation’s future ever more greatly. We can change the world by working together with others to alter aspects of that system we work and live within. Teachers, parents, children, policymakers, state legislatures, mayors, citizens, these are the people that collectively can change the world. I want to learn to look beyond my individual self and work towards a common, global purpose.
This is why the second quotation from MLK and Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotation spoke to me. I’d like to think that I as an individual can influence great change, but realistically speaking, I know that whatever impact I can have on my own is nothing in comparison to what we can achieve when we work together.