“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Frederick Douglass
Building strong children should not be a serendipitous by-product of our work with children. It must be as much our focus as teaching them information about their subjects of study. It is not taking over the responsibilities of their parents; rather it is the recognition of the reality that for approximately 180 days each year for thirteen years of their lives, they are in our hands for longer awake periods of time than they are with their parents. They live under our roofs and around the desks and tables of our schools for 16,380 hours ... and that is if they do not participate in any after school activities!
In a February 16th article, The New York Times wrote about the trial of Michael Dunn who shot a Florida teenager over loud music. The Times reported the jury “did find Mr. Dunn guilty of three counts of second-degree attempted murder for getting out of his car and firing several times at the vehicle in which Jordan Davis, 17, was killed.” What does this have to do with building strong children? This is an example of a powerful moment in which our students, both black and white, are witnessing a subtext of social hierarchy. Even if we believe that our students are not attending to the news, their parents are. Discussions are taking place in homes in which our students are listening. And although there are some who may feel this is a step away from the George Zimmerman case, which it very well may be, it is still a case of a white man shooting a black teenager and a jury struggling with a verdict. The article also stated, “Some black leaders expressed disappointment that there were no black men on the jury.” Perhaps the perspective and experience of black men on the jury would have shed a different light on the thinking of the jury; perhaps not. But the message is clear.
The death of the actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman due to an overdose of heroin has been publicized, and discussed on television and in print. Television repeatedly reports, with angst, how it is an awful problem, this heroin addiction, and something must be done. How many of our students know someone who has died from an overdose? Many more than we think. The message? White rich people matter more than those who live in poverty. The phrase “A terrible loss” has been repeated over and over again. There are terrible losses every day in some of our communities.
There is great effort to be sure that discipline in our schools is done with fidelity and fairly across the board. Teachers and administrators have worked tirelessly to be sure that is so. Even so, data reveals that discipline is handed out more frequently to minority children. But consequences for misbehavior or rule breaking are not the only venue we have to affect students’ development as strong children.
Let’s consider how broken our world is. How is it that there are still children in our own country who are still hungry? How is it that there are still children, even in this country, who do not have access to proper health care? How is it that there is ballooning wealth supporting lifestyles of excess when there are children living in the shadows who are hungry, sick, and marginalized?
Unless we figure out how to address these fractured messages, we will contribute to another generation of adults who will be challenged to lead a world in which all human life is worth the same. This takes courage. In order to build strong children, we must be courageous enough to shed light into the darkness and address the world our students live in. We have seen reports of remarkable students discovering or experiencing a situation which moves them and then developing a fundraiser or an awareness campaign to make a difference. Children have it within themselves. But this isn’t a matter of one student or another. This is about all students.
Is it easier for us to push on and ignore this second well-publicized killing of a young black man than to question our practices and ourselves? Is it easier for us to ignore all the attention given to the overdose of a wealthy actor? This isn’t about the black children; it is about all children. It isn’t about poor children it is about all children. We want to have strong children, those who are marginalized and those who marginalize them. We want to have strong children who have the opportunity to live for those 16,380 hours of their lives in an environment that exposes the injustices in the world. Strong and principled adults arise from children who believe their strength of action and beliefs can make the world better. We must keep hope alive in them for creating a world in which their strength will make a difference, hope based on their experiences in our schools.
We use the words ‘grit,’ ‘perseverance,’ ‘empathy,’ and ‘responsible’ as attributes we want our students to possess. Frederick Douglas’ strength certainly came from inner courage and clarity of vision. Whether ushering in a reform to our programs, or shedding light into the darkness by addressing inequities when we see them, we have the opportunity to both question ourselves as leaders, and model strength for those children who are living under the cloud of silence or invisibility. Yes, it makes us controversial sometimes, but why hold a position of authority if it causes you to hold back your own voice? We should raise the conversations and initiate the dialogue that allows these silent issues to surface in faculty meetings, in classrooms, in lunchrooms, everywhere. It is the bones of our work. Will our generation answer the question of how to make education the source of equality and respect and accomplishment for every child, regardless of the economic and social condition of the home from which they come? Can technology help us do that? We have much to learn and much to overcome but we cannot put this off. The next generation will build upon the skills, the knowledge and the social fabric we have given them. We have to begin asking ourselves the hard questions. This is not something best left for later. Without these bones being strong, we don’t have the foundation for the rest of what we want for our schools and our students. Frederick Douglas is right. There are broken adults in all walks of life. Our work calls us to build strong and resilient children. Therein, lies hope.
The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.