Some Heroes I Have Known

By Professor Thomas J. Cottle.

In the writings of anthropologists and sociologists one glimpses the outlines of human destiny, not to mention the chromosomes (or are they alleles?) of injustice, itself a rather significant threat to those involved in the glorious enterprise of education. Look to cultures and societies to discover the origins of terms like “the best and the brightest,” or “over-achiever,” the child we have quit on who suddenly succeeds. It is within cultures and societies where constructs are born and perpetuated, constructs that actually come to define the expectations we maintain for ourselves, and others, as well as the rudiments of our aspirations and self-esteem. Think of it: A youngster graduates from an elite preparatory school, enters Princeton, and we say, “What’d ya expect!” Miles away, in what is still called the inner city, a kid drops out of high school, ends up in the streets, and what do we say? “What’d ya expect!” A student graduates from that same preparatory school and ends up homeless and we say, “Who’d a thought?” And similarly, the kid from the inner city finds a place at Yale and what do we say? “Who’d a thought?” Incidentally, I believe my wording here to be accurate. For the student from the preparatory school is likely to be referred to as “youngster” or “young adult,” whereas the student from the city is likely to just be called “kid.”

Another form of threat for me is found in an occasional lapse in thoughtfulness in both meanings of that word. On the one hand, this teaching business in which some of us engage, has to be thought through very carefully. On the other hand, we cannot afford to be thoughtless when speaking about America’s young people, those who are still learning, and especially those who are learning what they can about the art and science of teaching so that they may be useful to young people and kids alike. A young man in my own university studying business administration cannot afford to be thoughtless as he was when admonishing his roommate, a student of education: “If you’re a teacher you give up on all your goals.”

Yesterday in my class devoted to the topic of families with a child with special needs, we were visited by the gifted writer and actor Marianne Leone. Ms. Leone came to speak to my students about her son Jesse Cooper, a remarkable young man whose life is chronicled in Leone’s book Knowing Jesse: A Mother’s Story of Grief, Grace, and Everyday Bliss. If you want to truly affect students of education, counseling, coaching, occupational therapy, health sciences, policy studies, and the like, have her come to your class.

This morning I awoke to discover an email from Marianne thanking me, do you believe, “for the opportunity to address my wonderful class.” She then went on to speak more personally about a few of the students who are themselves members of families raising a child or two with special needs. Because of the way these particular students lead their lives, lives that involve their efforts to become teachers, counselors, coaches, and physical therapists, she chose to refer to them as heroic. I agree with her, but for one significant emendation.

Cottle Classroom Photo

photo credit: via photopin cc

I consider all the students in our school of education heroic given what they are obliged to do, the choices they have made, and for that unique calling that seems to have stirred something deep within them to which they have with full heart responded. Or is it as simple that they just have the heart for it? I’m not embarrassed to say it: These young people walk the walk, just as they will educate those who cannot walk. Hold in mind that no one sees on an up-close basis the problems confronting schools and teachers of education more directly than they. Few see as well the ways in which merit, need, and principles of equal treatment form, or fail to form, definitions of justice in schools. Few experience the panoply of answers to the question: Why do we even send children to school? In their efforts to promote genuine healing and human flourishing, do they encounter what New York Times columnist Mr. Keller recently called educational industries of mediocrity? I am certain that they do. But this hardly renders these glorious students mediocre. Not by any evidence based measure I know of, anyway.

So if Mr. Keller doesn’t mind I’ll try to forget that he actually wrote “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach teaching,” and subscribe instead to Kevin Ryan’s wonderful book title: “Those who can, teach.”

Thomas J. Cottle is Professor of Education at Boston University School of Education. His books include The Voices of School; Barred from School; At Peril: Stories of Injustice; Mind Fields: Adolescent Consciousness in a Culture of Distraction; and Drawing Life: Narratives and the Sense of Self.

One Comment

Claire Buesser posted on January 26, 2014 at 2:09 pm

Thank you, Professor Cottle, for your post. I really appreciate how eloquently you expressed your thoughts. As an education student, I have certainly come across people like your business student who belittle my career choice. Luckily, we have educators like yourself who believe in our vision, and I am grateful for that! Thank you for respecting and encouraging us.

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