Above is an image of a 1880 painting by Aime Nicholas Morot, Le Bon Samaritain (The Good Samaritan.) It calls to mind Martin Luther King’s challenge: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”
At our school we talk about the questions life demands that we answer. When we read books, we look at the characters as though they were among us, alive in our world. We look at them as models for how to live, or how not to live.
We’re reading The Lord of the Flies at school. On Tuesday, we discussed the forces which beset the band of boys as the island descends into chaos. It becomes clear that Jack Merridew is the one who beats the drums of war and chaos the loudest. He mocks the smallest children. He bullies, threatens, and demeans. He viciously abuses the overweight Piggy. He brags about his skill and power. “I hunt!” he cries. He berates his peers and barks orders at the boys in his choir. He has a single minded-focus on the kill, to the exclusion of survival or simple shelter.. His every act is an attempt to project power and domination. He says the boys don’t needs rules. He brandishes weapons.He is incited by blood-lust, and yet is revulsed by blood. He is brutal, incapable of subtlety, and cares not for human tenderness or the well-being of others. He has turned forever from childhood’s sweet singing voice. His hair grows longer and his vision becomes occluded by the darkness of vines and “creepers.” His every action is to preserve himself.
“Jack is just a twelve year-old version of our president,” said Ben, straining not even the least of his cognitive powers.
Jack, it is clear, is terrified. He’s on the verge of adulthood and yet lacks the courage to articulate what he most deeply feels. He may be able to kill pigs, but he is a little boy, and he needs his mother. He needs a loving, protective embrace. But the only mothers on the island are female pigs. So stabs his knife into a tree, marks the number of kills on his hilt; wears a concealing mask and sharpens his spear.
This boy, who would be a man, will set fire to the island.
Meanwhile, also on Tuesday, Rosemary presented her project on the history of Apartheid and Nelson Mandela. Here, she showed the class, was a man of eminence, courage and conviction, imprisoned for twenty-seven years on Robbin Island, but with an indomitable spirit. Rosemary played an audio of Mandela’s speech made just prior to his imprisonment. For six minutes we gazed at a still photo of Mandela on the white board and listened. His voice was searing in its authenticity, his language exalted, his morality impeccable. Here was a man who had taken up arms against his oppressor, who was willing to offer up his life for justice and equality; a man who lived to his last breath asking the most persistent and urgent question.
At the Rivonia Trial, Mandela rejected his lawyer’s advice to submit to questioning and cross-examination. Instead, he chose to stand in the box and address the court. His speech was three hours long and laid bare the unconscionable conditions for which Apartheid was responsible. He presented a defense of the A.N.C. and the justification for its actions. Rather than use his trial to protect himself, Mandela used the opportunity, under the threat of death, to do for others, to make a plea for the cause of his nation. In the closing words of his speech, he looked the judge in the eye.
During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
This was how Mandela chose to use his life.
Rosemary also taught the class about Stephen Bantu Biko, who organized the Black Consciousness Movement and mobilized South Africa’s urban population when most of the leaders of the A.N.C, were imprisoned. Biko was such a powerful thorn in the side of Apartheid that the government banned him from talking to more than one person at a time; he was not allowed to be quoted; he was confined to the King William magisterial district; and he was forbidden to speak to the media or publish any writings.
But Biko would not stop talking. In 1977 he was arrested at a police roadblock under the Terrorism Act No. 83 of 1967, and interrogated for twenty-two hours by the Port Elizabeth security police. The interrogation took place in Police Room 619 of the Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth and included torture and beatings. He was chained to a window grille for a day. He was driven to Pretoria in a police van, naked and in a coma, where he died from head injuries.
He was powerful because he spoke truths the government did not want to hear. They had to beat him down because they feared him. Nelson Mandela said of Biko: “They had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid.”
Stephen Biko became a martyr. That was how he used his life.
It happened that the 27th anniversary of Mandela’s release from prison was only three days after Rosemary’s project.
“If any of you want to be really cool on Saturday you can play the speech again in honor of Mandela being freed,” she told the class.
I decided we ought to have a birthday party for Mandela—a party for Freedom.
After school on Wednesday I went to the store and got green and yellow food coloring and black icing. On Thursday night Rose and I made a cake and decorated it to be the flag of the A.N.C. On Friday morning we hid the cake at school to keep the surprise.
In morning meeting I told the kids that at lunch we were having a birthday party. Throughout the morning they gossiped about whose birthday it might be. Ethan and Creed made a large birthday card for the class to sign, even though the recipient remained a mystery, and even though were not sure who could actually be twenty-seven years old. The kids came inside intermittently, taking breaks from the science Winter Olympics out on the snowy field, where they were building fires, snow shelters, and looking for animal tracks in the woods.
“Whose birthday is it?” they asked, their cheeks red and their eyelashes wet with snow. “Whose birthday could it be?”
Rose and I made party favors. Each student was to receive a folded sheet with a Mandela quote and photo, and the party game was to find the other classmate with same quote. At lunch the kids assembled and we lit the candles. They sang happy birthday as the cake was brought in. They saw the flag of the A.N.C. and understood we were celebrating Mandela, freedom, and Rosemary’s project. Paul, Rosemary’s younger brother, made a wish: “I hope that the goodness he hoped for will become reality.” He blew out the candles, we passed out the quotes, and we took turns reading.
Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.
May your choices reflect your hope and not your fears
Sometimes, it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.
Someone put the song “Free Nelson Mandela”on the projector speakers. Rosemary cut the cake and passed out the plates. The music played amid the chaos of twenty-six adolescents, and that was sweet to the tongue and ear.
I read Henry’s story that afternoon. A story about the truth of Henry—the inescapable facts of his experience, the grit and texture of his living—his soul’s journey written in 8,693 words, an offering to his peers on a frigid, gray Friday afternoon.
He had wanted to talk about it. Weeks before he had approached me down in the basement at school where I was organizing art supplies.
“I was wondering if I could talk to the class,” he said.
“Let’s talk to the class,” I said.
I gathered everyone that day and he spoke, his voice faltering and unsteady and quiet, trying to explain everything that was weighing on him. He was afraid that he and his mother would be homeless. He didn’t know what was going to happen. There was no real solution. His classmates listened in rapt silence to their friend, who was free and brave enough to take the initial steps into all that he feared.
Now Henry had written a story about it.
He was a scrawny boy who did not like school. He got pushed around. He had trouble potty-training. He had trouble making friends. He cozied up to bullies so he’d be safe from them. He played alone. He made his first tenuous friendships. His parents got divorced. His dad changed genders. He teased his older cousin, who had Down Syndrome. His dad move to Amsterdam. He missed his dad. He tried to forget about his dad. He didn’t understand all the changes. He was confused, and asked questions. He found out he and his mother were possibly going to have to move, because they didn’t have enough money to pay for their house. Whose fault was it that they could not pay for the house? If he moved, he might have to leave our school, the first school he’d ever loved. Nothing was clear or known, but he was not going to be a leaf shivering in the wind.
His last lines cinched the story. “I’m growing up to being a more aware teenager, who will understand things more. I’m not a four year-old that couldn’t take a proper crap. I have to find my way through the creepers that thicken before me.”
He was becoming the man that Jack Merridew would never be.
Afterwards his classmates applauded, long and loud. Then they put their heads down to write some thoughts, to answer him as best they could.
“Thank you for letting me see you, truly,” said Ben.
“Some days I don’t feel like laughing,” said Merry. “But you make me laugh anyway. You have such a kind heart. You say the important things that need to be said.”
“We wonder if we are being heard,” said Rosemary, “and if it makes a difference. Your story showed that it did.”
“If you have to leave your house you can stay in our guest apartment,” offered Lena.
“Life is messy,” says Hannah. “But that story was beautiful.”
Paul read his note. “You made me realize that chaos is not always impossible to put in order, because you took so much from confusion and turned it into a masterpiece.”
Their first thoughts were most deeply human: to love their friend, to ask what they could do for him, to embrace him. His life was now enmeshed with theirs. The walls between them, however thin, melted away. There was nothing concealed, no mask, no spear. The simple truth let him be known; and to know him was to love him.
Wren, the tallest girl in ninth grade, spoke up after a few seconds of silence when the story had ended. “You know,” she said, “You can always talk to us about these things that are happening in your life, and you definitely do have the right to be mad and confused. You always have the right to feel different feelings towards your family, and you don’t have to be afraid to talk here in meeting to us.”
She, like all of us, was touched by truth, and her words were equally true and powerful. She gave him the gift of kindness and understanding—those depths of feeling our world so desperately needs.
On days like this I love my students, good samaritans all. They have powers beyond compare. In these brief moments, before they depart for adulthood, before they must wear the mask of cold competence and invulnerability, they go into the jagged fractures and the dark tunnels to open up the deeps of themselves. But they are not afraid, because the hold in front of them the light they seek—acceptance, truth, and love. They delight in the snow and cold. They chase tracks of animals in the woods. They dig shelters out of great piles of snow. They lick icing off their fingers and begin to understand the cry of freedom. They lift up their classmate, who navigates the difficulties of life with a good and faithful heart.
At the end of the day I found the pile of notes Henry’s classmates had written to him. In compressed scrawl Oscar’s words read: “You ride life in a masterful way. You are like a glider in the wind.”
I imagine a world where we are so free and bound to each other, where we do what is right because it is right, where our words and actions are governed by our hopes and not our fears. We ask the only question, always and persistently. What are you doing for others? We try to never hide from the truth. We lift up others nearest us, let them rest on our shoulders. We believe that those nearest us are us. We feel the currents of other lives, open our arms, and we ride with them.