Friday, November 27, 2015

On Farming and Teaching

Both of my grandpas were farmers. They held other jobs in their lives, did other work with their hands, but in their hearts they were always farmers.
By the time I came along they were no longer working 40 acres with a mule and a plow, but they both had gardens, wonderful gardens. Maybe there was something about rising out of bed before the sun came up, or smelling the dirt in a freshly plowed ground, or seeing a red, ripe tomato hanging on a vine, but until the end of their lives they loved to pull on their overalls, put on their caps, pick up their hoes and plant themselves into those gardens among the vegetables, fruits and land.
“Being a farmer takes lots of hard work and lots of humility,” both of my grandpas told me at one time or another as I followed them down the rows. “It takes lots of hard work because each morning from spring ‘til fall you rise before the sun, walk the rows with seeds, hoes, and buckets in your hands, plant those seeds, hoe the weeds, and fill the buckets with tomatoes and squash and green beans and strawberries. You plant, hoe and pick until the sweat from your body mixes with the dirt and you become a part of the garden itself.”
They were farmer poets, my grandpas were, some of the last of those wonderful farmer poets who walked the farms and fields of the South.
“And it takes lots of humility because no matter how hard you work, you can’t make the brilliant green bud pop through the deep brown dirt; you can’t make the bright flower fold into a baby tomato; you can’t make the rain fall to help the corn grow.
Nope, when you close your eyes to the day, you can only know that you have given as much of your heart, mind, soul and body as you can to the ground, and that you have received the produce as a gift.”
As I rise before the sun and make my way toward my elementary school I often think of their lives and their words. Like being a farmer, being a teacher takes lots of hard work and lots of humility, too.
I remember how hard I worked with a 10-year-old kid named James. He was in the fourth grade but could read only 20 words correctly per minute on a second-grade level. He was growing up in a desperately poor household. As Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund reminds us, his economic poverty made him less healthy and less likely to graduate from high school than his non-poor peers. He had a tough row to hoe.
He could neither read well nor write a complete sentence. He could, however, tell a story. He was a natural-born storyteller. He often met me at my classroom door with twinkling eyes and a beaming smile. “Mr. Barton,” he would say, “let me tell you what happened to me yesterday.” He would tell those stories with wonderful expressions, exciting verbs and colorful adjectives. “You should have seen me in my football game! I nuked a player this way... I jostled a player that way... and I left the rest of the team behind like I was a lightning bolt!”
At the end of the school year, after I had poured all of my knowledge and teaching abilities into him to help him become the best reader and writer he could become, he wrote this poem:
Anger is red and black,
It smells like gunpowder,
It tastes like bullets,
It sounds like a shot,
It feels like a sharp knife,
It lives in fear

I took his poem back to my classroom. I closed the door and sat facing the window that looked out over the grounds that provide so much order and safety in a world full of chaos and danger for the children we teach. I wept for the hardness of our work as teachers, I wept for the hardness of our students’ lives, I wept for the beauty of watching a child learn to read and write, I wept for the beauty in James’ heart.
But just as I remember the hardness of my work as a teacher, I remember the humility I felt because of a 10-year-old kid named Alexia. Like so many of my students, she speaks Spanish at home and English at school. She is a beautiful, wonderful, ingenious immigrant child.
She knows that I am trying to become a genius about whales this year. My whole school knows I am studying them and writing about them. I am even nerdily wearing Vineyard Vines shirts to school each day because they have whales on them. Because she knows this, she drew and colored a picture of a blue whale for me. It is breathtakingly beautiful. I am framing it so I can keep it and show it forever.
I was sitting at her table, working with her group, and she told me, “Mr. Barton, you said one day that you can’t hear as well as you used to hear. Well, if you ever lose your hearing, then I can sign for you.” I said, “Really? Do you have someone who is deaf in your family?” She answered, “No, but I wanted to learn so I taught myself on YouTube.” Then she signed for me.
And I smile for the humility of our work as teachers, I smile for the gifts our students bring to us, I smile for the whale Alexia created for me, I smile for my grandpas, for they were right – when I close my eyes to the day, I can only know that I have given as much of my heart, mind, soul and body as I can to the ground, and that I have received the produce as a gift.
Precious gifts.
- See more at:

Maria and the Shape of God's Heart

Father Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries in East Los Angeles, Calif. He lives and works in his economically poor and gang-riddled community building kinship and making connections with the people around him.
He affectionately calls his parishioners “homies” and they affectionately call him “G-Dog.” I highly recommend his book, “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion,” if you, too, are interested in building kinship in the world.
In the book, Father Greg tells the story of taking two homies to the White House as a part of then-First Lady Laura Bush’s Helping America’s Youth campaign. On the flight home, one of the homies talks to a flight attendant and tells her about what his life had been to this point, about going to the White House, and about what his life was becoming.
His story made the flight attendant cry, he tells Father Greg in surprise. Father Greg says to him, “Well, mijo, whaddya ‘spect? She just caught a glimpse of ya. She saw that you are somebody. She recognized you as the shape of God’s heart. Sometimes people cry when they see that.”
As an elementary school teacher and a writer, I often recognize my students as the shape of God’s heart, and write about them through tears of wonder.
One of those students is Maria. She is seven years old and in the second grade. Her parents fled the aftereffects of a brutal civil war in El Salvador and found a new life on the farms and in the fields of South Carolina. She is like those farms and fields, with dark skin the color of the ground and a garden of a heart that produces love and joy. I have seen her hold the hand of a frightened kindergartner in the lunch line during early morning breakfast time and offer her shoulder to a crying friend who scraped her knee on the blacktop during recess. She is a beautiful child.
I can see her smile from all the way down at the end of the hall from the front office. Sometimes, I can hear her steps from there, too, because on special days she wears tiny high-heeled shoes with her flowery dresses and I can hear the click, click, click as she makes her way toward me over the tiled floor. This always makes me stop and smile.
One day I realized I forgot to send my money through the mail to the water company to pay my bill. I stopped by the office to make my payment in person after school. Apparently three-fourths of the residents of Greenville County forgot to send in their payments, too, because the place was full of people, standing in the doorway, meandering their way to the payment counter, people everywhere.
In the middle of all of that humanity I heard a click, click, click. I looked around and there, coming around a desk, was Maria. She was pushing a stroller with a tiny baby inside of it. I could barely see her over the handles of the stroller. She was leading her mother, who was holding a toddler in her arms.
She saw me. Her face lit up with her Maria smile. She let go of the stroller for just a moment, wrapped her arms around me and said, “Oh, Mr. Barton! Buenos tardes! I am always so glad to see you!”
She took hold of the stroller again and I lost her among the faces of the people around me. But I heard her sincere, serious voice rise above the noise.
“Excuse me,” she said, “But could you help us pay our bill?” And there was Maria, seven years old, translating for her mother, helping her family, sharing her life with our world.
Oscar Romero, former archbishop of El Salvador who was martyred by the bullet of a right-wing assassin in 1980, once entreated us in a sermon to try to organize life according to the heart of God. My little Maria does this every day, as do so many of my immigrant neighbors in my school, community, state and country.
Just as Maria’s family was a refugee from a war-torn land, many other refugees are trying to find a new life and a deeper hope in a place that will welcome them with an open heart and a helping hand. I hope you see their faces, listen to their stories and see them as the shape of God’s heart when you hear the words “refugee” and “immigrant” in the coming days. I hope you see Maria.
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Friday, August 7, 2015

Climb Aboard the Bus

Every morning at 7:15 a.m., the doors of our school open wide to a line of bus riders ready to come inside. “Hello, Jaheem,” I say with a smile. “Hey, Imani. I hope you’re having a good day. I’m glad you’re here.”
I love our students – the sparkle in their early morning eyes, the beauty in the varied colors of their skin, the hope in the fact that they come to school each day. They walk past me to the cafeteria for breakfast. I stand at the doors for a moment and watch the big, yellow buses puff their diesel exhaust and chug their way to the garage until it’s time for their afternoon run.
Is there a more universal symbol for public schools than a big, yellow school bus?
There was a time in the 1940’s when school buses were not so universal. In fact, the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit began with a school bus in South Carolina. I was getting my master’s degree before I took a civil rights course and learned of Levi Pearson and his determination to get his children and all the other African-American students seats on school buses. The first chapter of Richard Kluger’s monumental book “Simple Justice,” which is about the Brown decision, outlines the steps of the Pearson case.
In 1947, about 74 percent of Clarendon County’s 8,906 public school students were black. There were 30 school buses in the county. All of them were used for white students. When the African-American community asked the superintendent to provide bus transportation for their children, he explained that black citizens didn’t pay much in taxes and it wasn’t fair for white citizens to pay for buses for black children.
So on July 28, 1947, Levi Pearson, a farmer, legally petitioned the superintendent, asking for school buses for African-American children. His three children had to walk to school each day while their white counterparts in school buses passed them by in clouds of dust. The petition was met with months of silence.
On March 16, 1948, attorneys Harold Boulware and Thurgood Marshall filed a brief in U.S. District Court in Florence County, asking the court to prohibit the Clarendon County School District from “making a distinction on account of race and color.” Pearson v. County Board of Education would eventually evolve into Briggs v. Elliott and then into Brown v. Board of Education.
Not only did Mr. Pearson get buses for all of the children in Clarendon County, but also the United States got a little closer to living out it’s most endearing creed: “With liberty and justice for all.”
In 2004, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor after U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-SC) and then-Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-SC) introduced legislation to award the highest congressional honor to the Clarendon County heroes who fought for desegregation. Pearson’s family set up a scholarship fund in his honor to continue to help educate young people in Clarendon County.
To learn more about him and all of those involved in the struggle for civil and human rights in Clarendon County, you can read “Dawn of Desegregation: J.A. De Laine and Briggs v. Elliott” by Ophelia De Laine Gona, and “Uncommon Courage: The Story of Briggs v. Elliott, South Carolina’s Unsung Civil Rights Battle” by James Clyburn and Jennifer Revels.
Around 80 years before Levi Pearson’s petition, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified by Congress. Placed in the Constitution to protect former slaves after the Civil War, this amendment continues to remind us that the Constitution is a living document that helps us build a freer, more human world for all people, ALL people – no matter their skin color (see Brown v. Board of Education, May 17, 1954 ), no matter their sexual orientation (see Obergefell v. Hodges, June 26, 2015 ), no matter anything constructed by the prejudices of people and history – and helps us extend the equal protection of the law to everyone.
I offer humble thanks to Levi Pearson and to all the courageous and committed people who work hard to build a world where all people have a seat on the bus of liberty. I offer humble thanks for the 14th Amendment that makes justice possible. I climb aboard that bus with them.

Thursday, July 9, 2015


Abraham Lincoln, in a speech he delivered in Baltimore, Maryland in April 1864, said, "The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty...the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name - liberty. 

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as a destruction of all liberty."

I have been thinking about Lincoln's words over the past days as the Supreme Court made it's decision to guarantee equal civil and human rights to gay and lesbian people and as the South Carolina legislature agreed to write and pass a law to take down the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia. Some people hail the Supreme Court's decision as an advance of liberty, while others bewail it as the destruction of all liberty. Some people hail the South Carolina legislature's decision as an advance of liberty, while others bewail it as a destruction of all liberty. Indeed, like the issue of slavery in Lincoln's day, the sides of the gay marriage issue and the sides of the Confederate flag issue are incompatible. One cannot be for equal protection of LGBTQ people under the law and against it. One cannot be for the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds and against it. When we talk about these issues - equal protection under the law, religious freedom, racism, heritage, liberty - we do not all mean the same thing.

Which leads me to clarify my own thinking and language regarding these issues. 

I agree with the majority in the Supreme Court's decision in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision and am heartened by it. I agree with Justice Kennedy's words, "No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right." In this issue, liberty to me means all people, all people, deserve equal protection under the 14 Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. I am thankful this liberty is extended to my LGBTQ friends and neighbors.

I also agree with the majority of lawmakers in the South Carolina legislature in the decision to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds. I agree with Governor Haley's words, "It is a new day in South Carolina, a day we can all be proud of, a day that truly brings us all together as we continue to heal, as one people and one state." In this issue, liberty to me means confessing that the symbols of our Southern past represent white supremacy and oppression, it means removing these symbols from prominent places so they will no longer insult and injure the people they intended to oppress and harm. I am thankful this liberty is extended to my African American friends and neighbors.

I know there are many people on the other side of these incompatible issues from me. As I eagerly await Harper Lee's new novel, "Go Set A Watchman," I can only say what Atticus said in "To Kill A Mockingbird" - They're certainly entitled to think that...but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.

My conscience leads me to think about and talk about liberty in these ways. This is the way I can live with myself and with my neighbors around me.