16 October 2011

Ordinary People

"We realized that we needed a guitarist," Sir Paul McCartney was saying in a documentary on George Harrison I watched this morning, "I mean John and I had guitars and we played them but neither of us could play anything like a solo or that."

In Harrison's recollection, "John had this guitar but he only had four strings on it, so we had to show him what a guitar really was."
The most brilliant transformative musical geniuses of the second half of the 20th century, yes, but ordinary people, flawed people, people who clearly understood their limitations. I can pretty much sing every song John Lennon wrote, I know what he meant to me, to much of the world. But it is also true that he often seemed to barely be able to play a musical instrument, that he was pretty much a bastard to his son Julian, and that, I'm quite sure he was very ordinary at many many things.

America has a hero problem, and it is crippling this nation. Americans seem to need to believe in saintly, otherworldly perfection from those who impact them positively. They make all those perceived as "transformative" into, quite literally, larger than life Olympic gods, whether George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, or Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Elvis Presley.
The monument to Ireland's lead revolutionaries - the martyrs of 1916 - is much smaller
- perhaps more human-scaled - than those which celebrate America's revolutionary generation.
When I have stood, to demonstrate contrast, at what are possibly the most politically sacred places in Ireland, at the General Post Office on O'Connell Street where the Irish Republic was first proclaimed, or in the gravel at Kilmainham where the heroes of the Easter Rising were shot by the government of America's then best friend David Lloyd George, or at the Free Derry Corner with its 14 names carved into a tiny cenotaph, I have thought of how Americans memorialize such events, how monumentally, how superhumanly.

Dublin's GPO, Ireland's "Independence Hall," remains
an open Post Office, there are a few pictures of the
Easter Rising by the south door.
And there is the problem. Americans wait for superhumans to arrive and offer deliverance. Americans cannot, because of the way they construct heroes, imagine that they are capable of creating change themselves.

So, the American media wonders daily how the Occupy Wall Street movement can exist without defined leaders. Apple fan boys have nightmares about not being granted "the next Steve Jobs." And educators pay vast fees to hear speakers and scour YouTube's TED lectures hunting for the next John Dewey.

It occurs to no one, as they "wait for superman," that "superman" is "us." And perhaps that waiting explains why, in the US, the only "revolutionary" changes have been led by the elites. America's transformative revolutionaries aren't Michael Collins and Bobby Sands, ordinary people who rose to a moment and are remembered as complex humans, but rather a pantheon of birthright privilege and power, George Washington, Jefferson Davis, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. And you wonder why the US has changed - politically - so much less than most nations over the past two centuries.

So, it is time to stop waiting. It is time to understand that the real change begins, and ends, with ordinary people, not superhumans depicted in stone as giants. The real change comes from fed up pub patrons (Stonewall), from quiet engineers (Tim Berners-Lee), from anonymous guys working for a phone company (the transistor, the microprocessor), from a woman willing to get arrested for equal treatment on a bus (Rosa Parks), perhaps from a few hippie types who wanted to challenge Wall Street, or perhaps from you in your classroom.

Heroism is humans engaging their divinity, in my personal and perhaps skewed concept of God. And heroism is not superhuman but essentially human. It is part of who we are, part of who we are all born to be, it may be the very best of us, but it is not - in any way - limited to those with the best luck of birth.

Heroism is deciding that you will do the things you need to do
to make school better for kids @doosting
There aren't born leaders. So stop looking. True leaders rise from the ranks when we need them. Often, more often than not, they slip barely noticed, back into the ranks when that moment has passed. For they are the real heroes, the people without agendas beyond human progress, social justice, and the essential emotion of empathy for humanity.

When I visit schools, I usually tell people that I have a really easy job, I'm a "provocateur," which is great work when I can get it. It's the Thomas Paine role behind the American Revolution, the Padraic Pearse role in the Irish independence movement. I might pass along ideas, I might even frame ideas in new ways, I might bring new eyes to the scene, but the real work, the real heroism, lies in those teachers, principals, librarians, aides, et al who do the work - who take the risks to change things for kids.

And simply put, it is us, it is us, who will do this. Revolutions led by people in power can be "good" - see FDR's New Deal, but they will not be fundamentally transformative. That can only come when ordinary people realize that all of us have the capacity to do extraordinary things.

We need fewer monumental statues in the United States, and a lot more belief in our ability to change the world.

- Ira Socol


Miss Shuganah said...

Great post.

Got a bone to pick:

the real heroism, lies in those teachers, principals, librarians, aides, et al who do the work - who take the risks to change things for kids.

And parents? Crickets. It's neither right nor fair to forget about those of us who tirelessly try to change the hearts and minds of teachers and principals.

I often wonder what I am doing on Twitter and what am I doing writing blogs about both my advocacy and about education.

Many days I think about walking away. No one pays me for what I do. And, in over two years, you are the only educator who has ever asked me for a skype call or a blog post.

I am not only unsung, but I am unheard. I read over and over and over again about "those parents." I attend a conference where I was invited specifically because I am one of the few parents who will really engage with teachers and yet few educators will take the time to speak to me.

And so why do I stick around, shooting up signal flare after signal flare? Because every so often a teacher will say, "That never occurred to me before."

I could just quietly fumble about trying to get things for my kids. But that is not good enough for me. If I can reach more teachers then maybe indirectly I can help more kids.

Jeannette James said...

I sure hope more can feel they can create and support change. As Miss Shuganah stipulated, persistence and working tirelessly is often the key.

יענקל said...

When you wrote:
"Revolutions led by people in power can be "good" - see FDR's New Deal, but they will not be fundamentally transformative. That can only come when ordinary people realize that all of us have the capacity to do extraordinary things."
I was reminded of the classic Eugene V. Debs quote:
"I am not a labor leader. I don't want you to follow me or anyone else. If you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of the capitalist wilderness you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into this promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else could lead you out."
But of course in school we teach our kids to follow the leader, and not to realize their own abilities to bring about change.

Isaac Evans said...

Hi, my name is Isaac Evans, and I am a student in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama.

This post was very thought-provoking. It is interesting how much we idolize people and look up to them, yet we never truly aspire to be like them. We can make such a huge difference in our world, yet we are scared to try.

I also agree with your point that there aren't born leaders. I think that some people do have a personality more suited to being a leader, but anyone can become one.