by Robert Burkhardt
“The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.”
John Greenleaf Whittier, “Snowbound”
Mid-December inflicts false promises as pale depleted sunlight bestows Judas kisses of wintry warmth and raw chill seeps from hardened ground to tighten and shrivel gloved fingers. Intrusive wind, biting cold, sere iron earth, attenuated action and diminished energy collude to sap our strength. The subtle solstice is twelve days away, and like a 300-yard oil tanker drifting six miles after “full stop,” the calendar will turn toward summer long before winter realizes days are lengthening.
How do we know that what we know is real? For two decades I taught “Allegory of the Cave” to Eagle Rock students as one exercise in critical thinking. Plato’s cave dwellers (think voters with whom you disagree) find truth in flickering shadows of images on a wall. Understanding “reality” is painful and difficult for them, and they easily reject “new” ideas. When others try to convince them different worlds exist they refuse to listen, taking comfort in opinions unencumbered by inquiry. We might ask ourselves: In what “caves” do we dwell unaware?
Eagle Rock teacher Mohammed Elgazzar persistently asked students to explain the difference between right and wrong as it related to ethical codes. Students also knew the admonition, “You have no right to no opinion.” And ERS staff employed another question in the service of critical thinking: Do we focus on the cultivation of virtue or the eradication of evil? Adolescent minds grow through struggle with hard questions.
Immediately after the election someone spray-painted the word “Trump” on the outside wall of an apartment complex on Manford Avenue. It defaces our town as a visible symbol of smug boorishness, prejudice, fear, and a lack of critical thinking. It lingers on that wall like a festering wound, raising dark questions: What was he or she (or they) thinking? What prompted them to spray paint on a building where many people of color live? Who bought the spray paint? Why was the deed done at night? What was the “message?” What conversations occurred in the vehicle driving to and away from this (I’ll be polite) insensitive act? How do the perpetrators feel today? Vindicated? Superior? Correct? Ashamed? Embarrassed? Do they boast to friends? Do they plan another occurrence? Do they know the difference between right and wrong? Can they think critically about their behavior and opinions?
I have a dog in this fight, and not just because I oppose racist acts and defacing property. I have tutored Latino EPHS students who live in that housing complex; they are friends. I have driven students from Vietnam, Thailand, China and Japan to Fort Collins to obtain social security cards so they could work in local businesses; these students lived in the complex on Manford. My great-grandfather was an Irish immigrant; “No Irish Need Apply” signs greeted him as he sought work in the Land of the Free. Were your ancestors among the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free?” We all have a dog in the fight to uphold decency.
After the spray-painting incident, Superintendent of Schools Sheldon Rosenkrance immediately published an open letter to the larger Estes community urging all to embrace inclusivity and understanding, displaying the kind of leadership that builds, rather than erodes, community. Since the election the Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked close to 1000 incidents of “verbal harassment, the use of slurs and derogatory language, and disturbing incidents involving swastikas, Nazi salutes and Confederate flags” in schools across the country. “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me?” Somewhere Emma Lazarus is weeping.
In late September I addressed 800 high school students and urged them to think critically about their lives. Here is some of what I spoke: “What are you doing for others, honoring your sisters and your brothers and your fathers and your mothers? Do you lead with love or hold on to hate? Do your values fit like gloves or chafe and aggravate? Do you find a need and fill it or waste integrity and spill it? Will you travel the earth, discover its worth, give your soul a new birth? Will the world know your name because of well-earned fame or ignominious blame? Will you fight global warming and typhoons that are swarming, affirm that black lives matter, reject racist chatter, nourish conservation with elation, fight white privilege and racial discrimination, contest bullying and victimization, use education not for exploitation, intimidation, alienation or prevarication but instead as a foundation for mobilization to foil structural segregation, stop nuclear proliferation, cease senseless deportation, eliminate starvation, smash glass ceilings and achieve pay equalization, reverse unequal wealth accumulation, curtail deforestation, embrace LGBTQ orientation, advance self-determination and build altruistic human association? There’s no time to delay, your place is in the fray. Who leads your learning? What are you yearning, churning, burning to know? Do you race toward graduation using imaginative creation and discipline internalization to sing your declaration for liberation? Will you live your one life to the limit? Will you move from intolerance to inclusion, refuse delusion and confusion? Making life choices is your destination, but virtue is not hereditary, nor is your struggle discretionary. When your visualization embraces independent cogitation and imaginative creation, when you meet and master internal confrontation through perspiration, tribulation, dedication and activation, when your moral compass merits commendation and thoughtful propagation, when you inform your discretion and champion trenchant questions, you may generate sufficient transformation to secure your—perhaps our nation’s—unification and full emancipation.” I invite the individuals who defaced Manford and shamed Estes to respond.
Next column: Turning and Turning
Estes Park. Nice town. Mostly nice people.
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