Hope: The Thing With Feathers


Emily Dickinson opens the last stanzas of her poem, with these words about Hope: “I’ve heard it in the chillest land/ and on the strangest Sea”.  Given our times I find that I have to listen hard to hear the rustle of hope’s feathers in the opening lines of this same poem, especially in what feels like a chill and strange climate in our country. I experience hope in music, in poetry, in being with friends, in being a guest in a classroom of young children. Yet given the overarching disparity, the still persistent poverty, the noise of anger, defensiveness, arrogance and righteousness, hope grows faint. Takes a good Etta James to bring it back, a Skype call with my grandson, an email from a teacher in Tucson who is defiant in her plans to teach to the kids in front of her, despite what anyone says or forbids her to do—takes all these things to create that frisson, that sped up pulse of hope that lifts the soul.

Last week, however, it was there. In my work If I had just opened my talk at House of Hope Presbyterian Church with some blues, it might have been a perfect combination of music and dialogue, we need to have when we talk about racism and education. Yet, even without the melody, we did just fine. One group of people I spoke with on a Friday at noon, were open to ideas, questioned my stance, listened and we exchanged thoughts and ideas, disagreements and concerns. Young people were there from Teach for America as well as former teachers from public schools. We did not connect on every issue, but the hope seemed perched there nevertheless.  And the white men who came up to talk afterwards, the eighty-two year old who had astute observations of children over his lifespan and the sixty year old who was trying to work to integrate his stubborn district, were not giving up. And while I would wish the group were more diverse, and while I wondered if these meetings couldn’t be held on weekends occasionally to accommodate teachers themselves or those who worked regular hours and could not get away from their jobs, I still found that stubborn hope hanging around me, on the way home in the snowy St. Paul afternoon. Because we had begun. We had opened the door to talking about race, about the dismal statistics in our cities for students of color. And we had not insisted on certainty, on quick fixes. I think by the end of the time we agreed on one thing: there was a long and persistent dialogue combined with action that needed to happen, and we were in it for the long haul.

The next day I went to St. Olaf College in Northfield to talk with future teachers who had just done their month long J-term in urban schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and there it was again, in a beautiful room looking out on the gray morning– that hope with its gentle rapid beat. The willingness to listen, to ask questions about race and racism in the system of education we persist in believing provides equity for all, was again, a beginning. These were men and women around twenty-one years old, all of them white and willing to grapple with the idea of white privilege, the white racial frame, how we might be operating from assumptions and misperceptions. Again there were no instant fixes, no workshops or single books that would tidy this up and make it whole. There was a willingness to struggle with not having all the answers; to shift and change as new ideas arose, new perspectives appeared. These young people accepted the fact that such a struggle would be a lifelong one.  As they left and students came up to talk to me, I was moved by their vulnerability, their earnestness. All were willing to grapple with the myriad and deep ways we are influenced and supported by our whiteness often at the expense of others of color. To truly take this in and act on it, continually revisit it, is not an easy or comfortable thing.

In being willing to reside in a state of ambiguity, Dickinson’s hope, the thing that perches in the soul” takes hold. Hope is in tears and troubling discoveries. It is in a determination to go back again and again to the table to talk about transformation. It is in the elders who love the children of a future they will not experience themselves and so work toward equity, toward justice, until the end of their lives.

We are all fragile. And we are all much much stronger than we give ourselves credit for. It is in this strength, in the man who asked we change the whole system in a humane way, the young teacher who wants to know about test bias, and the student from St. Olaf who came to me to say she had adopted siblings who were African-American and noticed so much about their lives that was different than hers, that we find this quiet, persistent hope. It is in this and some serious blues too, some gospel,  jazz, some hip-hop. Perhaps, just as it takes being open to facing racism and white privilege to make change, it also takes being open to hope.