My father sent me a card when I was in junior high.. Don’t remember why, or where he was that he was writing home… But the saying on the front of the card struck me; to such an extent that I adopted it, as my yearbook quote, in my senior year of high school:
There are no rules about leaping into the new..
because no one has been there before..
To be honest, I really took that phrase to heart, which facilitated so many adventures and lessons and opportunities and discoveries in my own life. And now, I seem to be at a point where I hold such a phrase out to other minds.. ..yes; I recognize how that phrase supports all the Residency work I do in the schools I’m in.. And, I would like to think, goes a great way to facilitating the engagement of students, and colleagues. My stretch this year goes from 4th grade to junior high. Though the broad parameter of the Residencies is ‘social/oral history’, the scope is tailored to the specifics that distinguish the diverse needs of the different schools. One of the 4th grade Residencies is about recognizing a ‘classroom’ as “community”, and appreciating that each student comes to class with their own individual stories, out of their families, and specific to their own experiences. As it happens, the word “empathy” is one of the conduits running through each of the Residencies. Any student can turn to their classmate and, with ‘enquiry’ and ‘empathy’, discover something that might enrich the class’ understanding of a situation, or subject, or emotion. For the 4th & 5th graders, 'empathy' is about being able to “put yourself in someone else’ shoes”. For the high school class, it is more about being able to appreciate that everyone comes from their own paradigm of perceiving what they see in front of them, and what they hear; ‘’empathy” is not just about putting yourself in someone else’ shoes, but in comprehending that collecting stories of ‘social history’ often come encased (and sometimes “encrusted”) with a “perception” –perceiving the paradigm of the subject, allows for anyone doing research to discern details that might affect the facts. ..and so, moving through the domain of “empathy” came a conversation on whether or not ‘true’ is the same as ‘fact’. It was this past Friday, at high school; the class is at School Without Walls, where students are from diverse neighborhoods throughout the District. Going from “understanding” a person’s background, I offered a hot topic for conversation: Charlie Webster, outgoing Chair for the Maine GOP, had said that he believed there had been voter fraud in his state, as, in outlying counties, hundreds of blacks had voted –and he knew there were no blacks in these areas. ‘True’ or ‘fact’ came in as we unpacked his paradigm; “fact” hundreds of blacks had voted. What then became ‘true’ was that Mr Webster seemed to define blacks (even ethnicity) by ‘color’; for him, black folks looked the part. And, by this reckoning, as there were none who he knew looked the part, then it was unlikely that real blacks were voting. In this case, ‘true’ created it’s own ‘fact’ for him –and butted against everyone else’s. The class chewed on this and dug out further evidence of conflict between ‘true’ and ‘fact’. But then, upping the ante, I played a portion of a scene from the film 12 Angry Men, at the point where Lee J Cobb ignites the jury pool and, confronting Henry Fonda, declares that the trial’s defendant is guilty because it was a fact that the switchblade used, and in evidence, was the switchblade that belonged to the defendant. He went on to state that it was distinct –if not, in fact, unique; no one else could have had one. It is at this point that Fonda pulls out an exact, same switchblade from his pocket, and stabs it into the table. Yes, it is a fact that the knife in evidence is the murder weapon; but it is not true that there is not another one like it.
…things really got hot in class then; we were suddenly speaking about the nuances of ‘true’ and ‘fact’ in association with Justice.. ‘True’ vs ‘fact’. The omnipresent nuance of life; resonant, and relevant to every student in that class, as, at some point, each of them would come under such evaluation by someone else –whether it be a potential employer, landlord, college, club – or authority. And suddenly “empathy” came back into the situation, for those who get judged and how. What is gratifying in all this is the engagement the teenagers had -on a subject that equally provoked 4th graders to consider their classmates with deeper interest in their eyes.. as they all continue to walk into the new..