Speech at the Kite's Nest Alimentary Feast
7 November 2014
Good evening, and thank you so much for joining the Kite's Nest community at this astounding feast. As you heard, I am a Kite's Nest parent, a member of the board of directors, and an educator. And tonight I want to share with you why in my 20 years in education, I think Kite's Nest is the way education is supposed to be.
Our daughter is 13. She is quiet in public and around other kids but then often talkative at home. She has inner philosophical thoughts and questions about life that haunt her. Sometimes these thoughts seep out at dinner, more often they emerge in the car from the back seat when adult eye contact is at a minimum. Betye listens intently. She's always attempting to learn, to gain new words to help her form new insights. She's always trying to understand what she calls "reality," because she's flummoxed by the type of violent, unequal world in which we adults expect everyone to live. Once when she was younger she asked me quite simply, "Why do adults allow poverty?" And she added, "If kids had more power, they'd never allow that." As she got older and better able to access the kind of language needed to express complex thoughts, the questions kept coming, but they always remained pointed, plain, and straight forward: Why fight? Why war? Why racism? Why something called boys? Why are we 'girls'? Why hate Vince because he's gay? Why difference? Betye has always had questions for which multilayered, adult responses just won't do. Answers like "It's the economy, Betye" or "You'll understand when you get older," can't seem to compete with the simplicity, the gravity, and the common sense moxie inherent in both her questions and their delivery. How does one explain rationally or with any kind of authentic wisdom how, in too may ways, the world has, how we adults have, how indeed, perhaps, we as parents sometimes have chosen to shirk our duty not just to our own humanity but the humanity of others?
And I guess you can imagine that it is just this kind of wondering, befuddled child that can stick out in a school today, who can find it difficult to find her rightful place, who finds herself lonely and desperate for peers in the very place swarming with them. It is in school, unfortunately, that kids learn how to disparage their own curiosity, muffle the questions of others, suffocate their creativity, and dehumanize those, like Betye, who refuse to acquiesce.
In 1963, my former professor and mentor, writer James Baldwin, told a group of teachers "The crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society. Thus, for example, the boys and girls who were born during the era of the Third Reich, when educated to the purposes of the Third Reich, became barbarians." He went on to argue "the paradox of education is precisely this - that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which one is being educated."
Our daughter is thirteen, and she is quiet in public, loquacious at home, curious, creative, sometimes annoyingly just and fair, always raising questions. Our daughter is a Kite's Nest kid examining the society in which she is being educated, and this summer at Kite's Nest's Social Justice Leadership Academy Betye became louder, bolder, more determined to be heard. On the radio in Hudson she proclaimed, "Everybody's always saying that kids don't understand what's really going on, but when we're young we can imagine things totally opposite to reality. We are limitless." Later she challenged adult listeners, "If we allow ourselves to think of things totally different from reality, then we could think of brand new solutions and not just be safe with what we already know . . . we could change what we think is possible." And finally, she ended with an inquiry into our disposition as adults, and our readiness to partner with kids in efforts to make social change. She asked, "Before we can speak our dreams, we want to know, will people listen to us or will we be hushed too quickly?"
In its contrast to traditional modes of education, Kite's Nest lays bare for us the paradox of education of which Baldwin spoke. Kite's Nest raises a challenge to our schools, to the ways in which we have traditionally envisioned learning, and the social frameworks in which kids should not be taught, not have education done to them, but instead social frameworks in which kids should learn, create, and imagine possibilities for change along side adults who honor kids' ability and desire to know and to do.
Right now kids are growing up inside a culture where we are profoundly disconnected from our own humanity and the humanity of others. They live in a country, for example, where mass violence occurs once every two weeks, where homicide is the leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24; and where we are more likely to kill ourselves than get hit by a car.
The sciences have been telling us for the last 30 years what lies at the root of all this. Primatologists, health researchers, evolutionary anthropologists, neuroscientists, and social psychologists have all shown us that our ideals, our false notions about the tangled complexities of self, other, and difference are what promote and encourage the social disconnection that we and our kids are experiencing today.
And it is into this social dilemma of apathy, violence, and unfortunate but abiding American individualism that Kaya, Nicole, Sara, and young intellectual workers like Claire walk. In walks Kite's Nest solving the paradox of education. Into our kids lives walks its response to what is definitely a sort of madness; Kite's Nest is a door never shut, hinged by love, insight, some foreboding, and a lot of imagination. Kite's Nest provides experiences for the kids that this disconnected world has rejected––some of them––or misunderstood––so many of them––or not had the ingenuity to engage. They are small and large, the kids of Kite's Nest. They are bucktoothed and brown, pale and doubtful, working poor and well-resourced, clunky and curious and temporarily diffident. They are all some kinda smart––very much a smart of their own making that finally gets recognized and recorded here. It's not just that Kite's Nest provides kids a place to experience a kind of joy absent from their supposedly reformed classrooms. Joy is actually easy to produce in kids, because kids are always-already primed to be joyful. What Kite's Nest does, what it has constructed in such small spaces and with such little financial resources, by the river, across the railroad tracks in a small upstate town like Hudson are cross- and trans-disciplinary learning experiences that help kids wrestle with the tangled complexities of self, other, and difference in an environment of social purpose, imagination, and humanity. At Kite's Nest, kids make their own lives and the present-day lives of others viable, just, right, good, and yes, joyful.
In 1963, when Baldwin gave that talk to teachers, he also argued that the purpose of education, finally, is "to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make her own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for herself whether there is a God in heaven or not." He said "To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions is the way the child achieves her own identity," and he warned that, too, "no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around." he said, "What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change."
So what you're contributing to tonight, what you need to dig deep to contribute to every year is Kite's Nest, a place where kids, as Baldwin once said is the true purpose of education "ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions." What you need to dig deep to contribute to every year is the example that Kite's Nest provides us: one of intention and purpose and profound human connection. To share with Kite's Nest what little you have or what economic might you worked for or with which you might have been born is to reconnect to the kids. It's like listening to and believing in what they say. It will mean contributing to a place where kids can ache within safety, be addled by injustice, engage difference with integrity, and grow up knowing that they belong to us, that we love them, that we are all connected, that we won't hush the kids too quickly should they speak their dreams.