Monday, June 30, 2014

Remembering Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner

They were young, all in their early twenties.  Two were from the North, one from the South.  Like so many people, mostly college students, of their time, they believed they could make a change, which is what brought them to Mississippi in 1964.  They were part of a nationwide civil rights movement to help register African Americans to vote and, in the process, to challenge Mississippi's racist laws and practices.

Working for racial justice in Mississippi was a dangerous activity back then, inviting threats, harassment, and violence from members of the Ku Klux Klan and others opposed to change.  Aware of the risks, the three volunteers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, pushed on anyway, encouraging Mississippi's African-American residents to register to vote and helping to set up local "Freedom Schools," which would educate African Americans about their rights.

For this they were killed.

Fifty years ago this month, Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner were shot by members of a faction of the Klan known for its violence and ruthlessness.  The killings took place at night along a dark Mississippi road; the victims' bodies were dumped in a nearby dam and not discovered until 44 days later.

The killings of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner helped focus national attention on racial violence and racial inequality, especially in the South.  Some point to their deaths as having played an important role in the passage of national civil rights legislation later that year.

Probably so.  But for me, the LIVES--not the deaths--of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner are what we should be remembering this summer.  All three believed in justice--in particular, in the need for everyone to work toward making a just world.  All believed in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words that injustice anywhere was a threat to justice everywhere.  And all were willing, at a young age, to act on their beliefs.

This isn't an invitation to young people (or anyone else) to follow blindly in Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner's footsteps.  The world continues to be an unfriendly, sometimes even hostile place for those intervening on behalf of others or trying to level the playing field.  As always, those lobbying for change have to be careful.

But being careful doesn't mean being indifferent.  Never has there been a greater need for people to try to make a difference in the world.  And often, some of the most meaningful changes are those supported by young people, whose idealism, energy, and tenacity prove too strong for the status quo to resist.

So whether you're starting NCC this fall or beginning your next semester here, you need to step back (now and then at least) from your own concerns and look at the big picture.  There's probably a cause or issue that's important to you and that deserves your time.  Learn about it and think about what you can do to become involved.  Plenty of young people from previous generations have made their voices heard, usually with positive results; now it's your turn.  Think of it as a "thank you" to Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner and others who came before you--and a "you're welcome" to those who'll benefit from your courage and convictions.

Monday, June 23, 2014

High School is History

Who out there is feeling funny about graduating from high school?

Who's sad about leaving behind friends, classmates, teammates, teachers, and a world that's been with you forever?

If saying goodbye to high school suddenly seems strange, you're not alone.  Moving on is tough.  It's especially so when you're replacing the old familiar terrain with a new and uncertain one.  Change can be scary.

But it can also be exciting.  And if you give college a chance, it will be one of the most interesting, inspiring, enlightening, and thought-provoking experiences of your life.  It will also be personally fulfilling and--ready for this?--even fun, in different ways than high school ever was.

More freedom, more choices, more say in your education, more chances to be yourself (or to figure out who you are): College promises all of these things.  It also promises more personal responsibility; get ready to start asking more questions and paying more attention to school than you've probably done previously.  But that's adulthood for you--lots of heavy lifting in the maturity department.

So as you say your farewells in the days and weeks ahead, it's okay to feel a little nostalgic about high school.  Its good times hopefully outnumbered the bad and its lessons--about education, people, and life--will hopefully stay with you.  But make no mistake: high school is over, finished, done, part of your past.  Time to look ahead to college, which will be here before you know it and which (if you let it) will enrich your life more than you can right now ever imagine. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Learning from the Spurs

You have to hand it to the San Antonio Spurs.  Not only did the Spurs win this year's National Basketball Association championship in convincing fashion, they did so by demonstrating the importance of selflessness, consistency, composure, and teamwork.

The Spurs won more than sixty games during the regular season, finishing with the best record in the NBA.  And they had little trouble in the playoffs, defeating even the talent-rich Miami Heat to claim their fifth championship in fifteen years.

Clearly, the Spurs have game.  They're a talented team, featuring several future Hall of Famers and a terrific coach. 

But they also have other habits that serve them well.  They play smart, thoughtful basketball.  They stress fundamentals.  They play as a team.  They keep their egos and emotions in check, even when things on the court are not going their way.  And they learn from setbacks, as they obviously did after losing to the Heat in last year's finals.  

These are behaviors that everyone--especially new college students--would be smart to learn early on.  College asks you to be serious about school and to come to class ready to "play" (note my quotes!).  It calls upon you to use your support (help centers and student services) when some timely help from others can make a difference.  It insists that you show up regularly--and keep up over the long haul--and that you stay calm and composed during  stressful situations.  College also encourages you to learn from mistakes, including those moments (in or out of the classroom) that are disappointing and that you wish you had back.

Going to college may not seem as exciting as playing in the NBA finals (no chance of your being interviewed by ESPN or making the cover of Sports Illustrated after acing a test), but the two activities are more alike than you might think.  Both require  intelligence, commitment, tenacity, patience, and initiative.  Both also encourage dependence on others, at least at times, along with the ability to control emotions and impulses. 

What's more, they share a commitment to delayed gratification (think of all those hours spent in the gym  and/or the library) en route to the big moment--championship games or graduation. 

Even if you stink at basketball (like I do), know that you're in good company when you work as hard as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and the rest of the Spurs. There's plenty to be said for dedication and discipline, no matter where they make their presence felt.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Talking About Race

Race.  It's the most sensitive subject in America, one many people think about but few are comfortable discussing.

Yet it's clearly a topic that demands attention--and not just from a handful of socially conscious "others."  Many believe that if America is to truly come to grips with this complex and often contentious issue, all of us will have to participate in these conversations, awkward as they might be.

So what better place for such a dialogue to take place than in the theatre, where playwrights are forever getting in audiences' faces about issues that make everyone squirm? 

Bruce Norris's "Clybourne Park," which opens next week at NCC, will make many squirm in their seats.  But it will also make them laugh, at times uproariously.  And with good reason: Norris's Pulitzer-prize winning play takes aim at racism and prejudice in ways that are at once thoughtful and hilarious. 

"Clybourne Park" is a sequel of sorts to Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 "Raisin in the Sun," which looks at an African-American family's struggles to make their way in an America steeped in prejudice.   Hansberry's play ends with the family preparing to move to a home in Clybourne Park, a white community that's resistant to the idea of having a black family in their midst.

Norris's play begins in the living room of the white couple planning to sell their home--unknowingly--to the African-American family of Hansberry's play.  Casual dialogue soon gives way to revelations and tensions, many involving attitudes toward race.  

The emotional intensity of the drama increases in the second act, set fifty years later in 2009.  Like the rest of America, Clybourne Park has changed, as have the identities of the residents of the house and the surrounding community.  But the characters--white and black alike--are as uncomfortable and uneasy about race as their predecessors.  In fact, they're in many ways less subtle about their prejudices, especially when their buttons have been pushed by others.  It's at these moments that the play's message becomes clear: For all of our efforts to get along, we're still incredibly ill at ease around people whose skin color differs from ours.   

You'll laugh a lot at the actions and words of the characters in "Clybourne Park."   Norris's humor is caustic, even raunchy at times.  But his play is deadly serious about its subject and will jolt you out of your comfort zone and (as good theatre often does) make you reflect on your own attitudes and behaviors. 

That's why you should make it your business to see this play, which will not only leave you with much to ponder but perhaps inspire you to take part in that long overdue conversation about race in America.  If it does, score a victory for EDUCATION, which at its best is a catalyst for change.

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"Clybourne Park" runs at NCC from June 19-22 and 25-29. For ticket information, call 572-7676.