Microcosms Move Me
When my mother died, I found among her modest possessions my Harvard doctoral diploma, laminated and ready for hanging in my never-to-exist psychologist’s office. Like immigrants from so many countries, my parents dreamed that their sacrifices would catapult me into a financially secure world where I could bask in the respect of others, whom I would greet with callus-free hands.
Instead, I became a teacher, still a step above my parents’ humble station, but lacking the star power that usually accompanies a Ph.D. like mine, not to mention an MD or an LLB. My choice was a deep disappointment to them, and I regret that I was never able to communicate to them my gratitude for putting me in a position to be the gatekeeper of the choices about how to live my life, rather than having them dictated to me.
That freedom enabled me to decide to be a teacher, one of the wisest decisions I have made. Like most of the choices one makes along the way, it was not so much calculated, not the result of a rational analysis of the available options, but more something I stumbled upon that felt right enough to stay with. Being a teacher has been a ticket of admission to the lives of thousands of students and families and, by extension, has allowed me entry into their communities. In my role as teacher I have worn many hats – mentor, parent, friend, witness, advocate, gadfly, and, yes, even as psychologist just when I thought that role was behind me. I have been at my students’ graduations, weddings and funerals. Many of them are my Facebook friends, which has enabled me to stalk them well into their own parenting years. Gone are the days when I said goodbye to my students on the final day of school, weighed down by the sadness that the lives that had preoccupied me every day of the school year were now drifting out of reach. Day to day we were shaping each other’s lives by the measured strokes of a craftsman’s ball peen hammer, a tool that can only be wielded from close up, not from 10,000 feet above ground level.
My older daughter, an author like her mother, has dug deep into the lives of people who did not walk the red carpet, but on close examination merited the respect and attention she gave them. In a recent interview she said, “Microcosms move me.” When I read that, I said “Yes! I want to inscribe that on a t-shirt.” It captures the essence of the philosophy that has guided me through my work life and the choices I’ve made. I can restate it this way: Stay close to the ground. That’s where the rewards are. It is there that meaning lies. It is the advice I have offered to a decade’s worth of students in the teacher education program I helped create at the University of Chicago. They are a bright and curious group and after five or six years in the classroom many of them develop a roving eye. They have tired of weathering the slights endured by practitioners of low status professions, teachers more than most, and they have developed searching doubts about whether they are making the best use of their intellectual strengths and their passionate commitment to change. Around their fifth or sixth year of teaching, they come to me with some version of the following: “I’m thinking of going into public policy. I think I can have a greater impact there.” I usually ask them to consider seriously returning to the classroom where, I would contend, the chances of affecting lives are actually greater than they are sitting in a think tank or a government agency, where much of their effort may come to naught in the end, their ideas, plans and proposals derailed by the two horsemen of politics and bureaucracy.
I hear this same remark from people who are prepared to skip the on-the-ground experience entirely and head straight into policy and planning. For them my response is unequivocal. You need to get tangled in the weeds yourself before you can lead anyone else out into open water. Besides, you’re going to miss all the pleasure and rewards that make this work so delicious. This is where that oft-repeated KIPP slogan “There are no shortcuts” applies not just to kids but to the adults who aspire to influence their school lives.
Perhaps in the end it’s a matter of taste and style. If you’re inclined to think in polarities, you might say that the world is divided between those who see the world through a literary lens and those who view it from a social science perspective. I’m designating the “close-to-thek-ground” approach as literary. From there you can see all the complex behaviors, motivations, strengths and weaknesses of the individual actors, while the social science view turns its gaze above the actors’ heads in search of patterns and principles. In my graduate student days when I was being acculturated into the world of the social sciences, I often came home excited about some new concept I had just been introduced to. My writer wife would hear me out and then comment from her experience as a close observer of individual characters in her books and reply “Why, novelists have known that all along.”
Let me return now to my parents, where this conversation began. My father spent his life at a factory sewing machine in the New York’s garment center where he turned out women’s coats appropriate for the coming season. He invested great care and attention in each coat, thus curbing his earnings in that pay-by-the-piece industry, but each garment had his fingerprint on it. You could see the careful stitching on every hem. That was as close to the ground as you can get. My fabric, if you will, has been children’s and teachers’ lives and I have a better shot at seeing at least the short-term results of my work than I would in almost any other field. On my bed table sits the thimble that my father wore to protect his finger when he sewed. It reminds me to do my best to sew straight seams in the little corner of the world on which I’ve chosen to leave my modest mark.