“Exposing atrocity means articulating atrocity–being that voice of ugly truth, and that is not fun. Fighting injustice is so often mobilizing people to stop other people, rather than getting them to act on their own creative impulse.”
-Sabina Murray, Valiant Gentlemen, p. 289
Yesterday, one of my favorite students turned in an essay about concussions and high school athletics. It was heartfelt, honest, aware, kind. It showed her confusion, her pain, her determination to protect herself and her friends. At the end she wrote: “Azlan, I seem to keep writing about sad stuff, because that feels like it might make a difference. Any ideas on how I could find a happier topic?”
I looked at her paper.
I didn’t know what to say.
A few months ago, this student wrote a powerful letter to Senator Lankford about gun violence in American schools. Before that she wrote about income inequality. They weren’t fun papers. They hurt to read. And they mattered. I think this student, with her fire and her passion and her willingness to stop, learn, and raise her voice, is already making the world a better place. I also understand her question. I didn’t want to post this piece today, because I wanted to post something playful, something funny; something that would make both of us smile and believe. Instead, I’m writing about what hurts the people around me, and hurts me. There is so much that is wrong with the world, so much we need to know, to think about, to respond to. In my classes, I find the same struggle: I want to help students celebrate themselves and each other and the world, and I want them to see injustice, apathy, cruelty, and their results. So what do I do?
I think we need both. Without a little joy, with the muse of her “own creative impulse,” I’m not sure how long my student will be able to keep helping before grimness and despair sets in. When the Irish patriot Roger Casement, Murray’s “voice of ugly truth,” is cut off from his friend and his art, he ends up hopelessly transporting guns he doesn’t want to an uprising he knows will be slaughtered. If the thread of Casement’s love, kindness, and good humor had gotten a little less frayed, could his voice have led to something better?
I hope we can find a balance, not just by mixing the two together, but by taking turns with both. They’re different. They’re not always fun, and they don’t always go together–I think we have to be willing to put one on the shelf while we work with the other.
I watch my student smile. I hear her laugh. I see her learn, and hurt, and look for ways to help. She is entranced by the world, by its possibilities, and she is horrified by our cruelties. I want her to know that the world can be that beautiful place she sees. I want her to remember that, sometimes, it isn’t, and that it’s our duty to pay attention, to learn, and to help. I want her to build her hopes and tell good jokes. I want her to let herself be “the voice of ugly truth,” and I want her to let herself shine with her “own creative impulse.” Then I want to learn from her, so I can do both, too.