The other day Sydney, an eighth grade girl in my class, presented a project on the 1961 Freedom Riders. The leader of those freedom rides was John Lewis, now an esteemed U.S. Congressman, so Sydney gave us some background on his life.
When Honorable John Lewis was a little boy, she told us, he worked on his family’s farm, in Troy, Alabama. His parents were sharecroppers, and little John was in charge of the chickens. He took care of them like they were his own children. At night he would read them stories from the Bible, which was the only book his family owned. If a chicken died, he conducted formal burial rites. His family gave him the name “Preacher.”
If John Lewis were a child again and in my class, I would do everything in my power to come to know him. I would learn about his farm and his parents and his nine brothers and sisters. I would ask him about the barn and about his chickens, and I would want to know all of their names. In the mornings, when we gathered around the big table in our classroom, I would want to know what was happening with the chickens. How were they doing?
“What stories did you read to them last night, John?” we would ask.
And if we were so lucky, he would tell us how he had read Exodus or Revelations or Psalms, and how well the chickens had listened. “Which stories did they like best? Did they pay attention?” Maybe he would smile or tell us a funny story about the bantam rooster that kept crowding up and blocking the light from John’s lantern. Or maybe he would not laugh at all, because taking care of his flock was his god-given calling, and that was serious business.
In time we would begin to know something of the special soul of that child, and of the strange, sad, and beautiful world that produced him. We would put him aloft in our orbit and some days he’d circle around the class. Other days, the class would circle around him. The more we got to know him, the more we would come to see that he, like all children, had a soul worth knowing.
John Lewis is not the only historic figure who spoke to farm animals. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on the eastern shore of Maryland and as a child he preached sermons in the barnyard, imitating white ministers and held forth before his master’s pigs, calling them “Dear Brethren.” He, like John Lewis, took his chance to speak where he could. He found his audience. He sharpened his tongue. He acted in the sphere of his influence, in the space given, and there learned to make words sing. Through this imaginative act he, like Lewis, shaped an identity that would probe, disturb, and shape the world.
Many of our students keep chickens. As far as I know they don’t the birds bible stories, but they do care deeply and we occasionally hear stories from about what’s happened lately out at the coop. One recent morning, as Creed told us about the weasel that had attacked his chickens the night before, he began to cry. The class listened quietly, respectful of the rawness of his feelings. Yes, he said, he was sad for his chickens; but he was equally upset that he had yelled at his little sister, and blamed her.
“But I was wrong to yell at her because it wasn’t her fault,” he said, as he wiped his hand across his eyes. “It was the weasel’s fault. But I was so upset and mad I wanted to take it out on something and I blamed her.”
At the end of the school day, as the kids rushed to pack their bags, he asked if he could skip soccer practice—because he wanted to go home immediately so he could bury his chicken and say “I’m sorry” to his little sister
Our students, like all children, like Creed, are tender and full of feeling. At our school we place the emotional lives of children at the center of our pedagogy. John Keats’ said to “School an intelligence, and make it a soul.” When Creed cried about his chickens, and talked about his regret for how he treated his sister, he was revealing his self even as he simultaneously formed his self. We saw in the crystalline clarity of his tears, his words, and actions the evolving shape of his soul. His inner life and his outer world—life beyond the confines of school—became part of the life and meaning in school.
This past winter, we were on the school’s annual overnight cross-country ski-trip. Twenty-seven adolescents and three teachers traipsing for thirteen miles through the trails of Ripton and the Green Mountain National Forest, up into the woods of Mount Moosalamoo.
At the day’s end we gathered on our sleeping bags in a ragged circle in the lodge at Blueberry Hill. We talked about the day, about being tired, about doing something hard, about the beauty of the winter woods, about encouraging each other, and what it meant to be together away from home and away from school.
Then it was time for the daily poem. Hannah had signed up, even when there was so much to remember, like extra layers and socks and gloves and food and hot tea for the thermos. No, she had not forgotten the poem.
She held a sheet of paper in her hand.
“So it’s pretty long, but I practiced so that I could read it well,” she said.
“You practiced it?” I asked.
“Yeah, last night I read it to my bunny.” Her classmates laughed and smiled at this, and though she is a serious girl, she smiled too.
“You read it to your bunny?” I asked. She was attentive to preparation, yes. But there was something so marvelously childlike in the image of her at home the night before, reading a long poem to a Chinchilla Rex who, in his furry oblivion, perked his ears ever so slightly as Hannah practiced her words.
“So,” she began, this poem is by Langston Hughes, and it’s called ‘Let America Be America Again.'”
When she began reading, it was clear how she hard had worked. There was a sharp edge to her words, and the cadence of Hughes’ lines, their anguish, their propulsive motion and cumulative power, filled the room. Outside the windows it was dusk in the mountains, the snowy fields purple and frozen, but this poem of freedom and unreached potential cried out before us.
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
The words glowed with oracular power, as though the spirit of Hughes walked among us, reminding us of what we might forget. Hannah arrived at the last stanza. We the people must redeem/ The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers,/The mountains and the endless plain—/All, all the stretch of these great green states—And make America again!
Again I looked out the window at the snow-covered meadow and the arched back of Mount Romance. And I wanted these children, who read poems to rabbits and wept for their chickens—to make America again.
Long ago, I had a student who sang to a family of fox pups that had been born at the edge of her family’s meadow. From the woods she sang Arlo Guthrie’s “Pickle Song,” and the ears of the pups perked up to hear, “I just wanna ride my motor-sickle.” Another student constantly spoke of her childhood dream of having a dog’s tail. She didn’t want to be a dog, she just wanted to have an actual furry tail that would protrude from specially tailored pants, wagging joyfully at the world.
“It’s the only thing I ever wanted or dreamed about when I was little,” she said, with deep-seated conviction and bright eyes.
My own daughter spent the entire summer of her fourth year walking on all fours, because she was, without question, a puppy. We might think that the notion of children wanting to be animals, or speaking, preaching, or singing to them, is quaint and charming and nothing more. Perhaps, though, a deeper dream is being manifested, that the presumed walls between us and the world do not exist. There is imagination and there is magic. Children can believe it. But adults are mostly blind and deaf to it. Our currency becomes work, accomplishment, or financial gain; our language transactional or manipulative or violent; ur egos centered on pride or status or domination. If we look at just last week’s news: our nation’s speech comes in 140 character tweets. It’s most eloquent and powerful expression falls from the sky in the form of 59 Tomahawk missiles. Our most convincing statement? The Mother of All Bombs.
At morning meeting a few weeks ago we were discussing the news. Griffin raised his hand and wanted to know why the courts had blocked Trump’s Muslim Immigration Ban, and how the ban would effect people in our state. Some of the kids pitched in what they knew—that dairy farms in Vermont, which form the soul of our state, would be deeply effected. Some students chimed in about families they knew of, or Jamaicans who have come to Addison County for forty years to pick apples in autumn. Eric, our science teacher, had been to a protest that weekend, after ICE agents had been conducting random traffic stops in Montpelier.
“I brought this poster back, you guys,” Eric said. The poster read, “We all belong here. We will defend each other” He pinned the poster to his white board in the science room, and I thought of the painted ply-wood sign hanging over the door in the school basement, a quote from Mother Teresa. We belong to each other.
A few days later Rosemary spoke up in meeting. “I was at youth group last night,” she told the class. “And there was a man who came to speak to us to talk about the immigrants who are working in Addison county. And he read us these quotes from the bible.” She pulled out a sheet of paper and begin to read.
“You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
“Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” (Zechariah 7:10)
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)
Rosemary’s reading was the perfect bookend Hannah’s. Two girls authoring their souls, holding us between them, existing on an exalted plain, tethering themselves to belief, taking a stand with no need for personal gain, far beyond unholy machinations of politicians desperate for the win.
You should have heard it. I would have given anything to have you there, seated at the table, free of the raging compulsions and the ceaseless need for affirmation, ready to listen. You would have heard voices sprung from deep wells of compassion and understanding. This was not the false power of launching cruise missiles as a show of moral authority, but the authentic power of human aspiration.
Creed wanted to protect his chickens. John Lewis wanted to school his chickens and ennoble them with the teachings of Jesus. Rosemary took as her lesson the Golden Rule, and then taught us. Hannah made Langston Hughes’ dream live again in the Green Mountains. The words of my students can not yet stop bombs from raining down on foreign nations, nor protect, nor give succor to the frightened immigrant farm-workers of Vermont. But these children, they speak and act from a lucid sense of what is right and just. With deftness they lift the veil. They do not see the world, or chickens, as alien. They see them as they see themselves. They are preachers of the word, believers in belonging, embryonic shepherds in a dark time.