50 years later — what Robert Kennedy tells us about changing schools
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
I actually heard Robert Kennedy speak live twice. That makes me a lucky American. The first time was on a cold late October night in 1966, in front of the long since demolished old New Rochelle Courthouse and Police Headquarters on Lawton Street. Kennedy had come to rally support for the Democratic candidate for Governor of New York — Frank O’Connor perhaps — and on that night my father held me on his shoulders, probably for the last time, so I could see above the crowd.
My father said, later that night, that it was a good thing that “he wants to do the right things, because he could talk anybody into anything.”
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”
The second time was about a year later. Kennedy — he was New York’s Democratic US Senator — had come on a sunny October Saturday to campaign for the Democratic candidate for Mayor of New Rochelle. That candidate — the incredibly moral Dr. Jim Egan — was fighting against a plan to put 12 nuclear power plants on an island in Long Island Sound. The plan would have been a huge tax bonanza, but would also just raise the water temperature about 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and, yeah, perhaps create other ‘Trumpian' risks. Unlike that earlier speech I remember something of this one — ”there are moral imperatives,” I think he said, “and we are tested every day because those imperatives so often conflict with our own self interest.” I should not have that in quotes, there is no record of that speech that I can find, but that is my memory, and it is a powerful memory indeed.
“It is one thing to open the schools to all children regardless of race. It is another to train the teachers, to build the classrooms, and to attempt to eliminate the effects of past educational deficiencies. It is still another to find ways to feed the incentive to learn and keep children in school.”
Robert Francis Kennedy was murdered 50 years ago this early June. The dates of the shooting and his death get confused as time zones and desperate hospital hours confuse, but the loss to America, and the world, was immense.
1968 is a very long time ago, but for many of us alive then it represents a historical break point — a moment when America might have gone one way, seeking real solutions to poverty and racial inequality, following moral imperatives, rather than the way the rest of the 20th century played out — corruption and routine lies, greed and government for corporate gain.
So I have been listening to The Last Campaign — a book about Bobby Kennedy’s 82 day presidential campaign. Yes, it’s a bit too adoring, too unquestioning, but for me it serves as a reminder of what we might have been.
“Every generation inherits a world it never made; and, as it does so, it automatically becomes the trustee of that world for those who come after. In due course, each generation makes its own accounting to its children.”
What does this have to do with schools? Let me start here: Education is the most political act in the world. Education is about how we see the future — and whether we want to preserve the society that is or to help build something different. Every single thing we do in school and every thing we say to children is part of that choice.
“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.” — Ted Kennedy eulogizing his brother
What choices are we making? What choices of others are we tolerating?
When we walk into our schools, if we open our eyes, we see so much that is done for adult self interest — though that self interest conflicts with our moral imperatives to do everything we can for our children. When we make schedules we think — too often — of adult needs first. When we locate teacher desks when we repeat old lessons, even — yes too often — when we ask for quiet, we are often choosing ourselves over our children. Whenever an administrator fails to intervene with poor teaching, or insensitive teaching, we are choosing our own interests. Whenever a school tech director decides that making their life easier trumps adolescent needs to break through boundaries, whenever a school architect prizes the adult panopticon rectangle over the complexity of space kids need, whenever play is shortened to advance adult testing priorities, whenever we line children up to make supervision easier, we are choosing ourselves.
“We develop the kind of citizens we deserve. If a large number of our children grow up into frustration and poverty, we must expect to pay the price.”
For me, well, hard choices are hard. That is the nature of this universe. And I am not claiming any special goodness, or that I am more moral than anyone. But I do work in a place where we try to make the questions— Is this the right thing for children? Is this the right thing for this child? — at the center of all we do. And as I think back to the loss of Robert Kennedy 50 years ago, I think that is the right place to be.
“It certainly should not surprise us that a young person without any real stake in a legitimate occupation or career may get into trouble more easily. Such persons readily accept the idea that they have been unjustly deprived of money, status, and opportunity.”
- Ira Socol