Candles in the Wind

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Shortly before last Christmas, I attended my daughter's midwinter concert, which was held in the chapel of Princeton University. The Gothic cathedral, with its stained-glass windows, vaulted ceiling, and cavernous acoustics, is an inspiring setting for such an event. The students of Princeton High are lucky to have such a place for their concert.

The robed choir entered from the rear, marching down the center aisle, between the rows of well-dressed parents, each member holding a flickering candle while singing a work by one of the great classical composers. The entire concert consisted of one classical piece after another, sung in the original language of German, French, or Italian. The concert ended with Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," a celebration of birth and possibility.

These children have had the best of what money can buy. In our society, a great childhood inevitably leads to the possibility of a successful adulthood. My daughter and her classmates were on their way to marching through life with the pomp and circumstance that advantage can offer.

The next evening, I traveled a short distance up the turnpike to visit with a friend who was a middle school principal in a predominantly Dominican section of New York City. There was a ceremony at her school, but its focus was on death, not birth.

It took place on the asphalt surface of the playground, where hundreds had gathered to mourn the deaths of three young men who had been killed in a car accident. The mourners were huddled in the chilly night air, shivering in their logo jackets and knit caps. The young men had been gang members that the principal had found on the street. She had created a program for them so they could finish high school. Every day after the younger children left, these young men came in to study for their General Educational Development diploma. Like the kids in Princeton, these young immigrants had dreams, too. The opportunity to pursue those dreams had been rekindled in them, only to be snuffed out in a senseless accident.

The service started with the lighting of candles from a flame that was passed among the mourners, illuminating the sad faces as the flame passed by. As the candles flickered in the cold December evening, those who had gathered remembered their friends with laughter, tears, and song--songs sung in their original language, Spanish. These young men had come to America to find something better. Instead, they had found gangs, poverty, and death that came too soon. Still, they believed in America.

In the middle of the service, a long white limousine slid by. Several young men popped out of the sunroof, shouting and cheering. These were members of another gang, celebrating the deaths of their rivals.

What kind of world have we given our children that some would celebrate the deaths of others? Why did they feel that they could succeed only if their rivals failed? In the land of plenty, isn't there enough to go around?

I looked up above the school and spied the American flag, lit by one spotlight, snapping sharply in the brisk night air. It is the same flag that flies over Princeton and all the other places of privilege in our country. It is the same flag that flies over Harlem and Scarsdale and Davis Creek, W.Va., where I grew up. Although Princeton and Washington Heights are only 40 miles apart, they are two different worlds in terms of the lives that children in those two places lead. The same is true for all the have and have-not communities in our nation.

Yet, all of these children are a part of America--a country whose flag we ask them to salute and to offer their pledge that we are one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. I reminded myself that on this earth, God's work must be our own. If we are to be indivisible, we must see that there is liberty and justice for everyone, not only those who live in the right communities, with the best of possibilities. If we as a nation are to really give the children of Washington Heights the same opportunities afforded those in Princeton, we must dedicate our lives to keeping the flames of their candles burning brightly, so that nights of mourning can turn into mornings of celebration, and so that the spirit of the "Hallelujah Chorus" can resound for all our children, not only the privileged few.

Paul D. Houston is the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

Vol. 18, Issue 31, Page 41

Published in Print: April 14, 1999, as Candles in the Wind
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