My life as an activist feels more involuntary than voluntary–like Paula it seems I was born to it rather than “chose it.” This natal gift however, has not always been comfortable. (And as someone who abhors “innateness” theories, this explanation also doesn’t seem very satisfactory. Paula, this is a little bit of a lazy woman’s way out?)
In other places I’ve written about my early school experiences and my high school as sorting-mechanism-hell, so I am not going to perseverate on these. Except to say that whenever I am in classrooms observing, I can always relate to bored, turned off, distracted, distressed, numb students. Oh yes I can.
In the last week I had occasion to watch the 1983 movie version of Jane Eyre with two of my teenage children, who are writing papers on it for feminist literature. In one of the opening scenes of this movie, the 10-year-old Jane, in a fiery confrontation, calls out her conformist, shaming, weak-minded guardian Mrs. Reed (go to 4:28 in the video), proclaiming with a child’s verocity and moral compass her “right” to object to injustice and mistreatment. I was transfixed. Jane Eyre has always meant a lot to me; I believe I’ve read it about a half-dozen times. But in this version, at this moment, what I saw was Jane Eyre’s child-rooted sense of passion: the way in which she proclaimed a right to personhood and fair treatment, in spite of her low-status in the household–and although she was female, the subject of bullying, not yet grown up. (Let us note for the record that activists come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, classes, eras.) Jane Eyre was living what Frederick Douglass, at almost the same moment in the mid-19th century, was writing.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” Frederick Douglass.
I follow Jane Eyre and Frederick Douglass, with pride and humility. They teach powerful lessons about refusing consent to your own oppression.
And then there are other parts of activism: the creation of movements.
Last week in my work in a district in California, I was sitting with the principal of a large comprehensive high school of almost 1950s cast, along with some “activist” teachers (there were some) who had just gotten the faculty to vote on a change in the bell schedule so that “extra remedial time” could be given to students who were failing. Students who were performing well “got time off.”
So I said hey, stop, let’s wait a minute. The construction here is that learning is awful, something nasty to be avoided, and the “treat” for complying and producing appropriate learning behaviors is to get your ticket to punch out, to go the break room, and to not have to engage. And I said that that we might want to be working towards a model in which learning was pleasurable, that engaging in learning activities was not constructed as a punishment in the building, but actually relevant, challenging in a good way, and something that students might actually want to do.
There was a lot of silence –like what? What is she talking about? Huh? Come again?
So what I’m thinking here is, what we are saying at COOP is pretty simple. But it’s also pretty challenging. As Joe and Chad point out, there can be blank stares.
How are we combining Jane Eyre-like ferocity with enlightened movement creation?