Dylann Roof Went to School

Dylann Roof, the young man who allegedly committed the June massacre in Charleston, was once a student in school. He discontinued after ninth grade, so he only attended for about ten years. But ten years is a long time in a child's life. How did - or didn't - that decade of schooling shape his moral development?

I don't know the answer to this question. But I know it is relevant to all kids - and to each of us. The moral compass of any child is somehow tuned by the formative years spent in school - and we all live in a country divided by race and class, often violently so.

Before the students return this fall, it is important that school communities find time to discuss questions of equity, bias, moral development and schooling. I've read some thoughtful reflections recently about why we must have these conversations. It's also important we reflect on how to have them.

In my own work with teachers and school administrators, I often use literature to help us engage in discussions about what it means to teach in a troubled country.

Nick

Last spring, at a seminar I give about moral leadership in schools, a group of administrators and I read a story about a boy named Nick. Nick is white and his father is a doctor. Nick is too young to know names for all he sees, but he has seen inequity, has heard racial slurs, and intuitively knows that he walks with men of power in a world where he too is powerful. Nick will be in first grade next fall. What is the school's role this child's development - as a learner, person, and citizen?

This story, "Indian Camp," by Ernest Hemingway, isn't a light read. There is a violent birth, screams of suffering, indifference to that suffering by Nick's father, gangrenous stench, and a suicide. When Nick enters our classrooms, what will he already have learned about race, power and the humanity of those who are different from him? What might he need to unlearn? How do we teach a child such things - and is this even our job?

These discussions need to be facilitated carefully, and they take time. But the time is worth it. In ways that datasets and traditional professional development texts often can't do, literature can open doors to explorations of identity and the core missions of our work. Discussions of student achievement data and pedagogy can, and will, follow. In fact, educators are better ready for the heavy lifting that the data compels after we've had discussions that connect us strongly to each other and to our vocation.

I give this seminar on moral leadership each year to educators about to become principals. The premise is that moral leadership doesn't want followers - it wants more moral leadership: in students, teachers, everyone. This year was the first time we'd discussed Nick. It was a group of mostly elementary educators, and so I wanted a small child in the room. Other years I've used texts that focus on young adults, the graduates of our schools. What kind of people and citizens are they, and how have we shaped them?

Meursault and Huck

It might seem a bizarre pairing, but we typically read from The Stranger, by Albert Camus, and then Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. The first story is told in the voice of one of Western literature's best-known voices of moral complacency, the second is told by one of our most well-known moral agents. I ask the seminar participants to imagine two different schools, one producing citizen-graduates like Camus' protagonist, the other citizens like Huck Finn. How would such schools be different?

The Stranger is set in colonial Algeria. The main character, Meursault, lacks empathy, or the ability to be influenced by it. He watches life's deeper meanings pass him by. A bystander, he passively allies himself with a brute, and ultimately becomes a murderer himself without an ounce of motive.

I ask the educators to imagine that we are going to design a school that will nurture a personality such as this. What would a school be like in which the students are allowed to be unreflective, where they develop little capacity for empathy, where kids easily stand by as harm befalls others, where they aren't taught to understand their world in moral or ethical terms?

Later we read from Huckleberry Finn and imagine a very different school. This school has graduates like Huck, people who have had profound learning experiences, who reflect deeply, ask hard questions, empathize across difference, and eventually find their moral compass and act. What would a school be like that intentionally produces graduates with such courage and capacity?

One year, quiet settled into the room as seminar participants said they needed no time to envision the school that does little to cultivate empathy and moral courage. They said they'd either attended such schools, or had worked in them.

Of course, schools are not the only influence in a child's moral development. And it's hard to know the extent of our influence on any particular child. Sometimes it's minor compared to outside forces. Still, it's important to believe that everything we do matters. Every lesson, rule, assembly, or poster - every word and every silence - has some kind of impact on the ever-listening, watchful child.

Sonny

In other settings, colleagues and I have read excerpts of "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin. The opening pages bring us to a classroom and thoughts about young people choosing to do heroin rather than homework. Maybe the drugs do more for them than algebra can, the narrator, a teacher, sadly wonders. I ask my colleagues, Do any young people we know also do these drugs? Who are they, and why do they do it? Who are we, and how can we help?

Big questions, and sometimes unsettling ones. Perhaps too big for a group of teachers to answer in a few hours or a day before the kids come back in the fall. But educators need to find ways to ask the big questions. Last summer was full of them - and this summer is starting out the same.

July of 2014 brought the chokehold death of Eric Garner, and then Michael Brown was killed in August. This summer begins with the massacre at the church in Charleston. The biggest question here is "Why?" and it must be asked over and over until our country effectively apprehends and addresses the root causes of our bigotry and violence. And if these big questions are not being asked in schools, educators are abdicating an important responsibility to consciously shape the character of future adult citizens for the betterment of our society.

The kids doing heroin are in our schools this fall. Nick is in our classrooms, too. And a young Meursault. So, too, somewhere, is a young Dlyann Roof. Whether it's literature or some other key that opens the door, it's important that school communities explicitly reflect on our readiness to offer these children, and all children, the opportunities for moral development and moral leadership that our nation needs.