Notes from the Memorial for Maxine, October 6, 2014


Teachers College, Columbia University

Cowin Auditorium

October 6, 2014, 4 PM


How wonderful to be conjuring once more our dazzling and matchless Maxine, our dear, sweet friend, our teacher—the finest any of us could hope for—who always found new and surprising ways to nourish each of us and simultaneously to challenge us with a simple word or a single gesture. She was our inspiration; she is our treasure still.

Maxine would have loved this—all of us gathered together at Teachers College in a kind of intentional if transient community, and she would have loved—particularly—that she had, as she might have put it, “just a little to do” with our being here.

But she would have been slightly embarrassed as well, and a bit ambivalent—“unwarranted praise” she might call it, and she would certainly resist any attempt to suspend her in amber—even now—or to pin her to a board like a butterfly. She wanted no pedestal. I’ve been in situations with her more than once—when she was younger, yes, but accelerating with age—where the admiration became too thick for her, and the accolades too sticky, and she would turn to me and whisper urgently, “Get me out of here!” She was allergic to sainthood.

“I am what I am not yet” she reminded us again and again. She saw herself—and each of us—as an unruly spark of meaning-making energy embarked on a voyage of discovery and surprise, thrust into a going world without guarantees, destined to have her blooming in the noise of the whirlwind. I’m more than my statistical profile, she said, and I won’t be summed up, once and for all. True even now.

There was a disarming modesty in her. “I’m a person stumbling around with questions,” she said of herself, “questions that continually arise…questions leading to partial answers and then opening to more questions.”

Coming from the stage where she’d just presented on a panel with Paulo Freire many years ago—a talk in which she’d brought down the house and left everyone breathless—she asked, “Did I do alright? Do you think they liked it?” We thought she must be kidding, and while this was characteristically self-mocking, she wasn’t kidding.

Because it was more than modesty—she carried her outsider experience and history with her as well: being a woman in a tightly policed world of men; growing up in the early last century a Jew, and then a red. She knew walls and barriers; she knew something, as well, of storming the barricades.

She began her introductory class by telling students that we would be “doing philosophy together”—an odd and attention-grabbing provocation. She explained that philosophy was once considered “the queen of the sciences,” but had become, at best, a queen with a tarnished crown, badly askew. That was OK, she said, because it wasn’t royalty we wanted, but awareness. We would not now bow before the canon; but, working with all the available light we could summon—ideas and texts and the arts, the events of the world as well as our own daily encounters—we would struggle to become more aware of ourselves in the world, our inter-subjective predicaments and our partial and incomplete understandings.

Her teaching had an improvisational feel to it—fresh and vital and intimate even as it was rooted firmly in a coherent ground of core beliefs—in part because she harvested it from her own lived experience.

One bitter, snowy evening we’d been talking about homelessness and how the unacceptable was being transformed into the expected right before our eyes, and also about detachment and imposed or willful blindness: the opposite of moral, she argued, was not immoral, but indifferent. She’d gone home that night and noticed a man she’d seen many times before wrapped in a blanket on a bench across from her apartment. She felt compelled to speak to him, to engage him, and she crossed over and invited him upstairs for a bowl of soup. He recoiled from her angrily and snapped: “What do you want from me lady? I’m not going with you.” “I was so relieved,” she told us, and that cracked us up, but it was so emblematic: insisting on being real, flawed and imperfect, a work-in-progress.

That was Maxine in full: bringing her values to life day by day, but always illuminating her own ambivalences and conflicts. Her dialectical mind dazzled us because it worked so unabashedly in contradiction and it worked out loud and in public. She said in class once, speaking then of the power of punk rock, that she thought it was critical, of course, that we construct our taste and values for ourselves, our own aesthetic awareness, that we choose, for example, the musical encounters that move and enlighten us—but that she hoped secretly we would all choose Bach.

Those who cherry-pick from the vast expanse of her project—embracing the aesthetic and discarding the political, for example, or reducing her critique to a useful formula in this or that reform battle, or, again, grasping the radical politics but rejecting the powerful ways that an engagement with the arts opened for her angles never before seen and urged voyages not yet taken—will miss the heart of the matter.

The great theme of her life was the dialectic of freedom. There could be no freedom where the forces pressing down upon us—forces of oppression and exploitation, racism and discrimination, pestilence and plague—were seen as natural or given; it’s when we look at the world as if it could be otherwise, when we reach for possibility— engaging both imagination and critique—that we might open a space for the pursuit of freedom.

Awareness and wide-awakeness; paying attention—this was where it started for her, and it was accompanied by a sense of wonder—taking nothing for granted, continually astonished at the beauty, yes, and the ecstasy we might find around us every day, and also the suffering and the unnecessary pain human beings visit upon one another. Always a sense of incompleteness, and then, of course, the obligation to act—imperfectly to be sure—on whatever the known demands. And on and on forever: Open your eyes! Be astonished! Act! Doubt! Repeat for a lifetime.

She urged us to defend the weak, to defy oppressive or even imperfect authority, to criticize orthodoxy and dogma, stereotype and received wisdom of every kind. She invited us to say goodbye to schooling as an arid, dry, self-referencing and self-satisfied affair, to teaching as a mechanical trivial pursuit of the obvious, to deference, didacticism, ego and complacency in a heartless world, to prisons and border guards and walls—whether in our own minds or in the lives of our students, whether in Texas or in Palestine —and to quarantines, deletions, and closures. Goodbye to all that. She welcomed the unknown, the marvelous, the poetics of resistance, history, and agency.

Last June, on the day of the family funeral for Maxine we attended an informal student gathering and memorial here at TC, and heard a kaleidoscope of heart-felt remembrances. A theme circled in and out of the conversation as person after person expressed a common feeling: Maxine was one of my best friends. It was unrehearsed and genuine, spontaneous and intimate, and it’s a feeling echoing around the room today: Maxine and I were definitely best friends. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of us share that bond, and there’s one more message here, a lesson in the enormous power—can I say a kind of secular sacredness—to be found in being fully present, entirely at hand with another human being. That was another gift.

Maxine Greene—Presente!


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