Tuesday, March 29, 2005

I Cried in Class Today

I teach a class on peacemaking. Today, I showed some film clips of Martin Luther King, Jr. We have been reading his life and work, and have just studied the Montgomery Bus Boycott in some depth. I thought it would be meaningful for the students to follow up the words-on-paper and words-in-class with actual images of him and his work, to make it real for them. This is ancient history for today's students, because the civil rights movement happened whole decades before they were born. This time period is just at the far edge of my own memories. I'm just old enough to realize that I was shaped by all of this being in the air as my consciousness first emerged, but just young enough not to have actual memories of, for example, seeing King on the TV -- and I'm kind of sad about that latter point, actually. I would like to be able to say that I remember seeing him (at least on TV) at the time when he was making history, but here I am instead watching archived "historical" excerpts with my students, decades later.

So, I do pretty well in my teaching, actually, but tend not to incorporate a lot of flashy new (or even flashy old) technology into the classroom. Classroom time is a kind of sacred time for me, a time I mostly keep focused on discussion. In our complex world, full of fast-paced action, dazzle, and excitement, I regard it as somewhat radical of me to give students time to just talk to each other, in depth, about ideas. But every great now and then, I surprise them by revving up the technology in our well-equipped classroom, and showing a video, DVD, or even the Web. I only ever do this for a good reason.

Watching King is a good reason.

But as the documentary film began, I already felt a surge of my own emotion and suddenly remembered that one of the reasons I seldom do show films in class is that in my own TV-free life, this medium can affect me quite powerfully. And there is something about the civil rights movement that always affects me especially powerfully. I'm not sure why this is so. Is it because it's at the very threshold of my earliest memories? Did I catch and absorb the intensity and excitement of that time? Or is it that I feel called myself to engage such work, despite its uncertainties and dangers? (I keep wanting to veer away from that latter question, and yet, it haunts me.)

After the initial surge of emotion, I calmed down and remembered where I was and put my "teacher" persona back on, reinforcing this persona by quickly pointing things out to the students when a scene appeared that we had read about, to help them make the connections. I only did this a few times, because I didn't want to interrupt the flow of the documentary too much. Then we all settled more deeply into just watching it, caught up ourselves in the drama of it all.

The moment that got me was (of course) the "Mountaintop" speech. I knew what was coming, but I'm not sure the students fully realized. It is really unbelievably moving to watch King giving this speech. It is as if he knew what was coming, and he really was ready. To live your life well, and to face the reality of your coming death without flinching; to speak the deepest truths of what you know, when you have lived from the core of who you most truly are -- what a sacred moment! How can you not cry when you are witness to such a moment (even 37 years later)?

The documentary shifts from that speech to the bald statement, "The next day, he was dead."

I don't know if my students noticed my tears. But I don't mind if they did. Being real with each other is really so important, even in teaching, or perhaps especially in teaching.

1 comment:

  1. The tears began to well up in my eyes while reading this. Several years ago my daughter, a highschool freshman at the time, created a multimedia presentation on Martin Luther King Jr. By the end of the 10 minutes, I was crying uncontrollably. Thankfully we were in the privacy of home, unlike your classroom situation.

    It is my theory also, as your second reflection, that we are so deeply impacted by his story because something within us resonates. That something being the destiny to influence and inspire, to awaken a sense of justice or empathy in motion.

    Perhaps what struck me the most was the rippling effect of his then daring and unknown actions. How could he have known what a profound sociological and historical change he would impact on the world?

    The greatest irony of all is that most legends live in the insane inner world of their determination and it tends to be at the cost of other facets in their life. Legends tend to live among the most abstract failings - poverty, failing marriages, addiction, social rejection, etc. Those facets are later deemed to be part and parcel of the genius, often perceived by the outer world as "the price they paid" or "the cost of genius". At the very least, these grievous circumstances are romanticized as history rewrites the truth.

    Like legends before me, I too live with the ever-present burden of creating a legacy of positive change. I am aware of the toll it takes on other facets of my life. Like the others, I am compelled and obsessed. It cannot be stopped for any price... though I do try to maintain balance whenever possible. When conflicted between destiny and reality (usually when the bank account drops ;-) I do take solace in the fact that "the worse things become, the more romanticized will my life be when later it is recounted". LOL.