Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Odyssey and the Land School

by Andy

I recently returned from a 15-day journey to Ocean Springs Mississippi in the Deep South with the staff and students of the LCS Junior High. We studied Civil Rights and the Civil War on the way down and back, and in the middle we had a full week of Marine Biology in Ocean Springs at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory. Every opportunity I take to observe adolescents seems to yield new insights, and this trip was no exception. I am going to try to circle around to a connection between this Odyssey trip and the work at the Land School, but first, please indulge me in a little dream analysis.

In my dream last night I am in a big meeting of people of many races. Our goal is to end racism and we are in a church of some sort. It is evening as I walk out, and I start heading towards a 1960's model sedan that I am going to leave in. I see an older white man with a buzz cut milling about near the car, he is my friend and the driver, but also sinister. I get in on the passenger side and instantly I feel out of control as the driver-less car starts moving slowly through the parking lot. I am reaching for the emergency brake, but I can't seem to stop the car. There is a group of African-American girls walking across the parking lot. Why can't they see that the car is driving right at them? Later in the same dream I am on a bus and sitting next to Lionel Richie and I ask him what I should know about about racism. Then the last scene is an intense one where I am in a boxing match with a white man. Neither of us has any experience boxing, but it looked so easy when others were doing it. My arms don't seem long enough and I don't have the strength that I thought I did.

Wow. I woke up and realized that the Odyssey trip was still very present in my mind. During the Odyssey we went to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and were each able to solemnly stand in the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. stood when he was assassinated. We went to the site of the Mississippi river crossing of the Trail of Tears. We saw the Vicksburg battlefield, a crucial point in the war that ended legal slavery in the country. We visited Mark Twain's boyhood home, a man whose masterwork of Huck Finn was a powerful stroke against intolerance. On our way home, we visited Birmingham, Alabama and sat on the steps of the 16th St. Baptist Church and toured the Civil Rights Institute. The cumulative effect was one of witnessing both great inhumanity and powerful human responses.

My dreaming brain was filtering my experiences and describing to me some of the places where I still have something to learn. In my understanding of Jungian dream analysis, each character in my dream represents some part of myself. The plight of the protagonist represents the "situation as it is" for my ego in waking life. Thus the dream shows my metaphorical state using symbolic language and plot twists. It also shows alternative ways of being that are present in me, but not expressed in my daily life, through the characteristics and actions of others in the dream. My dream was looking squarely at my own unconscious patterns around race.

All along the trip, one of my roles was to drive in the support van that trailed the bus. I rode with Larry Schaefer and a rotation of staff from the LCS Junior High. During the entire trip we had a running and wide ranging discussion about Adolescence and the questions of Human Progress. As we interacted with each of the places we visited, our discussions shifted and the questions we were asking each other changed. It seemed during our discussions that every part of the trip was connected to every other part, which were all in turn connected to Maria Montessori's understanding of human development.

Montessori believed in the rising, hopeful progress of humans. Despite living through a period that contained two horrific world wars, she continued to see goodness and intelligence in every human, and especially every child. She saw adolescence as an intensely social plane of development, where the young adult begins to leave the family and discover how he or she can be part of the community. For her, social life is not sitting on a couch with friends, but rather involves discovering the roles one can play and the contributions one can make in society. Adolescence is a creative, emotionally-sensitive,  justice-seeking, powerfully-explosive age. Because many of the ills of society are also social ills, it makes sense to target adolescence as the focal point of the necessary revolution. Our challenge is to observe and understand adolescence and how each person can find his or her place in society.

Our Junior High is a deliberate experience of a just community. Direct experience of a community that values each person and their unique contributions sets the stage for young people to go out and change the world, both now and in their future communities. Why wait? Why study about changing the world in a classroom, when you can live it? We observed time and time again that oppressed people were considered less than human. Larry Schaefer mentioned that forward from the ancient Greeks who categorized the people into the civilized, the barbarians, and the savages, we have seen this recapitulated through time. In a sense, every struggle for human rights is a struggle for the expansion of the definition of humanity. We scorn the Trail of Tears, slavery and Jim Crow, because how could people have done those things to other humans? We forget that in those times, Natives and blacks were considered less than human. Maria Montessori witnessed that children were also considered "less than." One thing that is so evident in Montessori education is a deep respect and reverence for the child; she welcomes the child to equal status.

To undermine oppression anywhere, we must start with our own selves and our personal relationships. We must recognize our own worthiness and humanity, and then see that reflected in the humanity of others. It is too easy to categorize and label people when we interact infrequently or study them from a distance. It is harder when you are thrown together for an extended period of time, like in an Odyssey or Farm Stay. It is harder still when you have to depend on each other. The Odyssey trip is a non-stop social experience. The students and staff are thrown into countless configurations of closeness. There are new bus buddies every day, new cook crews, new tent groups, new ultimate frisbee games, new lunch groups, new study groups. It is a shuffling and reshuffling of the deck. Each time, each community member has another chance to get to know one of his or her peers or staff in a new way that may not have happened in a classroom. The collective end result is a community of people who have a web of intimate human connections. The hope is that in breaking down barriers of separation in this community, the possibility exists for seeing the humanity in all people. We start with ourselves and each other and the change has ripple effects.

During our trip in the support van, we talked of the idea that each place, person and culture has a "unique and specific genius." I was quite taken by this notion. It seems to be a possible basis for Montessori's hope for progress. I loved how in the Odyssey, we continued to encounter people who realized their own specific genius in the quest for justice and the expansion of humanity. We started at the home of U.S. Grant, who rose from a background as a tanner and a failed farmer to become one of history's greatest generals. We visited the home of Samuel Clemens, who became one of our greatest story tellers and novelists. We learned of Sequoyah, whose invention of an easily-learned alphabet for the Cherokee language helped strengthen the Cherokee nation to endure and retain their culture. We spent an hour with an exhibit in Memphis all about some of the many powerful women of the Civil Rights movement. We learned of Martin Luther King Jr., whose use of oratory, organizing, and non-violence transformed all of humanity. We visited the museum of Walter Anderson, an artist whose life-long connection with a specific place through art has helped transform our relationship to nature. We were inspired by the children of Birmingham, Alabama, who faced-down segregation's worst and won.

The necessary acceptance and development of one's own unique genius in the service of expanding humanity was obviously evident in our visits to museums and study of historical figures. But what makes the Odyssey doubly important is our every day interaction with real people who make significant contributions to society through following their own bliss. We met a campground director whose enthusiasm is infectious. We had guides at museums and nature centers who are clearly engaged in big important work. The park supervisor at the Grand Gulf Military Park is a character I will never forget. Our lead educator at Ocean Springs, Beth, is passionate about her work, and her presentation about plastic and marine debris moved every one of us. The young educators at the Marine Education Center who led our activities are living examples of people who have chosen a life of purpose, and clearly enjoy it. The curator of the Walter Anderson Museum is clearly dedicated and well-suited to his work. There were many more, but perhaps the strongest impression for me is the caring, creative, complicated staff of Lake Country School, who revealed themselves to me and the students in innumerable ways throughout the Odyssey. This is the magic of community experiences in the real world. We see the humanity and potential for greatness in each other and by extension recognize it in ourselves.

What are the next issues that will inspire the greatness in these young people? More important to me, is the question of realizing my own specific genius and contribution. I believe adolescence as a plane of development is a process that continues into adulthood. Adolescence is the sometimes traumatic beginning of adulthood, but the issues of adolescence are the issues we continue to face as adults. As I recover my own humanity, I will have more and more attention for young people who are starting their journey to their own specific genius. The struggle is not something that only happened in the past. Community is present and engaging for anyone willing to risk it. There are issues of Civil Rights and Native Rights happening right now in the Midwest. We must also consider global climate change as a human rights issue. We may need to expand the definition of humanity to include all of the animals and plants on the planet, with which/whom we are inextricably bound together.

This all brings me back to my dream. Fighting oppression must start within myself. The first part of the dream shows me out of the driver's seat as the car I am in is in danger of hurting someone. Where am I unconsciously oppressive to others? Where do I sit on the sidelines and allow bad things to happen? Why do I not steer the car of my life myself? In the second part, I am still not driving, but I am curious about racism. Where do I try to learn about something rather than live it? In the final part I am doing battle with a white man. How do I fight against myself as a white man for all the things that white men have done to oppress others? Does fighting against myself help anybody? One interpretation might be that I need to embrace myself and my own humanity and get in the driver's seat.

In closing, I see that oppression anywhere involves a person or group thinking they are better than, or superior to another person or group. Ending oppression begins with an experience of seeing humanity in oneself and others and recognizing the essential goodness and genius in oneself and others. This happens in real life. This happens in shared struggle. This happens in hands-on interactions with the land. This happens in travel. This happens when we drop our masks and encounter each other as real people. This happens on the Odyssey and at the Land School.

The Odyssey was also a lot of fun. For me, real revolution will always be joyful.



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