¤ Deven Black, Pam Moran, me… Educon — Philadelphia

When we lose people important to us we count on scar tissue forming over the pain after some time. But some scars never seal the hurt completely.

For me there are more than a few of those. Scars that have stopped the bleeding but have never quite stopped the pain. One of those is the loss of Deven Black.

“I’m introducing people here to great books,” Deven DMed me from a Bowery homeless shelter two months before he died. “I’m building a library — reading to my roommates — maybe I’m beginning to make a difference again.”

And I didn’t get on a train.

I’ve thought about that a lot. I mean, I live in a place that allows me to get on a train — one train — and arrive six hours later at Penn Station. I could have gotten on a train. I’ve thought about that too much.

And it roared back into my brain last weekend when my wife pointed out this headline to me: “Rare disorder leads to school librarian of the year’s downfall.”

Deven was my friend. He was also a devoted teacher. He was a husband, a father. He was a good guy.

But perhaps most of all he was a student. And Deven, in life and in death, told an incredible story about education.

“The intellectually omnivorous, independent-minded eldest of four siblings, Black got into one of New York City’s powerhouse selective public high schools, ditched it as stifling, and threw himself into an alternative newspaper and political campaigns. When most of his peers were in college, he was a radio reporter on Cape Cod, doing stories that spotlighted the lives of the elderly and disabled.

“After returning to New York for a radio job that fell through, he started bartending and then managed a popular British-themed pub for nearly two decades, building the business through offbeat promotions. But he also earned a college degree in education, an interest that crystallized into a career and two master’s degrees after the pub closed in 2001.

“Fired up to make a difference and full of ideas about how to improve schools, he became a New York City public school special-ed teacher, turned around an outdated middle school library and built a reputation in education circles as an earnestly iconoclastic blogger, unafraid to tell a conference that students drop out because “school sucks.”’

Deven described everything wonderful about learning, and everything troubling about the institutions that are “school.” Deven learned everything. He learned journalism and radio and politics and history. He learned bartending and restaurant management. All without school. He learned about education, of course, and he even went to school for that — through the brilliant Empire State College of SUNY. As a teacher, when he saw his middle school’s library underperforming — not contributing to his children’s needs — he went back to school again to become a librarian. And as an educator he was a voracious learner — attending every possible conference, asking every question — whether in person or online.

His last DMs to me began as he asked for book recommendations for his shelter cohort.

Yet Deven was constantly failed by school. Not just as a teenager. He was failed by school leaders in Michael Bloomberg’s New York City who were more inspired by the brutality of Eva Moskovitz than by the capabilities of Deven’s students. He was failed by a school principal who would not fight for the changes Deven tried to make. He was failed by school leaders too disinterested in their staff to worry about the odd changes that were happening with Deven.

¤ Looking down on where Deven taught

And in the end he was failed by schools which encourage the hunt for the simplest, fastest solution, and which produced technicians and doctors unable to work to discover the best explanation.

The news of Deven’s diagnosis, far too late for him, has brought back the mourning for our lost friend, and yet, as Chris Vacek wrote on Facebook, “While an explanation does nothing for the outcome, it does the one thing Deven probably would have wanted; it makes sense of non-sense. It’s meaningful, and even now, he is doing what he loved...helping us understand, knowing that our knowledge would drive change, and implicitly charging us with change agency. Yeah, I miss him, too.”

Implicitly charging us with change agency,” yes.

Let us move forward knowing that most learning is like the way Deven learned, and let us move forward knowing that we must be the kind of teacher Deven sought to be, and let us move forward being the kind of school leaders Deven hoped to find.

  • Ira Socol

Author, Dreamer, Educator: A life in service - NYPD, EMS, disabilities/UDL specialist, tech and innovation leader for education. Co-author of Timeless Learning

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