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Learning Love

By Gretchen Brion-Meisels on May 24, 2017 4:19 PM
The prepared remarks of student-selected faculty speaker Gretchen Brion-Meisels at Convocation 2017.

Good afternoon. It is an honor to be standing in front of you today, looking out at all of the wisdom that has made up our community this year. It’s hard to believe that just nine months ago I stood here with you — physically and metaphorically facing the other direction — as we marked the start of our journey. Back then, I did not know the depths of what I would learn from each of you, I knew only that our task would be to learn together. Today, I stand before you grateful for what you have brought to our community: for your commitment, for your passion, for your energy and brilliance, and for your continued belief in the power and possibility of education. 

At the start of the year, I spoke to you about the importance of holding onto your intentions, while remembering that intentions, alone, are not enough. I suggested that to create positive change in our field, we would have to push back against the currents of inequality and the ideologies of individualism that underlie so many educational institutions today. And I reminded you that if we endeavored to do this work in isolation, we would likely harm the very people who we sought to help.

This year, we have grappled with what it means to be in community with people whose values and ideas differ from our own, but whose life experiences and perspectives strengthen our understanding. We have endeavored to do the work that our colleague, Janine de Novais, calls, building brave community — with each other, with our families and friends at home, and with our students and their families. For some of us, this year has been an eye-opening opportunity to learn through disagreement; we have had to confront our own blindspots and use our voices in new, and nuanced, ways. For others, this year has been the next step in an ongoing movement for justice; we have looked toward those that came before us for the wisdom and courage to keep on.

For me, this year has been about our learning love. And, just as I started the year by sharing some of my hopes for our time together, I am going to end it by talking about my hope for us all, moving forward.

But first, I need to tell you a story.

***

It is the third year of my doctoral program, and I am in the midst of my first round of data collection. Hekima and I are sitting on a bench outside the front entrance of her middle school, the shadow of the building protecting us from the blazing sun above our heads. I have come to talk to her about “success,” but Hekima has a much deeper lesson to teach me. She turns to me:

If I want to be successful, I want other people to be successful [she says]. There is an African saying, which is called ubuntu: I am because you are. I can’t be successful unless you’re successful. If I see you hurting, I’m hurting. So I don’t want to [just] be successful. I don’t want to just leave here being positive and [having] a great outcome to my life. I want other people to have that, too. It’s not just thinking about myself, it’s thinking about other people, too. 

Pausing to take in the power of her words, I ask Hekima whether she has always thought about success this way and, if not, how she learned it. She replies:

I think that I learned it from watching because before, I would never really believe that. When I first heard about it I was like, “What? I don’t need to worry about nobody else. As long as I’m doing me, I don’t need to worry about nobody else.” But I see, I see that…it is true…the saying is true. Because you don’t want to go somewhere and see somebody hurting, because it makes you hurt — especially if they are people in your community…especially if they are people who you care about.

I nod, and we eventually move on to other subjects. It will be a while before I realize that Hekima is teaching me to shift my gaze away from success and learn, instead, about love

***               

In her brilliant book, Troublemakers: Lessons on Freedom from Small Children at School, my friend Carla Shalaby talks about the importance of love in schools. Love is not something that we typically talk about in the context of school — perhaps because of how it has been romanticized in popular culture, or perhaps because it is hard to measure with popular tools. But love is something about which human beings have been talking for centuries. The ancient Greeks spoke about agape, a type of love that was universal and unconditional — a love that transcended individuals and pushed them to serve each other, regardless of circumstances. The Zulu spoke of ubuntu, the concept about which Hekima taught me that day. Both Gandhi and King spoke often about the power of love to counter violence, to connect, to heal. In Troublemakers, Carla talks about being love — the act of embodying an appreciation for each other’s humanity so deep that it permeates our decisions about how we talk, act and move in the world. Being love, she writes is a “commitment to the belief that no human being deserves to suffer any threat or assault on her personhood.” She goes on to explain:

People misunderstand the meaning of love in public life. On the surface, it can seem easy to be love. We can be less mean, more forgiving. We can yell less and smile more. Public love is confused with things like affection, kindness, politeness.

I am talking, instead, about a love that is fierce, powerful, political, insistent. This kind of love is not easy. Authentic public love necessarily demands conflict, tears, and hurt, because our transition to freedom and to more human ways of being requires that we call ourselves out in order to call others in. It requires that we be willing to confront one another, and that we be willing to listen generously when we are being confronted — letting go of our personal feelings for a commitment, instead, to the shared goal of freedom. 

Being love, in the way that Carla describes it, requires a deep commitment to each other’s humanity. It requires us to lead with curiosity rather than assumptions. It asks us to pause, and listen, between breaths. It demands that we stand in solidarity with each other, even when the act of solidarity requires us to dismantle the foundations upon which we stand. Being love is personal, but it is also political. It is, as Dr. King once wrote, using our power to implement the demands of justice.

Being love is not easy because our world is set up to support individual success over collective wellbeing. It's not easy because every day we are asked to make choices about what we will buy, how we will eat, where we will live, and who we will honor, and our choices have an impact on the living beings with whom we share this planet. Being love requires that we redefine what it means to be successful; it requires us to sometimes choose the thing that is harder (or less flashy) because it is the thing that is more just. As Carla reminds us, being love requires that we invite (and sit with) feedback, because we know that having others honestly reflect the impact of our words and actions is a critical part of the struggle to learn love.

Many of you have helped me understand what it means to be love this year. In your interactions with me and other faculty members, with each other, and with the students, teachers, families, and participants with whom you have partnered, you have taken seriously the task of collective wellbeing. In your hard work; your critical, probing questions; your nuanced writing; and your passionate planning, you have demonstrated a deep commitment to the power of individual and collective learning. And in your careful decisions about when to step up, and when to step back, you have embodied an appreciation for the humanity of others.

Today, as we look out on our complicated world, I thank you for taking seriously the task of learning love; and I ask you to carry this learning with you, to be love, as you move out into the world beyond HGSE.

I want to be clear that in asking you to be love, I am asking you to be as demanding as you are forgiving. Being love is not being sugary sweet. It is being fierce in your commitment to stand in solidarity with others. Being love is not going easy on yourself. It is being rigorous in demanding your own best. Being love is not letting other people slide. It is leading with curiosity and requiring others to do the same. It is demanding that folks think more carefully about the ways in which their words and actions reflect their intentions. It is knowing that intentions alone, are not enough.

Love yourselves. 

Love the young folks for whom you work. 

Love the families and communities from which they come. 

In the moments when it feels hardest to love, love harder. 

We will be cheering you on from inside.