Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanks for lives past and present

crossposted from Daily Kos

I was, perhaps appropriately, listening to a recording of the Brahms Requiem when I saw the email: Greg Kannerstein had passed away. Let me quote two paragraphs from Haverford College President Steve Emerson's ('74) email:
A mentor, student, teacher, colleague, coach and friend to thousands, Greg recently stepped down from his role as our Dean of the College after a 41-year career marked by boundless enthusiasm for Haverford. He had begun work on his new appointment as a Special Advisor to Institutional Advancement and Lecturer in General Programs when emerging health issues forced him to take a medical leave last month. His illness was diagnosed only weeks ago.

My heart aches at the thought of losing Greg. I believe it is fair to say that every Haverfordian who has passed through the College since 1968 has been touched by Greg’s spirit. Whether in his role as coach, teacher, Athletic Director, Dean of Admissions, or Dean of the College, Greg was always there for Haverford, and for everyone in the greater Haverford family.

And that got me thinking about the thanks I want to offer -

Greg and I did not overlap as students at Haverford - he was class of '63 and my original class was '67. But when I returned in the Fall of '71 he was already back as a fixture on the campus he loved, and where he would spend the rest of his life. Greg was a friend for almost 4 decades. Two others I did not know as well also passed recently, Gerald Bracey and Ted Sizer. I knew both through their writings, Jerry much better through electronic exchanges over more than a decade and the occasional phone conversation, and Ted through one long conversation several years ago in Providence when we were both there for a conference on education.

Bracey could be acerbic. He was a brilliant man, and did not tolerate fools and idiots when it came to matters of educational policy. He could totally devastate the kind of sloppy thinking that has unfortunately so shaped our educational policy in recent years. His writings over the year pointed me in the direction of research I needed to absorb. Our last exchange is when he arranged for me to get a copy of his final book, Education Hell: Rhetoric versus Reality, which may be the best single book on education policy I have read in several years. I did not get around to writing an online review before Jerry passed, but I was so impressed I bought a number of copies to give to Members of the House interested in education with my strong recommendation that they read it. As part of my thanks for his life and work, I promise I will review that book here before the end of the year.

Ted Sizer was one of the most generous spirits I have ever encountered. He was a consummate educator, usually of other educators. His book Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School laid out clearly one of the real crises in American education. That and his subsequent work led to some of the most meaningful reforms in American education: The Coalition of Essential Schools, which is largely based on his insights and work, and the Forum for Education and Democracy, of which he was a Convener, are illustrative of his positive influence.

I am thankful for men such as Greg, Jerry and Ted, who cared deeply for others, for education, and who served as mentors and inspirations for so many.

Which makes me realize how thankful I am for something else - the students with which I am blessed each and every day. The inspiration I received from Jerry and Ted would have far less meaning were I not able to live it, to pass it on to others. The model of service to others that Greg lived similarly is something I feel honor-bound to pass on by attempting myself to live it. And I am blessed because each day I enter my classroom I am presented with a multitude of opportunities through the lives of the young people before me.

I am thankful that they are willing to trust, to allow themselves to be challenged, push, provoked, and that they trust me not to abandon them, to encourage them, to comfort them when they struggle. That requires me to go outside of myself, and certainly makes me more humane, or if you prefer, allows me to begin to realize my own humanity.

There will be many other things for which I will offer thanks, today, tomorrow and for the rest of the year.

Greg's death reminded me of the importance of thanking him for sharing his life with so many of us, and that I need to say the same of Jerry and Ted.

There is an ancient Buddhist saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So perhaps it was for me when I got to know Greg - who was very much a teacher, not only as a coach, but in the classes he also occasionally taught, having himself seriously studied literature at the graduate level. And certainly reading and later knowing Jerry and Ted helped shape my own teaching.

Realistically, one only teaches with the cooperation of the student. So for me, when the student appears and is willing to travel down the road of mutual exploration and learning, that is when the teaching begins. Without the students I am not a teacher.

Thanks for these lives, the three recently passed, and the 180 currently on my roles who represent present and future, and the several hundred still in our building who have previously shared the experience of learning with me.

I am truly blessed.


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