Driving home from a coffee date with a friend, about which more later, I listened to a report on NPR about landline phones. Where would we be without NPR enriching our lives with stories like these?  Apparently, California spends more than a billion dollars every year maintaining a system that is now used by only 5% of consumers. That number decreases yearly but those of us who continue to cling to our near-antique phones are already relics of a bygone era.

Why do we persist? In part it’s like family traditions which we continue to practice because it is our remaining link to a disappearing world. The rationales we mouth for this persistence run from “What if the cell phone system goes down?” to “It makes it easier to talk to our children on multiple extensions.” These excuses are easily punctured, but nonetheless we find it difficult to change our ways.

The reason this news story caught my intention was that I had just spent the better part of a totally engaging morning with my friend Bill Gerstein with whom I’ve been meeting regularly, either alone or in small groups made up of other seasoned geezers, for years now. Although our conversation includes topics from gardening to Israel, it always circles back to schools, particularly Chicago schools. Bill is an incredible repository of knowledge and experience beginning more than forty years. Like all of us of a certain age, he is a relic, just like those landline phones. All that we’ve experienced and learned deserves to be encased in amber, but most of it will be gone when we are, like the legendary wisdom contained in the library of Alexandria, consumed with the first lick of flames.

Bill has worn so many educational hats – teacher, principal at several diverse high schools, central office gadfly, coalition builder and cheerleader for innovative projects. Now retired from those official roles, he continues them unofficially as an outside consultant, always ready with new ideas springing from the soil of all that rich experience, just like the vegetables he now nurtures in his large garden in Michigan.

I find Billy such a kindred spirit because he is, at heart, a practitioner rather than a theoretician or a bureaucrat. He sees the educational landscape through the eyes of kids and teachers, the actual consumers and purveyors of the school world. During my 25+ years as an elementary, middle school and high school teacher, my identity as a practitioner was clear and uncomplicated. I wasn’t promoting any particular philosophy or pedagogy. I was simply doing my best to find ways to reach and engage my students in reacting to the world sensitively, with compassion and understanding. As practitioners in all fields know, there are days when the experience is accompanied by fireworks and days that are an uninspired slog, but there was always enough of the former to keep me nourished.

When I came to the University of Chicago as a school director and, later, as a co-founder of the University’s reborn teacher education program, the way I was perceived became more complicated. It was that Ivy League Ph.D. that sent confusing signals about my orientation to the work. I was expected to bring a more theoretical perspective to our efforts, in line with the beliefs of my superiors that we were engaged in the noble enterprise of wedding theory and practice. Make no mistake, that is indeed a  worthy goal, but my deep roots in practice made it difficult for me to serve both masters equally. Like Bill, I was a die-hard practitioner.

The legacy of practitioners’ work is, at once more enduring and more ephemeral. Bill represents so many practitioners who, not writers, have left little record of the complexities and rewards of what seems like perishable work.They are relics] whose work dies with them, except as it is invisibly represented in the lives of the children and teachers who were touched by them. That is a big “except.”  Their work could havestronger legs if we followed this suggestion by Bill Ayers, who responded to my description of the morning’s conversation with the other Bill this way:

“Why don’t we start an oral history project called:  The Obscure Soldiers of Civilization—Fighting for Quality Schools for All?”

We are already working to make that idea a reality. The stories of these “Obscure Soldiers” will surely contain both tales of inspiring successes worthy of replication and dispiriting accounts of thwarted and undermined efforts. Both the triumphs and the defeats deserve to be preserved for future generations to understand how the unglamorous present in which they are living came to be. It’s the relics like me, Bill and our aging colleagues who are the keepers of those stories. They deserve to be told.

Like any archive, its significance will be impossible to judge until it finds an audience. It’s hard to imagine that it won’t be of interest—even of use – to those who plumb its riches.  We’re about to launch some kind of collection yet to be shaped. We’ll see.

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Marv Hoffman

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