The Voice of a Generation

The Voice of a Generation

In the graduation speeches delivered this month by students from Brattleboro Union High School, I recognized the overarching theme of inclusion, connection, and belonging which seemed to spring from a deep well of recognition and appreciation among the student speakers and their cohorts.

When senior Malcolm Toleno referenced “What’s next?” in his address at the Baccalaureate ceremony, he cast a broad net of post-graduation paths: from starting a job to enlisting in the service to exploring gap years & travel to continuing studies, encouraging his fellow classmates to approach the world with curiosity, from a place of not “knowing.”

When class speaker Kathyrn Paige Wocell addressed the graduating class on the football field, she spoke of the “adult companions” who shaped the lives of graduates, referencing a quote from the school security guard, “Gordy,” who characterized the Class of 2019 as “spunky and determined,” certain to impact the world.

When Ari Essunfeld delivered his Valedictorian address, he spoke of the “positive influences” of a community that respects and treasures differences and values art & music, points scored & records earned, risk-taking and compassion. Among those influences, he included teammates and coaches, custodians and special education teachers, and his fellow classmates who over the past four years shared not only common physical space but collective memory, differing perspectives, hard apologies and the intertwining of stories, in which he honored the fullness of each individual story and its unique path.

These children have come of age in the chaos of climate change and school shootings and the immediacy of oppression and violence and hate.

Like no other generation, they reside within our interconnection, and in doing so, I see their capacity to create larger and larger containers of belonging, celebration and love.

To this I would add the voice of their English teacher Bennth Sauer who retired this year and offered this witty and insightful address at the Baccalaureate Ceremony, revealing the brilliance of educators whose light is often dimmed under mounds of class hours, meetings and paperwork. (Of note: Bennth doesn’t love this image but I think it captures what students found so engaging about her classes.)

ENGLISH I. & II.

I want to thank the senior class for including me tonight, as it gave me time to think about some things that really matter—which was especially meaningful during my last few weeks of teaching at a place where I have learned so much. And as I was contemplating things we all share—aside from the memes you have so generously shown and then explained to me—I started wondering about what we might have gleaned from some of the works we read in English I and II.

[My notes here say, ignore muffled groans and proceed as if I had not heard them].

[I should also note that the working title of this talk was “Why I Hate Romeo and Juliet,” but I decided that was too narrow, so it’s now called “Why We Should All Love Holden Caulfield but Shouldn’t Vote for Him.” I believe he’s running as the 24th Democratic candidate.]

So, what did we learn from them—and what didn’t we learn, which maybe we should have?

These are not idle questions. If the point of going to school is to acquire the skills that will help us become thinking citizens, ideally compassionate towards others both within our sphere and without, and engaged in the lurching-but-worthwhile experiment we call democracy, then assumedly these books were chosen to instruct us about a particular aspect of being human.

So let’s start with a book most of you probably [?] liked, To Kill a Mockingbird. In the “tired old town” of Maycomb we saw just another version of our national emergency being enacted, with Tom Robinson falsely accused of rape by the ne’er-do-well Ewells, and then shot as he tried to escape a system that was rigged against him. We all recognize that emergency, still being played out on the national stage and on our Facebook feeds. We paid heed to that emergency in our own school as we raised the “Black Lives Matter” flag amidst much controversy.

And in Jem and Scout’s burgeoning awareness of injustice we recognize our own coming to terms with the failures of our democracy: How Scout had to mull over the fact that a teacher praised the Jews by saying that “there are no better people in the world” as they faced the scourge of the Third Reich in Europe, but apparently said and did nothing about the plight of the Black citizens of her own town under Jim Crow. Jem, as we know from Scout, grew angry and withdrawn, and refused to speak about it, which I suppose is one way to cope. And of course we all admire Atticus, who was derided and spat upon for his convictions.

But there are a few less-examined moments in the novel which I would like to talk about now. You all remember the mad dog in Chapter 10–[and not just because he has the same name as a local celebrity]. When Calpurnia realizes that Tim Johnson is rabid, she runs to the Radleys’ to warn them to stay inside. In her haste, Cal goes to the front door, and watching her, Scout remarks, “She’s supposed to go around in the back.”

In the symphony of the novel, this is a moment in which the reader should notice a false note. Jem responds that it doesn’t matter in this case, as it’s an emergency—but it should matter to the reader. It’s symptomatic of growing consciousness that it comes in fits and starts, and Harper Lee is showing us how pernicious this sickness of racism is—how hard to cure. Likewise their discussion as they walk back from their church outing with Calpurnia: They are having the first really personal talk in the novel, and we realize that Scout doesn’t know when Cal’s birthday is, despite the fact that Cal has cared for her all of her life. (Worse, Calpurnia herself doesn’t know.) These lapses may seem minor but in the mosaic [this is the very definition of mixed metaphor] of “What We Can Learn from Literature,” they are like missing tiles which mar—or highlight, depending on one’s perspective—the art.

Noticing the small broken-off bits in the mosaic, of course, is not enough. We have to notice them, and then do something about them. And so I don’t want your takeaway from what I’m saying here to be that in being a careful reader you are doing your utmost—you have to not only see the places where things are broken but also work to fix them. Of course, we are not going to shout at Scout over the distance of almost 60 years that she should look up “hypocrisy” in Miss Caroline’s dictionary, but we can notice these lapses in ourselves and make amends. It requires a humility and a willingness to make mistakes—something that after a teaching career of thirty-plus years I have perhaps more experience with than most.

And speaking of humility, how about those Montagues and Capulets? Should it bother us that we never, EVER, in “the two-hours’ traffic of our stage” learn the source of their “ancient grudge”—a feud so potent that even their servants bite their thumbs at the other family’s staff when they run into one another at Price Chopper? In a time when our nation is more divided than it’s been in years, perhaps we should read this play as a warning: that we should be able to identify the sources of our polarization but more, we should work to bridge the same lest we lose what we treasure most. Romeo and Juliet’s parents planned to commission a statue of pure gold to commemorate their children’s death and the end of the adults’ strife—what kind of statue will be erected here in the future? Will it be one which future generations will have to take down, as the statues celebrating the Confederacy are slowly being toppled on their plinths? Will it be pure gold, or will it be hollow? And who will decide?

Guess what—you will. It is a sad truth that as the people who have worked hard to teach you retire and continue to lose their hair, the responsibilities for shaping a world you want to live in will be increasingly your own. Sorry, not sorry; sad, not sad—I am quietly ecstatic to think that you—with your fine minds and character, your acronyms [GOAT: “Greatest of All Time”] and silly antics— will be determining what happens in the world “out there” rather than just in our classrooms.

[Maybe leave the tractor tires at home though.]*

So what will you do when you encounter the Tom and Daisy Buchanans of the world, those who in the insulation of their own privilege have only to put up statues to themselves— those who can ignore the shadowy figures toiling in the valley of ashes as they ride through on the train to somewhere clean and safe and exclusive? An uncomfortable truth about Fitzgerald’s novel—which I thought about a lot while planning this diatribe, I mean speech—is that The Great Gatsby is almost exclusively about people who just…stink [synonym for the perfect word, which *this refers to a prank students pulled a few weeks ago I can’t use here]: their living rooms, their hotel rooms, their mansions, their icky personal lives—and so little about the world that surrounds them, which they exploit but which is beneath their notice. You will have to face the Buchanans and the lesser mortals of the world as you inherit the environment they have despoiled. In the final lines of his masterwork Fitzgerald writes that we are boats beating on but borne back ceaselessly into the past. It’s a romantic and true notion—certainly there are things we will want to hold onto from the past and even from the present—like Easy Bake Ovens, bell-bottoms, Moana, the rolling-eye-emoji—but as the caretakers of our planet you will have to think about and do things in new ways to stem the tide of apathy. Google Greta Thunberg to see what one seventeen-year-old and a sign can do.

And thus we arrive at Holden Caulfield, anti-hero of his own narrative [The Catcher in the Rye]. In my experience students are 50/50 with or against Holden—he’s Everyman, or he’s no one. As a teacher, I love him; the fact that he doesn’t do the reading is infuriating, but his heart is in the right place. And at least he has one. What is heartbreaking to me is that the adults in his life seem to have largely deserted him, except perhaps, for his English teacher (SURPRISE!), Mr. Antolini. (And no, he wasn’t creepy.) Holden doesn’t do his homework, but he has principles—he just doesn’t have power. So find your power—whether it’s beating a drum or besting your teacher in debate [shout-out to my AP students], singing your heart out on stage or stinging the vanity of those who abuse their power, wielding your sense of humor or welding alliances between people who thought they were enemies.

But in this era in which fact is continuously being called into question, what do we make of Holden’s use of the word “phony”? It’s important, because it is one of the reasons many students dislike him: “He hates phonies, but he’s a phony himself.” I mostly disagree: I think that Holden appropriately recognizes fakery but is too caught in the mesh of his own coddled upbringing to totally escape it. It’s unclear that his parents’ plan to send him to a military academy will remedy this. We all know that teenagers have the best boloney-detectors and (speaking to the parents and other significant adults here) it is wearying to have one’s own trespasses pointed out, over and over. But I thank the Buddha for my students—they are so often right, and they—YOU—have certainly kept me honest. Now you’re graduating, and I urge you to prime your baloney-meters as you enter your next sphere.

As for my own graduation, which is what we’re calling my retirement in our household…I was talking with Amelia Graff [♥] the other day about Jane Austen—how Austen’s women characters are “badass” [I can say that here because I’m quoting Amelia] even as they’re caught up in the mesh of their own severely constricted futures, in which finding a man is the ultimate end, and the “plain” sister is plain out of luck…And after Amelia left my classroom I thought to myself—I’ve made a terrible mistake! There are so many fabulous, important discussions I haven’t had! So many books to talk about! And I never taught anything by Kurt Vonnegut! etc. After those moments of panic, I calmed down and realized that the discussions and the new thoughts about familiar things will happen anyway, because you know how to have them. You don’t need me. It’s a truism of teaching (like parenting, I suppose) that the ultimate goal is to render oneself obsolete. It has been an honor to participate with you in this endeavor. I have never laughed as much as I have when spending time with “my” kids, and I have learned more than I can quantify.

When Holden is being kicked out of Pencey, his third (?) prep school, he goes to visit his former social studies teacher, “Old Spencer.” I’ll spare you the details of their interaction, but in short Spencer, in trying to make a point about Holden’s inability to “apply himself,” makes him feel even worse. As Holden is leaving, he thinks he hears Spencer shouting “Good luck!” after him, about which Holden says, “I hope [he didn’t]. I hope to hell not. I’d never yell ‘Good luck!’ at anybody. It sounds terrible, when you think about it.” So I won’t either. Like Beowulf [you know i had to work him in here somewhere], you have the power to make your own fate. Of course, I hope that all good things happen for all of you, but I know enough of your resilience and tenacity to know that you will also make good things happen.

And in a nod to Kersey, I will close with a quotation from my favorite poet, Walt Whitman, who wrote of the future—your future—in a section of Leaves of Grass:

“It is not to diffuse you that you were born of your mother and father—it is to identify you; It is not that you should be undecided, but that you should be decided; Something long preparing and formless is arrived and form’d in you, You are henceforth secure, whatever comes or goes.“

And so you go, with all my love.
Thank you so much.

Beneth Sauer, BUHS Baccalaureate Address, June 2019

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Disturbing the Peace

Disturbing the Peace

 “My hope is that you will disturb the peace by devoting some or maybe all of your life’s work to protecting and expanding the greatest invention of human kind-the art of self-governance based on social justice.”

Tim Kipp, Department of Social Studies, Brattleboro Union High School

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Disturbing the Peace – an Address to the Class of 2013

(shared with permission from the author)

“Parents, faculty, education officials, guests and the Class of 2013, I am delighted to address you on this exciting occasion. This is a particularly poignant moment for I am graduating as well, albeit it has taken me 39 years.

And as I have had the pleasure of teaching many of you, let me briefly relish the idea that I now may be able to have the last word, something that seldom happened in my classroom.

I will rely on insights from some of my favorite thinkers and take this opportunity to humbly offer some advice and be somewhat indulgent by reflecting on a lifetime of teaching.

I have titled this address “ Disturbing the Peace.”

Over sixty years ago one of my heroes, Ammon Hennacy, was arrested for refusing to pay his taxes because so much of our money was allocated for war and the development of nuclear weapons.

Ammon was one of the most frequently arrested activists in the peace movement in the 1950s and 1960s. At one of his hearings for tax resistance, the judge said, Ammon [they were on a first name basis by then] I am citing you for non -payment of federal taxes and for “DISTURBING THE PEACE.”

With a quizzical look of consternation Ammon protested, “Judge, I am not disturbing the peace! All my efforts over a life-time have been devoted “to disturbing the wars.” The judge was not impressed and sentenced Ammon to 60 days.

Ammon was an activist for peace and social justice with the Catholic Worker Movement. As a radical pacifist who refused to allow the government to define whom his enemies may be, he resisted US foreign policies that became and still are essentially a “permanent war for permanent peace.” [Gore Vidal]

As many of you are well aware [some I suppose painfully so]- my life ’s work as a teacher has been animated by a compulsion to teach you to become activists for social justice, be it local, national or around the world. I have sought to have you see history, political science, and law in the context of the vital struggle to transform our political economy into an authentic democracy.

Howard Zinn, another mentor, taught me to search for a “usable past.”  How can what we learn in the classroom be a model for our future? Sure, “antique history” certainly has intrinsic value but lacks relevance and immediacy. I have always wanted more from the content.

John Dewey, the great progressive philosopher and educator from Vermont believed that the most effective education requires a good dose of empirical or experiential learning- he saw a natural continuum of reading, doing and reflecting.

What an exciting context from which to learn. Sometimes in one of my more ironic moods I feel that the imperfections of our political and economic system were developed so social studies teachers and the general public could hone their skills to be more effective actors in a democratic society. This may cause us to pay attention and enable us to have more relevant lives.

Using Ammon Hennacy’s admonition as a metaphor, my hope is that you will disturb the peace by devoting some or maybe all of your life’s work to protecting and expanding the greatest invention of human kind-the art of self-governance based on social justice.

Compared with you, growing up I had it much easier… I developed my values and ideology in the caldron of the 1960’s with the swirl of movements for civil rights, peace, women’s rights and the environment.

While it is myth that most young people of the 1960’s and 70’s were activists, mainstream media and conventional analysis had it, for better or for worse, that the majority of young people were devoted to some form of change from reform to revolution. Not so.

The publically held perception reinforced the myth of holistic activism and this myth became an ally for us in the movement and helped us attract more foot soldiers for the cause. These were actually times of optimism amid crisis as we truly felt that significant change could be won. Being an activist was “cool” in those distant days.

Your task today is more challenging. The public perception has changed and the corporate-dominated mainstream media has allowed reportage of movement activities to largely recede to the margins of the published and electronic world.

You have grown up in the most conservative times since at least the days of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. The modern conservative movement is more energetic and sophisticated in its drive to protect capital and prerogatives of the “haves.” Remember Romney’s astute 47 percent analysis? In fact he was correct from the far right’s perspective.

Activists today can be vilified, marginalized or satirized by elites in the political and media spheres. This modern era of the conservative is, of course, aided and abetted by a Supreme Court that has elevated property rights over human rights.

Starting with Reagan and extended by Clinton and perfected by Bush II, our national leaders have seen fit to demonize the government’s role in society. The mantra is –the government is the problem, not a partner in the solution. Fortunately, Obama has made some diminutive steps to counter the prevailing ideology.

Your task is much more challenging: not only are the problems more daunting but also we now have a large sector of the political world hostile to government involvement. Diminished for now is the healthy consensus that we are in this together and that government indeed does have an important role to play. The New Deal coalition that emerged from the crisis of the Great Depression and World War 2 has dissipated but it- can- be -rebuilt.

This contemporary phase of conservationism urges us to venerate the individual over the group, to see government virtues as limited.  Aren’t we a country of “rugged individualists,” a bunch of Horatio Algers thriving on competition to make us strong? Isn’t our system essentially a meritocracy where hard work is rewarded?

Sure, we all can value hard work and initiative-nothing wrong with this, but when Ayn Rand libertarianism becomes paramount, the ugly strains of social Darwinism can be manifest. Witness corporate behavior in the financial world- record stock market and banking profits with persistently high unemployment, witness the climate change deniers or listen to those opposed to making health care a universal right and not just a privilege. Think about the 1% vs. the 99% or more to the point the 10% vs. the 90%.

We can view the world and our place in it as an atomized experience that elevates the individual or we can strike a balance that places us in the larger social context that urges us to get involved and to give a damn.  We make these choices. Ammon, in another context, said he wanted to create a world where it was “ easier to do good.”  Think about it.

Noam Chomsky warns us to what any sentient being knows: we are faced with twin existential realities, both anthropogenic…yes… human-made in nature- global climate change and the scourge of war with its antecedents of class and skin color conflicts.

Today there is a galling political paralysis whereby power, party and class trumps citizens’ basic human needs. For those of us who are paying attention, we appear to reside in a Kafkaesque world where our leaders are mind-numbingly complacent or don’t have the political backbone to foster real change to save our planet. “We have carneval barkers masquerading as leaders.” [Frank Bruni]

While we remain the “richest” country in the world, compared to the other advanced democracies, we can lament having the highest rate of childhood poverty, the widest inequality gap, the highest rates of incarceration, the most gun deaths, and being the largest consumer of the world’s resources, including of course, petroleum.

Our idea fix on petroleum has us going to war to protect “our” national security, i.e. access to oil that we will consume at greater rates, which will ultimately threaten the globe.

Our military, larger, by some accounts then all others combined, enables us to be the cops of the world, where we are leaders in the number of countries invaded and the number of governments overthrown. We have substituted drones for diplomats. All of which has made us a prime target for the lunatic fringe of terror.

What an age in which to be cynical, it’s so easy! The challenges before us can indeed leave us cynical and psychically numb simply preferring to collapse on a couch of apathy. Perhaps every age induces cynicism?

Today you can get your news in the form of entertainment devoid of any serious analysis or real perspective. You can watch Stewart and Colbert and see the world as an endless comedic plot line or you can let the likes of Fox [Faux] News and bile-filled talk radio of the right and the left fill you with quarter-truths and hate. Oh, so much freedom of expression and so very little freedom of thought! This is a toxic brew for cynicism and its logical consequences: insularity, resignation and inaction.

As I have often told you: doing nothing is a conscious choice. By doing nothing you will guarantee that the status quo will prevail. Your hypnotic life will enable the “peace” of business as usual to continue. If you are satisfied with how the world is then by all means do nothing and your expectations will be rewarded.

I am confident today that most students of the class of 2013 will not choose the hypnotic path. You are labeled as the Millennial Generation by popular writers of today. As with any of these rather superficial appellations there is always the negative and the positive descriptors. So you are described as a narcissistic bunch barely capable of looking beyond your own personal world.

My work with young people over the past 4 decades both confirms and challenges the narcissistic adjective. I think every generation can be so described. While economics, technology and culture can mediate behavior; I believe most people want to help their neighbors.

I have seen kids commit to changing the world; to seeing well beyond themselves. This class is no exception. There are activists among us whom I will never forget, who will carry on long after BUHS. Interestingly a new study by sociologist, Helen Fox, finds today’s youth are more progressive than we were in the 1960’s. They have a more global and philanthropic outlook than previous generations.

To quote,

This generation is more accepting of full human equality than any other generation in history. Interracial dating, gay rights, gay marriage: all of that seems normal to them.

Remember the crucial role played by young people in the Obama elections? Ask my students who volunteered over 600 hours in the last election.

You tend to be less confrontational then we were but no less ardent in you views. Less confrontational? I am not sure if this is a positive but of course this is coming from someone who still occasionally goes to the barricades after nearly 50 years.

You know knowledge is like manure… it only really works when it is spread around.

So how will you use you current and future knowledge?

Will you listen to the words of Noam Chomsky who tells us “knowledge is not enough”? Will your knowledge turn to action or will it sit in a steaming pile warming one small space on earth?

My teaching will have been in vain if the good people before me remain silent in the face of injustice.

My teaching will have been in vain if you only come away with a deeper critique that leaves you in stasis.

Will you “disturb the peace?”

The great Brazilian activist-educator, Paulo Freire, said the purpose of education is to develop a critical consciousness that will challenge oppression. His was a secular “liberation theology”’ for poor people of Latin America, and the world for that matter.

In Conclusion:

I wonder who you will be in 4 years, in 10 years, and for the rest of your lives. There is greatness here and it will mature into a powerful force if you cultivate it. Will you disturb the peace of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and imperialism?

Will you live a life larger than your own happiness?

May you hold to the world-view of the eminent theologian, Abraham Heschel of being a “pessimist of the intellect and an optimist of the will.”

During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Franklin, ill of health, sat and listened and only spoke a couple of times during the debates. As the proceeding concluded he struggled to his feet to address his fellow “disturbers of the peace”:

For months I have spied that sun carved high on the back of General Washington’s chair. I have wondered whether it is a setting or a rising sun and… I now know it is a rising sun.

So disturb some peace for social justice…

have some fun doing it …

and trust in your own fallibility.”

Tim Kipp, Vermont, June 2013

School Threat

School Threat

So the violence that has spread through our Nation has reached our community–with a phone call telling us that our schools will receive extra patrol this week due to a threat.

That’s all we know.

Do we really want to know more?

Are we supposed to send our kids to school now?

Is this a test?

“Mom, I’m not going. One day of school isn’t worth it. I’ll be lying there shot on the floor thinking, ‘What a waste.'”

This is what it’s come to. Our children are casual with the possibility of being shot at school.

“Lock the doors!” parents holler.

But Sandy Hook was locked.

I do think we need to be cautious about threats, but I also think we need to be cautions of our fear. This is a society riveted by violence. Defined by it in many ways. Proud of it. We don’t want to encourage those who are prone to acting it out by titillating them with our hysteria.

Local educator, Dan Braden, just returned from the March on DC with his young family. He makes this suggestion to channel our angst:

It’s a great day to write your representatives at every level asking them to take action to reduce the number of weapons such as those used at Sandy Hook immediately.” 

Another educator suggests we seriously ARM teachers in this bold statement that has been circulating around FB (from Mary Cathryn Ricker, the President of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers):

You want to arm me? Good.

Then arm me with a school psychologist at my school who has time to do more than test and sit in meetings about testing.

Arm me with enough counselors so we can build skills to prevent violence, have meaningful discussions with students about their future and not merely frantically adjust student schedules like a Jenga game.

Arm me with social workers who can thoughtfully attend to a student’s and her family’s needs so I. Can. Teach.

Arm me with enough school nurses so that they are accessible to every child and can work as a team with me rather than operate their offices as de facto urgent care centers.

Arm me with more days on the calendar for teaching and learning and fewer days for standardized testing. Arm me with class sizes that allow my colleagues and I to know both our students and their families well.

Arm my colleagues and me with the time it takes to improve together and the time it takes to give great feedback to students about their work and progress.

Until you arm me to the hilt with what it will take to meet the needs of an increasingly vulnerable student population, I respectfully request you keep your opinions on schools and our safety to yourself NRA…

Kelly Salasin, 2013

Sign of the Times

Sign of the Times

“A new worldview is the work of scientists & philosophers, poets & mystics: scientists to understand how the Universe operates; philosophers to ponder what this means and how we should live; mystics to experience in the depths of our being a felt sense of the Universe; and finally, poets & artists, to articulate the myth by which we all live.”

~Theodore Richards, Cosmosophia

I stopped listening to the news back in the days of Clinton & Lewinsky, the moment my son called out from the backseat, “I’m sick of this Bill and Monica stuff.”  (He was 4.)

Up until that time, Lloyd and I enjoyed listening to Public Radio, VPR or NHPR, whichever one we could tune in, especially on our twenty-minute trip over the mountain to his preschool.

The highlight of this drive, when we timed it right, was The Writer’s Almanac–with the delicious voice of Garrison Keillor. The opening music from that program still stirs my heart, especially as my little boy heads to college next year.

Lloyd grew out of diapers listening to Public Radio and perhaps it was unfair of me not to play kids music like the other moms, but he didn’t seem to mind; and I hadn’t realized he was really listening until the day he pulled out his thumb, and said “Turn it off.”

He was wise like that. Maybe it was because we didn’t have tv. Lloyd could clearly see what mattered in life…  like money.  He was always intrigued by numbers and their value. When he was about 8 or 9, he sat on his bed pondering the ten-dollar bill that came in a card from his grandparents: “What makes this one worth any more than the other? They’re all just pieces of paper.”

As he watched his (teaching) parents struggle over that paper, Lloyd grew up with the aim of making lots of it.  No one was surprised then to learn that he decided to take business classes in highschool, or that he set his sights on a career in finance.

Just recently however, a chance meeting with a family friend at a funeral refocused his goals. Though Lloyd has long been enamored with expensive clothes, fancy cars and bling, he suddenly noticed something was missing in the self-absorbed success of a businessman.

Soon after, he announced that he planned to study development economics; after which his father and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Last week his senior “Elections” class received a visit from the Republican candidate for Governor.  Lloyd eagerly waited for the Q&A time, and afterward, his teacher pulled my husband aside. Lloyd was respectful, he said, but he wouldn’t let the guy hedge around the question he asked him about environmental policy.

Apparently, our son’s persistence led the candidate to finally quip: “What would you be willing to give up for that?”

This kind of response makes my blood boil, and it continued percolating all the way to the mall in Holyoke, where no rural mother likes to be, even if she did break her only pair of glasses.

In my dismay, I hadn’t thought to bring along something to listen to so I resorted to the radio for the hour drive, irritably jumping from station to station, until a British voice soothed my attention… on Public Radio.

As I pulled onto the highway, I turned up the volume when I heard the interviewer say, “What is it about the American psyche that makes them so ‘anti-government?”

It was an intriguing question, and it was just this kind of outside perspective that gave me hope; but moments later I was ready to shut the radio off altogether when the interview shifted to someone at the Republican Headquarters in Paul Ryan’s hometown.

The word “sustainable” stopped me…

The current spending isn’t “sustainable.” We can’t pass down debt like this to the next generation.

I banged on my steering wheel, “But it’s okay to give them polluted water and air!”

The interview shifted once again–to a personal trainer–who talked about the intense workout that Paul Ryan did every day. I made a mental note to pick up an audio book for the drive home.

6 hours of eyeglass shopping later, I settled in on the biography of Steve Jobs, curious about the intersection of success and creativity and relationship. Before the introduction was over, I realized that the author picked up the line of thinking begun by Lloyd as he questioned the value of paper, and later asked about the environment:

The creativity that can occur when a feel for both the humanities and the sciences combine in one strong personality was the topic that most interested me in my biographies of Franklin and Einstein, and I believe that it will be a key to creating innovative economies in the twenty-first century.  (Walter Issacson)

Steve Jobs echoed this with his own statement:

I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics. Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.

I thought back to the bustling Apple Store in the mall–with its intercultural buzz of curiosity and connection–and I felt hopeful again.

Maybe we’re ready to allow money to serve humanity, rather than the other way around.

Maybe we’re learning that it is truly unsustainable to put humanity on the back burner until it’s more affordable.

Maybe we’re beginning to understand how absurd it is to place so much value on what is “make believe” (money) than that which is real: our planet, our bodies and our relationships.

…And may we be smart enough and creative enough and courageous enough to act on this unfolding understanding.

Perhaps Apple says it best:

The people who are crazy enough
to think they can change
the world are the ones who do.

(p.s. I just learned that VPR is opening a new station–in Brattleboro. I’ll take that as a sign.)

Kelly Salasin, September 2012