24 Love Letters to Maxine Greene
(In no particular order)
Followed by 7 Questions
I’m wandering along an open road tonight, wobbly and a bit unhinged, wondering where I’ll be by morning, writing you now under a sea of stars. You’re on my mind 24/7—I love you, you know—and here’s a simple sampling of letters from the day, one every hour, followed by a week’s worth of questions:
1) Your eyes, yes, why not? Laughing eyes, and worried too. Wonderful eyes, burning day and night, aware, alert eyes.
2) A sense rumbling beneath every conversation: you’re just waking up, at this very moment—this morning’s news! That cab-driver’s comment! The piece on the war in the New Yorker! Rachel Madow! The show at the Public! Bill T. Jones! Rashid Khalidi on Charlie Rose! Brecht!—and you’re breaking loose. You’re speaking to me (I know it’s a narcissistic illusion, but I allow myself, why not?) as if I’m just waking up too, and in our first waking moments I must pay urgent attention, gather whatever courage I can, and prepare to break loose as well.
3) You offer me a bowl of soup and a bed for the night—me, the natural narcissism again, why not?—but you offer a bite and a bed for the night to many others, including the homeless man on 5th Avenue one night in a snow storm (my hopeful invitation in perspective!) and his aggressive rejection: What do you want from me lady?
4) Your crazy question after that lecture: Was it OK? It was, yes, it was surely OK. It was only words after all—let’s not make more of it than it was—conceived and constructed and spoken by you for perhaps an hour, a bit more, in a crowded room, a stuffy place at the start. And yet people who heard you were gasping throughout, some weeping, some laughing and reaching out to touch another’s hand. The air sizzled and crackled, until, as you would have it, fresh and startling winds began to blow through the room. No one left quite the same, not even you. It was OK—why not?
5) Your one persistent rule, which is to reach, and your dazzling embodiment of the practice of it, the effort of it, trying again and again to speak beyond barriers and without bounds, to stretch, to reach.
6) Those exaggerations, those excesses—all the little efforts and grand gestures, and why not, designed to clear the air of hum-drum, ho-hum, and all the tedious repetition and buzz.
7) The admonition to create—right here and right now, in this community or in this school or on this corner—a place to do philosophy, and a bit of the possible world we might want to inhabit.
8) Your inner rhythm: Wake up! Be astonished! Act! Doubt! (REPEAT!)
9) Storming all those habitual barricades, the impositions and constraints, especially your own.
10) Reminding us again what it means to be alive and in dialogue with others, unfinished and situated, in-motion and struggling to expand the public square as a place of balance and decency, human dignity and possibility.
11) Your sense that we are all necessarily blind to our own blind spots, anesthetized, sleepy, and in need of occasional jolts and shocks into new awarenesses.
12) Your contradictions and conflicts, your reversals, dialectcs.
13) Another world—not necessarily a better world, possibly much worse, but another world nonetheless—is inevitable: Imagine a possible world you’d like to live in. Why not?
14) All the echoes: Arendt and Camus and DuBois, for example, Addams and King and Horton, Ginsberg, Shelly, Hughes and Brooks. Orwell. Morrison. Saramago. DeLillo. Woolf. That wild unruly company you keep.
15) Your invitations—to try once to construct a classroom on a base of fearless and relentless inquiry, for example, every established and received bit of wisdom, common sense, and dogma open for examination, interrogation, and rethinking.
16) Your impatience with gurus of every stripe, and with anyone who would pin you, like a beautiful butterfly, to that particular board.
17) Your invitations—to change the world, for example, or to change the people who will change the world.
18) Embracing the rebels again and again, and glimpsing the ghost of Dewey behind the barricades.
19) Imagining a classroom where all the messages, implicit and explicit, are built on the idea that we are swirling through history, alive and acute, that nothing is guaranteed, and that we are each a work-in-progress and an artist-in-residence, swimming shakily toward an uncertain shore.
20) That elaborate and painful-looking tattoo you inspired on the inside of my student’s small wrist: I am…not yet.
21) Your endless invitations—to act out the possibility that school, for example, far from being a preparation for life, is indeed life itself,.
22) Your open meditation concerning the fear of imagination, the fear of choice and free will, that characterizes the people who are drunk on power, or to the men of facts without ethics, or to those cynics who can tell you the price of everything but the value of nothing. Your Dickensian dystopic description of the degradation that marks the classroom as slave galley where the teacher’s central task is to beat the drum mindlessly: “When thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill the robber Fancy lurking within—or sometimes only maim him and distort him!”
23) Your self-designated task to follow the town crier through all the quiet streets as he puts the people to sleep with his constant, “All’s well” and to contradict that soothing lie: All is certainly not well, you say, lighting altogether different lamps for the night.
24) Your invitations—to dive into the wreckage, for example.
What does it mean to be human in the 21st century?
How can teachers who feel shackled, bound and gagged, develop a pedagogy of alert engagement with and activism for humanity—something that tries to tell the truth, tries to stand against violence and war and exploitation and oppression, tries to act in fairness and balance and peace, and tries to enact the power of love that does justice?
How can we look at the world of children—the sufferings, the accomplishments, the perspectives, the concerns—and develop an awareness, sometimes joyous but just as often painful, of all that we find; how do we account for every person, each entangled and propelled, and sometimes made mute, by large social forces, each with a wild and vast inner life—a spirit, a mind, a future?
How can we forge ourselves into artisans of a new humanity?
What are our wildest dreams?
What are you planning to do now?
What should I do with the rest of my life?