29 January 2016

All Means All, and why we say that

On the night I learned of the murder of Deven Black a series of images flashing through my mind kept me awake. I thought of Deven presenting with Pam Moran and myself on Library Transformation at an EduCon long ago. I thought of Deven sitting with us in a Herald Square restaurant as Hurricane Sandy approached New York talking about securing grants to help support the kids in his school.

Of course, perhaps I can blame my experience as a New York Cop for this, I saw the unseen murder of this gentle gentleman. Grotesque imagery that will haunt many of us for a long, long time.

But then, finally, some other images came into focus. I saw a late July evening in the lobby of our County Building as the Albemarle County Public Schools held a graduation ceremony, music, speeches, cap and gown, refreshments, for the one student who had completed high school during summer school.

I saw the Daily News story first
 And I saw a meeting in one of our high schools, with a half dozen adults including our superintendent sitting around a table trying to build supports around one kid, a homeless emancipated minor, so he could be safe for his senior year.

And I saw Becky Fisher and I - yes, two school system director-level people - heading a dozen miles down Route 20 to help work out a laptop plan for one seventh grader who needed help. We went together twice, or maybe three times. We needed to make sure we were doing the right things for that one child.

And so, I felt guilty and good in one terrifying mix.

Where I work, in the Albemarle County Public Schools, we say, "All Means All" a lot. We say it when we work so hard to make sure that every child has the chance at the experiences that open their world, and create the greatest possible opportunity. We say it when we work to build out our own 4G LTE network so our students, wherever they live or wherever they go in our 726 square mile area, have access to broadband. We say it when many of our "Gifted Resource Teachers" push in to work with every student in our schools, or when our most vulnerable high schoolers are offered a program design that matches that offered to our academic "stars."

We say it, and we mean it... and yet... there was Deven, who was in many ways a part of our family, struggling on the streets of New York, living in homeless shelters, his gifts as a teacher, as an advocate for children, locked away where he could not use them.

We were not there for Deven. And maybe we could not have been. Maybe no one could have been. But... how is that possible? For it is not only Deven - an adult far away - who eludes us. For all my warm scenes of us working for that one child, we cannot pretend that there aren't others we are missing. Even here, where we say, "All Means All."

We shared our theories at FETC 2016, and we genuinely strive for this, yet...

All Means All isn't something one person can do. It isn't something most people can do. It isn't something one family can do, or even a whole school system can do. I've lived a complicated life, and I've seen our streets and communities as a kid, as a designer, as a cop, as an educator, from an office in a homeless service agency, as a friend trying to help, from our schools, from New York to Michigan to Virginia and beyond: and I know this. We all know this.

And so we might give up, the impossibility of the task before us. We might descend into depression ourselves, overwhelmed by the hurt.

“Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them - we can love completely without complete understanding.”
Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

So I have no real answers. I guess when I am at work I pretend that I do, but that is what we do. Those of us who are in public education, those of us who work in those "Statue of Liberty Schools" - schools that welcome every child that comes to our doors - do what we do because we are committed to the idea that every child matters. And where I work I do believe we do as good a job as any place at really working to make that true... but we fall short. We all fall short.

All Means All would need everyone on board. We'd need universal health care and mental health care. We'd care for all of our children, no matter what we thought of their parents. We'd stop letting people fall into desperate poverty, and we'd do everything possible to close the opportunity gap. We'd pay public servants better than we'd pay corporate gamblers, and no one could work full time and find themselves hungry.

In short, we'd be in a place without homeless children, and without Deven Black walking New York's streets, his talents wasted. But we do not live in that place.

Yet... a long time ago I wrote that we needed to "know" students less, and "see" them more. In other words, to stop believing all that we "hear" - in reports or in the teachers' lounge - and to begin to see these students anew each day. That is a suspension of judgement, a willingness to believe in the possible, and as Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby, "reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope."

We will see Deven Black buried this Sunday, and yet amidst our mourning, I hope we can maintain that "infinite hope."

"So we beat on, boats against the current," doing what Deven told me in early December 2015 that he was doing. DMing me from a lower Manhattan shelter, he wrote of reading to those he shared rooms with, pushing his fellow shelter inhabitants to get library cards... he thought he was "making a little difference again."

I hope that I can do the same. And so every day, I say, we say, "All means all."

- Ira Socol