An Education in Peace, by Elizabeth Napp

Illustration by Julia Cairns for "A Full Moon Is Rising" by Marilyn Singer (Lee & Low Books, 2011)

Illustration by Julia Cairns for A Full Moon Is Rising by Marilyn Singer (Lee & Low Books, 2011)

He was walking to the shuttle when he decided to take a shortcut. It was seven in the morning and he hoped to shave a few minutes off his trip. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a man following him. Something did not seem right. So, he walked faster.  There was a raised hand and a glint of steel. He woke in a hospital room surrounded by friends. He did not understand why he was in the room. His left cheek was broken and he felt nauseous. The police cameras in the neighborhood eventually told him the story. The man following him had attacked him. There was no robbery. There was no theft. The man had attacked him for no material gain. When I asked why he thought this had happened, he simply said, “I am an immigrant.”

Ruben (the name has been changed as the court date approaches) told me this story Friday after school. I had taught him for three years – three different years of Social Studies – and he would visit periodically to keep me posted on his studies. As a business major in his sophomore year at college, he had been flourishing but the attack occurred during midterms and he had to postpone taking his examinations. While he did eventually take the examinations, he was dissatisfied with his performance. He wanted higher marks and decided to take the courses again. The attack had made it difficult for him to remember but with each passing day, his memory was stronger. A friend had caught the attacker. After the incident, the friend decided to retrace Ruben’s steps every morning until one morning, a man followed him and when he saw the glint of steel, he ran and called 911. The man was apprehended. The friend, Edgar, was an orphan. His father had been murdered and a few years later, his mother had been murdered too. Guatemala was a beautiful country but poverty had led to crime and crime to violence. After the death of his mother, he moved in with his maternal grandmother and became a farmer. He learned how to grow corn. When an uncle offered to help him if he moved to New York, he did but the uncle tired of the responsibility. He abandoned Edgar leaving Edgar to support himself until he found Ruben and his family. Ruben’s family helped Edgar enroll in school and complete his High School diploma. I taught Edgar too. He always smiled even though life had not treated him kindly.

Listening to the story, I could not understand how this could have happened. To attack another person for no material gain seemed beyond senseless. It was a hate crime but how could someone hate a stranger so much to do so much damage and how could someone hate Ruben. Ruben looks like a cherub – sweet faced and kindly, nothing threatening about his demeanor. Why would someone do this? In this classroom, I teach history. I teach about history in faraway places and history nearby. I teach about heroic deeds and horrible ones. There is a sense that like Ozymandias, the tyrant ends up buried in the sand:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley

And yet there is so much violence and hatred in the world. Though one day buried in the sand, it still lives in the world. What produced the kind of hatred that led to the attack? And how can education serve as a tool to prevent the growth of such violence?

Where does peace begin? Does it grow in the soil of kindness? Can it only flourish if the earliest years are full of love and possibility? No, it must be more than that. Does it rise to the sun only when it is responsibly cultivated? I don’t think so. It can occur at any moment, a commitment to peace. In Buddhism, there is the story of the robber who ends up helping the monk build a road and in the process is transformed. Like the author of Amazing Grace, there can be a moment of light and healing when the person is completely changed. Transformation is possible. There is not one recipe for healing or one recipe for detonating a mushroom cloud of kindness that encompasses the entire sky. But are there actions that can be taken that make peace more possible, kindness more tangible?

When I was a child, the developmentally disabled attended alternative schools. They were segregated. In the neighborhood, there was a girl who went to the alternative school. She was my age but bigger. When I would ride my bicycle through the neighborhood, she would find me and grab the seat of my bike. I would pedal but could not move. I was terrified. I did not know her. She did not attend my school. She was different and in her segregation, her difference became menacing. She never hurt me. She never threatened me but I was terrified. Looking back, I realize that she liked me and probably wanted to play. Had we attended the same school would I have seen her differently?

In school, we can all be together and in being together, we can learn about one another. But we can only learn about one another if we spend time together. If our classes are segregated into Honors and non-Honors and English Language Learners and all the myriad ways we separate children, we may not learn that much about one another and if our school consists of people just like us, we may learn even less. Yes, there is the study of diversity and the study of different belief systems and different cultures and this is invaluable but we must break bread together to come to know one another and to cultivate a sense of the family of man. It is not enough to love Harriet Tubman’s bravery if there is no encounter with the African American community or to admire César Chávez if we do not speak to Latinos in our own neighborhoods or to say we embrace diversity if we always sit with the same people.

Peace requires an expansion of the family table, a new definition of the group. Peace is expansive. As Dorothy Day said, “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?”

In education, children must be taught the many stories and narratives of the past and not one narrative. They must interact with students from a variety of backgrounds. And they must be rewarded not only for good grades but for acts of kindness and compassion. Of course, it is easy to say that education must be confined to quantifiable things like arithmetic and chemistry. But we are not just creating technologies. We are creating the people who will wield those technologies. To only speak of benchmarks and not civic education or qualities to emulate or values to have is to ignore the fact that we live in a planet of people and the very future of this planet of people depends on our ability to interact peacefully with one another. And how can this be done? Perhaps we can start with the wisdom of the Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ruling: “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” First, we must bring together the world’s diversity in the classroom. Secondly, we must value the narratives of the many and not the one. And thirdly, we must recognize and reward acts of kindness and compassion.

At every instant and from every side, resounds the call of Love:
We are going to sky, who wants to come with us?
We have gone to heaven, we have been the friends of the angels,
And now we will go back there, for there is our country.
We are higher than heaven, more noble than the angels:
Why not go beyond them? Our goal is the Supreme Majesty.

—Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch, “Rumi and Sufism” Trans. Simone Fattal Sausalito, CA: Post-Apollo Press, 1977, 1987.

When I was a teenager, Nelson Mandela was in prison. As the anti-apartheid movement grew in the 1980s – particularly after the brutality of the apartheid regime in the Soweto Riots in the seventies – there was a sense of many rising to say “No” to apartheid. In Mandela, there was a person to unify us. Surely to imprison a man for merely writing against the need to overthrow the apartheid government was wrong? How could a demand for equality be sedition and writing words for equality worthy of over twenty years in prison? So, even when there were the normal teenage concerns like friends and school and fun, there was a need to gather and shout “Free Nelson Mandela.” In Mandela, we rose to be greater than who we were. Like seedlings in the cracked sidewalk, we were drawn to the sun. Every child needs a hero and a role model and every child needs to know that “We are higher than heaven” and that “our goal is the Supreme Majesty.”

“Let peace ring” and let us all help toll the bell.♦