Education After Charleston

Dr. Christopher M. Leighton

One of my most important teachers was a fellow student. He helped to convince me that a genuine education begins when we step outside the familiar and learn how to read and interpret the world through the eyes of the others.

In the wake of the massacre in Charleston and the spate of murderous assaults in cities around the country, I have been thinking a great deal about my senior year at a small Episcopal prep school and my African-American roommate. His name was Earl George, and he was surprised to discover that the streets of Harlem might veer to the hills of western Connecticut and land him in an isolated boarding school. He was smart, handsome, and athletic, exactly the kind of the student that the school was eager to attract. Yet this scene did not line up with the glossy images of most New England prep schools. No plush accommodations and state-of-the art resources were on offer. No gymnasium. No auditorium. Cinder block classrooms and stripped down dormitories. The school was bare bones. Its priority was to direct its funds into a scholarship fund that provided educational opportunities for talents kids who did not have access to a rigorous academic program. To instill a sense of communal responsibility and to keep expenses down, the students were responsible for the maintenance of the grounds. They cleaned the dishes and the toilets, raked the leaves and shoveled the snow, swept the floors and even harvested the potatoes that were dished up almost every night. Here was education that was wrapped in a monastic life-style. A demanding simplicity unplugged us from the larger world, while simultaneously making us acutely aware of the interdependency of our own community.

So this was the academic enclosure in which Earl and I discovered one another, and we made an odd combination. I had grown up on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, having attended a private school with absolutely no ethnic or religious diversity. Earl’s world did not extend far beyond the confines of Harlem. The distance between his experience and mine was vast, disorienting, and not easily bridged. We came to know one another gradually and cautiously, thanks in large measure to our placement in the same section of American History. This course of study increasingly prompted spirited conversations and opened the door to a vulnerability that took us both by surprise.

The march through the Revolution generated mild agitation, but Earl was apoplectic by the time we “concluded” the section on the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era. He insisted that we still remained in the shadow of this legacy, and he was outraged that our history books had rendered him invisible. We learned of great men and great battles, and there was not a black face to be found. The song of American freedom that echoed in the pages of our anthology rang hollow and false. The rude truth that Earl refused to let me sidestep was this: My experience and education was leading me to regard significant sectors of our population as people who do not count, people to whom nothing is due, people that when you come right down to it don’t really matter.

He claimed that my schooling was a narcissistic exercise that revolved around an assortment of interlocking myths, most especially stories of the individual who overcomes all manner of obstacles through self-mastery and natural talent. We do not simply invent or create ourselves, he insisted. We are saddled with a past that is loaded with blessings and curses. We do not carry the same load, and we do not inherit the same possibilities for the future.

I did not like the picture that Earl painted. He pushed me to reckon with the advantages that came from my unacknowledged white privilege. He argued that I took for granted benefits that were obtained by way of subtle or savage exploitation. I tried to shove back by arguing that he was embracing a narrative that offered him a privileged moral status. My people were perpetrators of a massive crime, while his were cast in the role of “victims.” Would this story absolve his community of responsibility for the creation of a new and better reality? He pointed to the papers and the urban rioting. It was 1968. Did I see not a relationship between the anger in the streets and the demands of justice?

Earl was routinely amazed by my failures to get over myself, my inability to hold hallowed assumptions in check and to loosen my grip on the comforts and certainties bequeathed to me. The remarkable thing is that Earl did not give up on me, and he even believed that I might some day come to my senses and surprise him.

It took me some time before I realized that Earl had been one of my best and most important teachers. He helped to convince me that a genuine education begins when we step outside the temple of the familiar and learn how to read and interpret the world through the eyes of the people with whom we disagree or with whom we are radically different. The challenge is to put ourselves in situations that open the door to this kind of disruption and forge friendships with people who care enough to knock us off balance on a regular basis.

If I pause and listen, I can hear Earl reframing my personal musings and placing them within a broader context. “What measures will you and the ICJS take to educate a city and a country that is resolutely blind to its own injustice? What learning will counteract the toxic brew of cynicism and lethargy that is routinely swallowed by a significant segment of public, irrespective of religion, race, and class?”