Recently, in a conversation with a man about my age, sixty- eight, he said he was feeling a sense of urgency now. This feeling had to do with the limit of years left and the desire to see change happen: real, concrete progress. His comment reminded me of a conversation that another friend had with a man who was interviewing her last year for work in a city school. He looked over her application, and her statement of concern about the gap in reading and math scores between African-American students and white students. He said, “Why the urgency? Why do you feel this, when we have time.” She is not as old as I am and yet she felt it too. And he did not. Many of us, of all ages, feel that we don’t have time. We see generation after generation of young people suffering from a school system that is often racist in its curriculum, for what it omits as well as for what is mandated. We see lower expectations made of students who are black or brown, based on false assumptions of what they are capable of, or what they need. We see a system that is administered by sometimes well meaning people who have no idea they are operating from a privileged perspective. This blindness does real damage to young people who come before them.
This complaint is not to heap guilt or blame on already beleaguered teachers who, despite increasingly regimented demands from downtown offices, are creating gifted, exciting classrooms for all their students. Some of them are challenging the tracked schools in which they teach. And these teachers are demanding accelerated and advanced programs that are inclusive of their student body, insisting on full representation of students of color in these classes. They feel the urgency too.
This feeling of alarm, of anxiety is not limited to schools. It also extends to concern for our planet and its destruction. When I visit places of great beauty and tenuousness given global warming I wonder if my grandson, Harry, will grow to see the beaches, the mountains, the mesas I have been privileged to walk among. I feel the urgency again, begin to reverse the damage done to the earth : for all of us, but especially the youngest and most vulnerable—the children.
The urgency comes from reading how wildlife is taking over parts of the ninth ward in New Orleans where alligators, snakes and other animals now proliferate among the few houses that are inhabited. To see this loss of habitable land and to know that public housing that survived the hurricane in tact was torn down, confirms for me that a deliberate effort has been made to keep poor people from moving back to this city. In the face of this, how can we come together to right such a wrong now?
It comes back to wanting some enlightened change before I die, to leave this planet and my lovely family with some hope. Perhaps urgency, then, is a counter to hopelessness. In order to feel there is at least the possibility of rectifying such damage, to our children, to our planet, to our cities, to our poor, to our grand children, we who feel an inexplicable rush to get it done soon, are trying to avoid a future that is too bleak to contemplate. We do not want to believe that heartless policies will win. We do not want to believe that when children are hurting, they will be abandoned.
We want to believe that when we all understand the persistence of racism, of historical abuse, and cultural trauma there will be a deep reconciliation and redemption: that children will be given all that they need to arrive at some equity with their wealthier and privileged peers. We want to believe that priorities will be social justice, in every part of our lives: in salaries for the clerk at the grocery store, in benefits for the employees at Walmart, in schools with small class sizes and computers, science labs, media centers, white boards, –all of it in the barrios and the ghettos as well as the suburbs of this country.
Another friend who is forty-three and works at both the University and a local high school told me recently that she believes we are living in a dark time now; that we will look back at this time and realize that we have lived through a nightmare of many years. She believes things will change. Perhaps I am greedy. My urgency stems from the personal as well as the social and political. I simply want to be alive as we begin to emerge from this darkness. I want to feel what it is like to be on the upswing. I want to know that we are gathering together to care for each other.