"I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend."
Years ago I made a decision which has impacted my life in every possible way. I was younger, unrealistic, and more naïve. May Time and Circumstance be so kind to me that I lose only the last characteristic.
It began innocently enough, wishing to exercise the mathematics degree I was attempting to gain; I applied for a part time job tutoring at a local community center. I got it, because only four people applied and there were four positions open.
Looking back on it, perhaps it is good that in life we are designed to be so naïve when we are young, because today I would be very skeptical of anything which was so hard to fill.
It changed my life. Mathematics is fascinating in and of itself, of that there is no doubt, but the human condition is much more so. I saw at once the apex and nadir of the human experience in those kids and in myself.
Storytelling and Kindness are our species greatest traditions. We are a species who can learn the lives and experiences of those who came before us through what they created for us to have, and in turn we add our own experience to it and send it forward. It is simultaneously both an amazing and wonderful enterprise, and a mundane and taxing chore.
Some may wonder, especially if they read on, how I can believe Kindness is such a great tradition. Dear Reader, it is Kindness which compels you to listen to my words despite my complete lack of rhetorical skill or brevity. It is Kindness which has enabled us to survive as a creature; humankind's behavior to take care of itself seems evident enough to me. If not for the consideration of others, I personally would not be here today.
When I tutored, I saw this great tradition come to life. Where there was once ignorance, there was now understanding. Humans crave each other's experiences, even if we won't admit it sometimes. It is the best part of human nature.
But I saw the harsh realities of the school system too. I prefer not to dwell on them, but they are there. I deal with them daily now and have for several years. It is honestly the greatest burden on my conscience and I dare say my mortal soul. But I accept this and the reason why is because I realize at that early juncture one simple truth:
I knew I had to do something.
I believe that the greatest abuses, the greatest injustices, and the worst mistakes made in our society, all occur in the public school system. I believe it with all my heart.
I am not powerful, I am not rich, and I am not particularly accomplished, having never rebuilt a classic car, won a Nobel Prize, or painted a great masterpiece. I have two things however: I have my lifetime, and I have myself. Granted my lifetime is only as long as my creator sees fit for it to be, but whatever time I do have is my property by that same creator's divine will.
Here years later I am in the belly of the beast, trying, fighting to see if I can at least make a small difference in at least one classroom. It's a popular fixation in current culture that one man or woman can come in and renovate the system from head to toe almost instantly. Miracles do happen in education every day, but they are worked by dedicated people who have spent many hard years making mistakes. Perhaps one day, I will make my contribution, until then I can only worry about one student at a time, one period at a time.
As I've started on my personal journey however, I've realized that some sacrifices come with the job. I'm terminally single for instance. I watch my fellows my age rise to positions of power, prestige, and wealth while politicians deny me a salary which is considered close to average in my industry. I listen to people my age talk about retiring when they're fifty; at last figure I have realized I cannot realistically retire until I am well into my sixties. The public thinks I am a tax burden, not a public servant.
But that is simply my lot in life. I do not pretend to honestly have it so bad in regards to those concerns, others fare worse. These things will all hold true for as long as I am part of this enterprise.
However I believe sincerely that this life, whatever it holds for me, is mine. It is my property. It is mine to live.
Towards that end, I concluded at a very early age that I must safeguard that life, but not at the expense of the quality of that life. There are reasonable measures one can take to help improve one's personal safety that are only rational. Most of these simply involve avoidance of unsafe or possibly volatile situations and people. Indeed, many situations and people which cause personal harm do not enhance the quality of your life. There are exceptions of course, else there would be no emergency rescue workers for instance, but most people can see that there is a rational reason for a carefully measured dose of caution. You simply cannot avoid everything. Society is full of predators.
I specify that a carefully measured dose of caution is desireable because it's possible to be too reckless, yet it's also possible to be so afraid of living that your life is miserable. My comfort level may be different from yours, and as far as I'm concerned that's okay, we can learn to respect those differences.
And there, we get to the crux of the matter.
I believe my life is my property. I believe it is valuable, and I believe it is worth defending.
At the same time, I am in a unique position to see the lives of others unfold before me every day. Small snippets of the lives of people whom I wonder about when it's 3 AM and I can't sleep, and all I can do is stare at the ceiling, fill my head. Their lives are worth defending too, especially since they cannot yet be held responsible for their own self preservation.
These lives which are mine and theirs, they are our property, we each have our own life, and we should not be denied that.
In this schema however I accept that their lives are inherently of greater importance than mine. It is not that I value myself less, I value them more. Their experiences complete mine, and I have had chances they have not. Should the situation ever arise one or some of us might have to lose their lives unfairly, I will step up and be first.
I've no desire for this to happen, but at the same time I don't think I can ethically conclude anything else. These students, every time I see them, I am taking some small part of their life experience and molding it to my own arbitrary standards and whims. I take so much from them, and I expect, nay demand compliance as I do so.
I'd be completely at odds with myself if I did not value their lives so highly to place it above my own. It's simple greed; my life is incomplete without theirs. Should their life terminate, the significance of my own life is thereafter incomplete at best and inconsequential at worst.
I am at peace with that decision. I do not blame anyone who chooses differently nor do I expect your approval with that stance. It is my decision and mine alone, and in exchange I can't help but acknowledge you have similar powers.
However I find myself unable to protect my own life a significant portion of the time. I have made it my business to spend some significant portion of my resources to acquire a modicum of skill in protecting my own life.
There are those who spend their whole existence mastering these arts, and I do not presume to have their mastery or skill. However I do presume that I have my own comfort level about what is a rational safety precaution, and what is being so paranoid about my safety I cannot enjoy my own experiences. I always seek to improve my abilities of course, but ultimately I choose how to safeguard myself. I believe that is inalienable. Even though I am often denied the ability to protect my own life legally, I could just as easily choose to protect it illegally. You can't separate my existence from my rights no matter how hard you try. If I want to exercise my rights, I will.
At the same time, I am charged with the well being and safety of others who cannot claim that right, for they are not ready yet. Thus, it is up to me to preserve them for the present time until such time that right is theirs to have.
And yet at every turn, I am denied sanction to exercise this most basic right. It is not that I cannot exercise this right, I am physically capable of it, it's that I am forced to choose between having my rights or having my job, not to mention my freedom from prison. The simple rational truth is they need not be mutually exclusive propositions.
That I must choose is an arbitrary condition imposed by outside forces.
This is nothing short of an atrocity in the education system. If it was just my life which was thought of as being so lowly and disposable, I would be upset. However when I consider my circumstances in that I am responsible for lives more important than mine, I am absolutely livid.
You can sugar coat it and disguise it with pretty sentiments all you want to, but the simple fact of the matter is that our legal and educational system holds the opinion my life is utterly worthless and I have no right to safeguard it. They make that decision for me. That is wrong. It is simply wrong. It is a denial of very basic human dignity.
Too long have I accepted this as part of my lot in life. Yes my profession requires sacrifices, but this is not one of them.
Every time a law is passed on the books which tries to guarantee I cannot protect my life or the life of another by denying me the physical means to do so, that is another voice in the chorus telling me my life is worth nothing, as are the lives of my charges.
To that infinite chorus, I say, nay shout, NO! I reject your assumptions that my life is not my property to safeguard. I reject your assumptions the lives of these students are worthless. I reject your assumption that you can make my decisions for me.
I am a mathematician.
I am an educator.
I am a professional.
More than all of that, I am a rational human being.
More than even that, I am a rational human being charged with the physical protection of children, an authority figure who acts en loco parentis with a very real position and a very real responsibility.
I demand to be treated like a human being, not some animal whose life you can decide to place a value on. I am not a slave. I am not your property. I am my own property.
And I demand the chance to act my conscience with sanction.
But for now I will only speak my conscience, for I cannot act my conscience without imprisonment and other severe punishments.
This is not about politics, this is not about guns, and this is really not even about education. This is about one voice crying out for the most basic of human compassion, a voice which demands only that which it is entitled to.
This is about human dignity. Please acknowledge it exists.
I choose to decide my life is worth protecting. I choose to decide the lives of those students are even more important. That is my prerogative, and I would see it enforced.
Hopefully Storytelling and Kindness will avail me.