Education Opinion

For Auld Lang Syne

By Susan Graham — December 31, 2009 5 min read
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It’s New Year’s Eve and at midnight people will go misty eyed, hold hands, and sing

For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we'll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

As they lift their voices and cups of kindness up, I wonder how many revelers are thinking, “What the heck is an auld lang syne anyway?” In the 1950’s, Guy Lombardo made the Robert Burns adaptation of a Scottish folksong part of our New Year’s Eve tradition. While it has been Anglicized, the seminal phrase, auld lang syne, which translates literally as “old long since” or, functionally, as “times gone by” stays intact. Whether we know what we’re asking or not, every year we’ll all still join in singing the same old questions:

Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should old acquaintance be forgot, and days of auld lang syne

Well, should they?

Over the years I’ve acquired quite a collection of good times and fond acquaintances that I remember warmly and won’t forget. I love Christmas letters that supply a one-page synopsis of the last year in the life of an old friend. But I wonder---was Burns waxing philosophical about relationships, or was he just culling his Christmas card list? Every year we get a lovely card from the realtor who sold us our house. As I recall, she was a nice person and a competent realtor, but we worked with her for a few days over twenty years ago and I’ve not seen or talked to her since. While it’s nice that she sends a card, at this point, I’m probably an old acquaintance she could forget.

One way to sort out who to call to mind might be to ask, “When was the last time I sat down at the table with this person to converse and share a celebratory meal, a working lunch, a Diet Coke, or a virtual cup of cocoa?” Whether the relationship is personal or professional, it’s not a bad way to measure the value both parties place on the relationship. That kind of communication was what I had in mind when I chose A Place at the Table as a name for this blog. I hoped readers would sit down with and allow me share my observations and insights on education practice and policy and want to join the conversation.

I think of tables as communal places where there should always be room for one more; but I’ve accepted that sometimes the education sector table is much like a middle school lunch table. Some people save seats and form cliques while others are either too shy to pull up a chair or simply prefer to eat alone. As teachers, we must share our table with people who will steal our fries, people who make messes and then walk away, and people who are just itching for a food fight. I once read the comment, “Either you’re at the table or you’re on the menu.” Like it or not, unless we are willing to risk finding ourselves and our students served up to the tastes of others, we can’t walk away from the policy table. So, while assuming good intentions from all, as we all lift a cup in hopes of more nuanced policy, more child centered instruction, and a better world for future generations, I think we, like Burns , perhaps should be mindful of the acquaintances with whom we lift a cup.

Some would argue that teachers ought to drink with all comers, because after all, who isn’t a Friend of Education? But my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Burnett, taught me to be cautious about synonyms. Acquaintances include our patrons and allies, and even our opponents, as well as our friends. Since Burns often struggled financially and had to rely on wealthy or titled patrons for publication I wonder who he was thinking of as he penned

And surely you'll buy your pint cup ! and surely I'll buy mine ! And we'll take a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

We tend to avoid the term patron in our culture. It offends our “We are all equal” sensibilities. But when the initiatives we believe matter is dependent on money, power, or the access that others can choose to share or withhold, that’s patronage; and patrons come with opinions and agendas of their own. Patrons may reward students with prizes for grades, teachers with classroom technology, and schools with grants for implementing specific approaches to instruction. It’s their prerogative, and it’s not unfair that they expect beneficiaries of their largesse to align agendas with their patron’s views in return.

When Patrons, as hosts, invite teachers to the table, they determine the location, time, dress, menu, and the other guests. As guests, we can either accept the invitation on the patron’s terms, or politely decline and go without dinner. With gratitude toward the generosity of patrons who support education, I submit that like Mr. Burns, it would be nice to have ownership of our cup.

We two have paddled in the stream, from morning sun till dine But seas between us broad have roared since auld lang syne.

Here’s to our allies and policy teammates. But let’s be acknowledging that when we say “He is my ally,” we are also thinking, “He is my resource who will help me achieve my goal.” The corollary is that our ally looks at us and says, “They are my allies” while thinking “They are my resource which will help me achieve my goal.” We have come together as partners, not because we are necessarily committed to each other’s agenda, but because we can benefit from working together. Once our common goal is either attained or deserted, we may find that partnership is water under the bridge and we are oceans apart. As we vie for a piece of the policy pie, camaraderie may become competition, and we should be prepared for the possibility that former allies could become worthy opponents and recognize that this does not make them personal enemies. When we share the table with allies, it’s important to be clear about whether we are expected to bring a covered dish, help pick up the bill, or serve on the clean-up committee because in education policy, a free lunch usually isn’t completely free.

And there's a hand my trusty friend ! And give us a hand o' thine ! And we'll take a right good-will draught, for auld lang syne.

Friendship is rare and precious because, while friends don’t sacrifice their agendas to each other, they may modify agendas to accommodate or support each other and will go out of their way to share space at the table. Friends work along side each other; taking an interest in each other’s positions, occasionally agreeing to disagree and offering a helping hand without maintaining a balance sheet. They share their opportunities, celebrate each other’s successes, and console each other when possibilities and promises break down. True friends join you at your table and welcome you at theirs whether the offering is a sumptuous banquet or half of a tuna sandwich and a lukewarm Diet Coke.
So, back to Burns’ burning question:

Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind ? Should old acquaintance be forgot, and old lang syne ?

Even if I fall asleep before midnight tonight (which I’m likely to do), I lift my cup to generous patrons, to all well-intended advocates and potential allies, and, especially to my thoughtful readers and my old professional friends wherever you are:

For auld lang syne, my dear(s), for auld lang syne, we'll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table 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.