On Our MLK Preparations

There’s a shifting of gears taking place here at Grace. Months of planning for the year’s MLK program have wrapped up, and when we return from our long weekend, the whole school will dive into a series of special events.

It will be a week chock-full of meaningful activities, highlights of which are sure to include:

  • Our annual gathering at Union Square and the all-school chapel service that follows;
  • Our tenth graders’ trip to see the play Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom;
  • A panel of young alumni of color discussing their experiences in college and independent schools;
  • Our annual symposium of speakers and workshops, developed by a team of high school students and teachers;
  • A visit from Dr. Ali Michael, who will speak with parents, teachers, trustees, and a group of students about the roles each of us can play in the school’s anti-racism efforts;
  • A Middle School Assembly when students and teachers will hear about Colin Kaepernick, the poetry of Langston Hughes, letters classmates have written to their political representatives, and much, much more.

Those are just some of the high wattage events. In classrooms throughout the school, teachers will help students engage with the legacy of Dr. King. The heroic lives of civil rights champions and of other advocates for justice can speak through history, challenging us to name and resist hate, bias, fear, and oppression and to reflect on our own lives and on the ways we might use them to make the world a better, fairer, kinder place. And so that is what we’ll be doing.

But as these gears shift towards the week’s activities, I’m struck by how much of the vital work of this annual program lies in preparing for them: in the conversations among teachers, brainstorming with students, lesson-planning and schedule-making. The purpose of the event, in other words, seems as much for us to prepare for it as it is to have the events and activities themselves.

Take a look at the mission statement for the program, which a team of teachers and administrators drafted this fall with help from the school’s Diversity Council. Together, they came up with a statement whose convictions are clear and whose ambition for the program demand that we continually raise the bar.

The Purpose of Grace’s Annual MLK Program

Every year at Grace, we come together as a school to commemorate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and to learn from his example and from the lives of other champions of justice and peace.  We do so to acknowledge the debt we owe to those women, men, and children who fought for equal rights, to note how their work remains unfinished, and to seek the courage and conviction to march in the paths of righteousness they’ve blazed for us to follow.

The Martin Luther King program is a focal point for the work of inclusion, diversity, and anti-racism that the school’s mission calls us to do all year long.  Every day we teach children to value kindness and fairness and to seek the common good, and we aim to graduate students who can not only recognize the scourge of racism, injustice, and oppression, but who have the skills and desire to do something about it.  And so our celebration of Dr. King and of the many unseen champions of freedom past and present strives to do more than note their historical import.  It seeks to inspire us to action:  to attend to the dignity of every person; to challenge systems that seek to diminish others; and to fashion our lives that they may serve the cause of justice and do the work of peace.

If that statement’s ambition calls us to raise the bar continually, how have we done so this year? By the end of next week, our students will have no shortage of answers to draw upon: our first panel of young alumni of color; the Early Childhood’s work on making good decisions; the combined forces of the Middle School vocal ensembles and the High School Singers; and so on.

But to me, what stands out has been the process of preparing for these events, which has expanded the number and diversity of voices involved in doing the planning. And that started with our high school seniors, who discussed ways to ensure that this event would inspire action and not degrade into inert and congratulatory satisfaction, as well-intentioned diversity initiatives too frequently do in independent schools.

For those who have seen our MLK programs in recent years, one new aspect of this year’s program may seem noteworthy: we won’t be making or marching with puppets (with the exception of the one depicting Dr. King). For a decade or so, puppets have been a feature of the day. Why shelve them for this year? There are a number of reasons: e.g., the fact that this year’s theme focuses our attention inward rather than outwards to a pantheon of heroes; colleagues expressed thoughtful concerns about the difficulties of representing the likenesses of enslaved or oppressed people without whitewashing the tragic circumstances of their lives; the desire for new traditions to take root and to allow this program to grow in unexpected directions.

That last idea brings to mind a favorite scrap of poetry by Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. He ends a sonnet with the striking image of a bird retracting its wings mid-flight. Birds in flight, of course, are known by their wings, which are their source of stability and safety, power and control. For some years now, puppets have been a central part of our MLK program. But like a bird that retracts its wings to achieve a greater distance at a faster speed, so have we, collectively, decided to pull back our puppets—for this year, at least—in hopes of allowing our MLK program to grow and to help all of us do so, too.

No more thy meaning seek, thine anguish plead,
But leaving straining thought and stammering word,
Across the barren azure pass to God:
Shooting the void in silence like a bird,
A bird that shuts his wings for better speed.

–from Sonnet XXVIII

Best wishes to everyone for a restful long weekend. I couldn’t be more excited for the activities that lie on the other side of it, nor more grateful for the thoughtful preparation that went into planning them.

On the Merits of Distraction

When I finished the last page of Marina van Zuylen’s lovely little book, The Plenitude of Distraction, I immediately ordered a stack of extras.  I’ve been giving them away as presents throughout this winter break, and if I have any copies left by the time we return on Monday, I’ll bring them with me to Grace.  Stop by my office, if you want to check it out.

Why have I been pressing it into the hands of my befuddled friends and family with the zeal of a street-corner evangelist?  It certainly helps that the book is relatively inexpensive, handsomely printed, whimsically illustrated, and—at just over fifty pages—short.  But what turned me into a book pusher was van Zuylen’s refreshing take on our culture of distraction and on the guilt we feel when we succumb to it.

Not sure about you, but I spend a whole lot of time privately lambasting myself for lapses in productivity.  Doing so, of course, only launches a foolish cycle, for sinking into a malaise about the undone items on my to-do list doesn’t help me get to them any faster.

Van Zuylen offers “a second look at distraction,” one intent on “extracting untold pleasures and insights from its alleged dangers, defending and celebrating the unfocused life for the small and great miracles it can deliver.”  She asks us to stop flagellating ourselves long enough to consider whether certain daydreams and reveries ought to be indulged, celebrated even, and not condemned.  Having taught seminars at Bard and Princeton on the philosophic virtues of idleness, she knows which thinkers to enlist to support her case and she has a well-tuned ear for quotable lines.

We live in a split-screen world, clamoring for us to pay attention to it.  Van Zuylen is surely right when she writes:  “Our handheld devices require absolute attention from us.  Vampires of our concentration, they guard us jealously from self and solitude.”  But they are easier to ignore when we’re absorbed in a book, especially one like this that invites you to stare out the window and think.

What a pleasure it is to read an essay that lays out its case in such unhurried, elegant prose.  No book can unravel the challenges of our bustling lives—that to-do list still needs doing!—but this one has managed to reframe how I think about being distracted.

With the new year upon us and the school year about to resume, I’m following van Zuylen’s lead and resolving to cultivate a gentler approach to distraction both for myself and for my students.  Unlike my previous new year’s resolutions, where my wandering attentions got in the way of new exercise regimes and low-carb diets, I think this year’s actually has a decent chance of sticking.