Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.
All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.
Be ignited, or be gone.
– Mary Oliver, “What I Have Learned So Far”
When asked to share some lessons I learned over the last two years with fellow executive directors within the StriveTogether Network, Mary Oliver’s poem “What I Have Learned So Far” immediately came to mind. Following my retirement as a school superintendent in June 2020 and in my new role as Executive Director of the Spartanburg Academic Movement (SAM), new lessons have been an everyday occurrence for me.
After sending my teachers and students home on March 16, 2020, following our governor’s order to “temporarily” close our campuses, many of my assumptions as a long-time educator were completely upended — some on a most basic level.
For example, I always knew many of my students depended on our schools’ feeding program for their daily meals, but I had no idea to what extent. I would quickly learn that food insecurity and food deserts were real, and that our community was ill-prepared to provide this basic need for our children. However, I would learn that our food service staff and bus drivers were much more than essential workers as they would become the lifeline for many of our families. I would learn not to send home chocolate milk with our food delivery, as a mom gently reminded one of my colleagues that the chocolate milk is nice for the child, but her family depends on “white” milk for cooking, drinking and other essentials. She clearly understood that what we want isn’t always what we need. This lesson still rings true.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, we prided ourselves on being a completely digital school system. We boasted of eliminating the digital divide by virtue of each of our students possessing a MacBook Air computer and the vast majority having access to broadband and Wi-Fi. I would soon learn that the “vast majority” was wholly unacceptable as I witnessed hundreds of families who lacked the essentials to participate in a synchronous and asynchronous virtual learning environment. Yet, at the same time, I would witness the resilience and resolve of families like the Shippys who found ways to maintain consistency and routines to keep their children on track. Their persistence inspired us to redouble our efforts to secure broadband access for every child and family. These are but two examples of immediate, impactful lessons I learned from the voices of these families. Sometimes, we get so focused on the work that we forget about the people.
Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned is posed in the form of a question by Mary Oliver. “Can one be passionate about the just, the ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit no labor to its cause?” The work we are embarking upon in seeking to fundamentally transform communities is difficult and requires passion and an uncanny resolve. I found myself pondering what my answer to this question would be, and Oliver’s answer, “I don’t think so,” is where I firmly stand. Many of us have found ourselves standing at the crossroad of indolence that Oliver speaks of. Admittedly, there were moments when this seemed like the easier choice in my ongoing pursuit for justice, equity and equality for our children.
There have been many roadblocks, obstructions, twists and turns in the road we have travelled over the last couple years, but Helen Keller reminded us that, “A bend in the road is not the end of the road…unless you fail to make the turn.” Have you found yourself at this very crossroad — between indolence or action? When in doubt, I challenge you to look to those who you serve (our children) to be reignited. This is your “why,” and holding firmly to your “why” is one of the best ways to provide nourishment when you are weary. It is how so many of the children we serve overcome the direst of circumstances. Committing to your “why” is what Mary Oliver speaks of, and this doesn’t happen in isolation.
StriveTogether has given our community and this country a clear roadmap to lead this work. It is called collective impact, and it will take all of us working together to give every child a chance to succeed. This is going to take some time, and we must stick with it. “All kindness begins with the sown seed,” and this is why I am looking forward to our time together in Chicago at our annual convening. It is appropriately titled, What Unites Us: Their Future, Our Work!
It may sound cliché, but we really are at a defining time in our nation’s history. Let’s not squander this moment. I am reminded of an old gospel hymn we sang growing up here in South Carolina by the late Rev. James Cleveland.
“I don’t feel no ways tired, I’ve come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me that the road would be easy. I don’t believe He brought me this far to leave me.”
Nobody told any of us that this road would be easy. Too many have worked for far too long for us to walk away or lose sight of our “why.”
Friends, now is the time: be ignited!
About the author
Dr. Russell Booker is executive director of Cradle to Career Network member Spartanburg Academic Movement in Spartanburg, South Carolina. With an unwavering conviction in the power of education, he believes our greatest hope for the future is to inspire and equip students for meaningful lives of leadership and service.