Finding change through thoughtful conversation, this is my story. Laytonville, California is a small town four hours north of San Francisco situated along Highway 101, twenty miles east of the Pacific Ocean. One gas station, one general store, one dentist, one video store, no traffic light. The landscape is quite beautiful, golden California hills covered with golden poppies and roaming cattle. Sometimes the landscape is covered by ocean fog or sometimes covered by snow. Sometimes the high summer heat and lack of rain create wild fires and smoke filled skies. Everyday is different, everyday the same.This small town is where I live. The population Is about 2,000 with a mixture of rednecks, hippies, and Native Americans. We have the Cahto Pomo Rancheria and the Hardwood Mill and hippie artists in the hills. Quite the diverse population.
I work in the school system. It is a difficult challenge as the students’ backgrounds are so varied. Some kids receive brand new cars when they turn sixteen while others are just glad the high school serves breakfast. The highlight is Friday night football. That is the cement of the town, the school system and especially Friday night football. I never let my sons play football, they played soccer instead. My daughter was a cheerleader. Ra Ra gold and blue Ra Ra.
I teach Socrates Socratic Seminar and am a substitute teacher for all grades although I prefer working in the high school. The graduating class is usually about 30 students. Some kids go on to Stanford or Berkeley or UCSC. Others go to Mendocino-Lake Community College and others just continue working at the gas station. A true mixture of racial and economic disparities.
There is one day that stands out in my mind. One day that crossed the racial and economic divide. One day that brought us all closer and began change.
In our Socratic Seminar Class we use pieces from Touchstones Discussion Projects. It’s an organization that is used around the world to teach and create better listening and communication skills.
The rules are simple. It’s not a debate it’s a discussion. Read the short piece aloud then each person wrItes a question, a deep question. Something like .. “what gave Malcolm X the desire to study the dictionary” and “not what year did this happen?” Or why did Robert Frost, in his poem “Fire and Ice” equate hatred with ice? So rules: everyone sits in a circle, one person speaks at time, no interruption, no hand raising, no disrespect. Listening and building on each other’s ideas and questions is the key. The idea is to better understand each other and to better listen; to melt our strong ideas and see all sides of an issue. To walk in someone’s shoes besides our own.
So in this one class and on this one day, which I remember so well, we had the hippie kids who were on the track for college and played soccer and the Reservation kids (Rez kids) who played football and were slated for local town jobs. A true disconnect of ideas, experiences and values.
Here’s the piece we discussed. “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost
“Some day the world will end in fire,
Some say ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I’d hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.”
That was the starting point, the poem probably new to everyone in the class. An equal playing field as it were. The conversation that developed and what we shared was amazing.
We shared feelings. We gave solid examples and descriptions of the fire and ice in our souls. We politely listened and shared and felt compassion for one another.
What we learned was that not everyone has loving parents, not everyone sleeps in a bed of their own, not everyone has a computer. Some kids only have grandmas, some kids sleep In the car while their older brother, their guardian, gets drunk at the bar, some kids don’t bother with homework.
We learned that divorce is difficult that not all parents care and getting a car at sixteen does not equal love. Just because there is food on the table doesn’t mean everyone sits together.
We shared feelings. We gave solid descriptions of the fire and ice in our souls.
We listened and felt compassion. My hippie son offered to help one boy do homework. One boy from the Rez offered to teach him how to whittle. We extended the period as the kids began exchanging food recipes and music as resentments and mistrust faded. Change happened.
On another day, when I was subbing, I was in every English class in the High School. It was close to a November election so I had my ballot and my propositions ready since voting is extremely important to me. I copied a few of the propositions and that was our seminar topic for the day. Those kids ate it up. They were excited and interested. They discussed, not debated, as they considered reform for their community. Few had families that spoke of politics or current policies and events. And they ate it up! I was amazed.
Around that time I remember watching Ralph Nader’s movie “An Unreasonable Man”. During the movie he retold a story from his childhood. At breakfast his father would suggest a topic for his children to research and think about during the day to later be discussed at dinner. I think one example for his family was parking meters on Main Street. That’s seminar. Bring your ideas and share and ponder and leave judgement at the curb. So that is what I bring to my students, openly questioning, openly thinking, and openly listening with respect.
And now today, 2020, as turmoil hits the American streets, I question myself. Am I prejudice? I am thinking about that. I am silently having a seminar with myself. I am a white woman from an upper income area of Long Island. I feel fortunate because I grew up with parents who welcomed everyone into their homes. I now live in Northern California and our daughter and her family live in Oakland, California. In her town and ours we are surrounded by diversity. But am I prejudice? Do I judge? Am I afraid when I pass a crowd of people gathered on the street? Am I afraid or feel isolated when I go to a Golden State Warriors Game because most people don’t look like me?
Everyday I use my seminar skills to keep an open mind. We are all one but we are all different. Lessening the divide, finding compassion, and listening are a beginning.