Archive for March, 2012

In 1992, Chief Justice Rehnquist asked Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy to write the majority opinion for Lee v. Weisman, a decision that would have rolled back restrictions on school prayer.   However, Justice Kennedy found that his draft opinion defending the clergy-led prayer exercise at a public school graduation just “would not write.”  As a result, he switched his vote during deliberations and ultimately composed the majority opinion, preserving the precedent of limiting the role of religion in public schools.

Today, a student asked the class and me to critique a particular paragraph with which she was struggling in her Romeo and Juliet essay.  I read the paragraph aloud and then shared the above anecdote with the students, asking them what Kennedy meant when he said that his draft “would not write.”  The students responded, “He never had a clear understanding of his thesis statement.”  A few turned to the young woman and shared,  “That’s the problem in your paragraph; you’re not really confident about your topic sentence, so you’re struggling with your defense.”  Exactly – she just needed to change her argument.

This kind of budding understanding is like cherry blossoms for me.  It signals spring and the approaching close of the year. My students are beginning to understand.


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A Way Out of the Desert

Recently, a friend sent me the cover article in CNN’s first virtual magazine: “Slavery’s Last Stronghold.”  The article explores the vestiges of modern slavery that remain in Mauritania, a small West African country whose unfortunate distinction is as the last nation in the world to abolish the ability to own another human being, a feat it accomplished in 1981.  Of course, as any American historian can attest, oppression doesn’t end with a legislative document.  Mauritania declared slavery a crime in 2007, yet no court has handed down a conviction even though 10 – 20% of the population remains in slavery.

That last sentence seems to defy reason until you realize that Mauritania is ruled by an Orwellian logic.  The journalists investigating the story were told that the discussion of slavery was taboo.  Moreover, a government official boasted, “All people are free in Mauritania and this phenomenon (of slavery) no longer exists.” However, the journalists discovered that, though the word slavery itself has been eradicated, the condition – which the word describes – survives.

An abolitionist organization, SOS Slaves, founded ironically by a former slave owner and a freed slave, is working to liberate those who remain in bondage.  However, it’s not as simple as physically freeing a slave from his or her master.  There are no chains in Mauritania; generations of institutional, legal slavery have bound individuals to submissive identities. To a Mauritanian, freedom is not an inherent right.  Even when a master grants freedom, the slave “remain(s) dependent, grateful.”  As a result, activists must teach enslaved individuals their inherent dignity: “For a slave to be free, she first must break the shackles in her mind.”

Describing the endlessly arid landscape that Mauritanians witness, the journalists suggest a metaphor for the oppressed mind: “The farther into the desert one goes, the more it seems possible that the outside world simply doesn’t exist — that memory is playing a trick. That this is all there is.”

At the risk of belittling the plight these enslaved endure, I wonder if there isn’t a lesson for all of us in considering their struggle. “Stockholm Syndrome” describes the psychological phenomenon in which those held captive begin to empathize with their captors.  The phenomenon derives its name from an event in which bank employees, held hostage for six days, developed “traumatic bonding” with their abductors.  Six days!  In less than a week, we can lose our belief in our fundamental right to freedom.

This should give all of us pause, cause us to question what and who binds us, and determine how to break the shackles in our own minds.

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Kobe (1998 – 2012)


This morning, our beloved fourteen-year-old chocolate lab, Kobe, passed away.   Indefatigably loving and loyal, he gave our entire family so much joy.


A Dog and his Master


As young as I look,

I am growing older faster than he

Seven to one

Is the ratio they tend to say.


Whatever the number,

I will pass him one day

And take the lead

The way I do on our walks in the woods.


And if this ever manages

To cross his mind,

It would be the sweetest

Shadow I have ever cast on snow or grass.


– Billy Collins


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A Lenten Reflection

Last year, Andee Poulos, an 8th grader at our school unexpectedly suffered a brain injury brought on by an undetected congenital condition, arteriovenous malformation.  Although hospitalized in a coma many months, she is now conscious and home.  However, she remains unable to speak and generally immobile.  An honors student and a three sport athlete, the young woman is beloved by her school community. In her honor, the father of a fellow classmate began a foundation, Andee’s Army, whose mission is “to provide goods and services to children and their families who are receiving medical treatment and care for non-traumatic brain injuries.”

Andee returned with her parents and the foundation’s director to our Upper School chapel the Thursday before break to share awareness of the foundation’s goals.  In a wheelchair, her body unable to sit fully upright, Andee could not communicate with her now 9th grade classmates.  In fact, she only appeared briefly at the service.  Nevertheless, her presence, her parents’ commitment to her rehabilitation, and the foundation’s mission all profoundly affected the students.

When the bell rang after chapel, my students, an all girls 9th grade literature class, slowly made their way back to the Upper School.  Although they typically enter my class in mid-conversation with one another, on Thursday they arrived solemn and quiet.  It seemed ridiculous to begin my planned lesson.  Instead, I asked if anyone would like to talk about Andee or how they were feeling.  Some of the girls simply began crying; others shared their bewilderment at how this could have happened.  Since I didn’t know Andee, I asked them to tell me about her – her personality, her closest friends, her family, her favorite places and things.  She is clearly loved and deeply missed.

We’re in the season of Lent, a time of reflection and soul searching.  It sometimes seems like a dark period on the Christian calendar, commemorating Jesus’ own withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days.  When one of the girls asked me how it’s possible to make sense of what happened, I told her what I believe: it isn’t.  I’ve shared with them my own story in our year together – my mother’s suicide, my husband’s death in a car accident when our child was two, my own sense of doubt and distrust.  Perhaps, some teachers and parents might feel that I shouldn’t permit such intimacy.  But literature is replete with stories of loss, loneliness, and confusion.  Shared deftly and purposefully, my own story can help them see that there are ways through the darkness.

I’ve written before on this blog about empathy (literally, “in feeling with”) as the pole star that guides my teaching.  This break, I read Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a novella whose plot is simple: On July 20, 1714, “the finest bridge in all Peru” collapses and five people die. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan missionary, witnesses their deaths, and asks the age-old question, “Why did this happen?”  He believes that by exploring each individual life, he can determine why these five in particular died. His six-year quest only leads him to more questions and ultimately to his own death. Wilder himself defined the central question of the novel: “Is there a direction and meaning in (life) beyond the individual’s own will?”  The novella’s last paragraph reinforced my belief that there are no definitive answers to life’s questions, and that the only effective defenses against fear, doubt, and confusion are courage and love:

But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten.  But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them.  Even memory is not necessary for love.  There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

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