Sitting around trying to clear my mind of all that’s going on in a troubled world I found a picture of me almost as gray of hair and beard as one can be. Green leaves of spring adorned the trees that stood behind me and in my glasses I could see the indiscernible reflections of the children who sat listening so appreciatively to my poetry.
These were students at Einstein Academy, a school literally vibrating with positive energy and I view this picture and the gathering as an expression of how the world should be, older generations, the gray, sharing the wisdom of their age with children, the green, who in their innocence, represent what hope there really is on the planet.
Especially if their schools, as Einstein does, approaches them with a mission like “Teaching our children today to advance shared community tomorrow.” Don’t you just love it?
However, the big problem is our children will, generally speaking, mimic what they see and what they see is not enough schools like Einstein and not nearly enough grownups role modeling how the world should and could be. They see us sending our teenagers off to “shock and awe” with barely a peep. They see us relegating some people to “less than” like: “homos” who are abominations who should keep who they are to themselves; “illegals” who murder and rape and don’t give as much as they take.
Oh, our children can turn such madness around based on how over and over again I’ve found up close and personal how full of promise their thinking can be. Like a few years ago when I was helping some fourth graders create performance pieces around “making a better world” which was their idea, by the way. In our rap session, in preparation for what we were going to produce, the Iraq War came up and a girl blurted out “War is stupid” which brought on a hearty “Yeah!” from a couple of her peers and a 60’s style “Right on!” from me.
Soon into the conversation I had to correct a misconception most of them had about Osama bin Laden. When I told them he was from Saudi Arabia and not from Iraq a little girl immediately blurted out “Then they didn’t do anything to us” to which nearly every member of the class copped an attitude of “Then we shouldn’t be fighting a war, huh?” And I couldn’t have erased the “You got that right” expression off my face if I had wanted to – and I tear now, in this moment, just thinking about that day, how the children have the wherewithal to save the day if we just showed them the way.
The more opportunities we give them to think critically the less our downright societal foolishness will get in the way and does it ever get in the way. That came across to me in a significant way a few years ago when I was having the greatest time with some fifth grade friends of mine. We were engaged in a little intellectual play about stories of human struggles for dignity before improvising scenes from pursuits of such hopes and dreams. With ease they captured the likes of Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King or Gloria Steinem.
In a quick run through under the heading of “struggling communities” women got their due. The disabled were included too. The elderly. The homeless. And then someone mentioned Hillcrest, our city’s gay community, and, in the very next moment, the mood in the room changed like the tone shifts in a stage or screenplay. Wild snickers and unflattering innuendos towards gay people assaulted the hope that had filled the air and replaced it with despair.
When I could finally take in a breath I spoke to them about wonderful gay people like Toni Atkins and Christine Kehoe who have made major contributions to our city and state – and a magnificent gay man named Bayard Rustin who masterminded the historic March in Washington DC in 1963.
Although I was shocked at their sudden behavior I wasn’t the least bit surprised. I know what their ears have heard and what they’ve seen with their eyes. They were mirroring and echoing the grownups in their lives so it’s no wonder that the acceptance of gay people in our “Heterosexual Superiority” society is so hard to realize.
But, in a farewell to me, they performed a piece about Langston Hughes and they pulled it off so enthusiastically and to honor it for its pure artistry I didn’t “ask” and they didn’t “tell” if they knew Langston Hughes was gay. The fact that they embraced his spirit restored hope in me and made my day.
Just today, a beautiful sunny Friday, a week from the last week in May, I sat rapping about the world with some of the brightest and cutest little first graders that exist in the Milky Way. We talked, among many things, about problems at our borders, about people trying to come to our country to work so they can keep themselves and their families alive. They were so wise and they left me with these words: “There’s got to be a better way to solve this problem than calling them names. It’s not nice to call people names.” Is that not ever so sane?
My, my, my. I left them thinking: if more old gray beards like me and grown ups in between can keep our children from getting caught up in the stifling small minded atmosphere that perpetuates the most hateful of our society’s attitudes, they can keep hope alive.
Color me gray, relating to green – until the day I die.