The chances of lightning striking twice are infinitesimal, at best. But what are the odds, in middle age, of being struck with a jarring bolt of figurative lightning, then a few months later being an eyewitness as the same sizzle in the sky jolts a group of students — those decision-makers of tomorrow? There’s a slightly higher probability, perhaps, but I figure the chances are still fairly low — which is why it surprised me when it happened.
The first strike — the one that zapped me — took place in the summer of 2013 at an annual seminar sponsored by Diversity Directions, an organization that addresses issues of diversity and inclusion in independent schools throughout the country. In six days in the gorgeous setting of a classic Massachusetts boarding school, I learned a lifetime’s worth of lessons about multiculturalism and diversity in our schools — so much of it upending my beliefs. As a privileged white male, I was so moved by week’s end I felt the need to reassess my personal and professional priorities. With a clearer and more critical lens, I had the opportunity to take a fresh look at the environment at my school and even in my broader community. Without exaggeration, it was a life-changing experience.
But while I’ve tried to put that focus to good use professionally and even, to some extent, in other parts of my day-to-day life, I’ve learned there’s always room to grow.
Enter a five-day community service trip in 2014 of 23 ninth-graders from The Field School (Washington, DC), for whom I was one of three chaperones. As with the Diversity Directions seminar, I was anxious about signing up for the trip — fearful of the unknown, skittish again about learning my own limits for understanding and compassion, and worried about my physical comfort. But at the urging of several colleagues, I plunged in. For nearly a week, two other teachers and I bunked and boarded with nearly two dozen 14- and 15-year-olds in the basement of the Church of the Pilgrims near Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. During the daytime, among other things, we helped out at soup kitchens, visited health clinics that serve the homeless, separated and stacked rice and beans and meat at food banks, and cleaned up the homes of elderly people who couldn’t do the work themselves. In the evenings, we would debrief about our experiences, discussing how the day’s events affected our thoughts or altered preconceptions. We also performed simulations, like the one in which we pretended what it would be like to live on a very modest income.
Midway through the service trip, after waking up very early in the church basement on a quiet and bone-chilling Saturday, I donned my sweats and went for a run from our humble quarters between Georgetown and Dupont Circle, over to Pennsylvania Avenue and past the White House, down to the National Mall, and finally up Capitol Hill and deep into the neighborhood to which the hill lends its name. On such a journey, one’s vista transitions from a mix of comfortable residential townhouses to mostly commercial and government buildings, down to the Smithsonian museum area, then to a smattering of upper-, mostly middle-, and even some lower-class housing immediately east of the U.S. Capitol.
But there is one constant: the homeless are everywhere. They are in the large squares within a short walk from the White House and beyond; they are camped out at the entrances to the Metro subway stations; they are in the pocket parks formed by the intersections of the city’s angled avenues and grid-based streets. Not infrequently in the dead of winter, there are a slew of these often-desperate people, huddled together in the cold.
We tend to train ourselves — and by example our children — not to see the homeless.
I am certainly no different. Even though I have intermittently run the route to the Capitol for decades, I’ve rarely if ever taken the time to look at the people — mainly men — who inhabit many of those parks and nooks along the way. I’ve worked in and around the area at various points in my life, the first time as a high school sophomore volunteering for a fledgling presidential campaign whose headquarters were just four blocks east and three blocks north of the Capitol. The office was across from a large park. At that time, the deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals was just beginning to lead to rampant homelessness. People, no doubt, lived in that park. But I didn’t see them. Forgivable, maybe, for a naive 16-year-old. Yet that same invisibility was true for me some three-plus decades later when I worked for a couple of years as a journalist — an occupation in which you’re expected to be observant! — in NoMa (north of Massachusetts Avenue), a quickly gentrifying mixed commercial and residential neighborhood several blocks north of Union Station.
A few hours after my early morning run, the kids handed out sandwiches and socks to the homeless, retracing much of the running route I had taken in order to scope out the territory to find potential takers. Yet we could have gone in virtually any direction from downtown and, within an hour, found more than enough demand for the 60 bags we had prepared.
The students understand diversity in theory. We talk about it a great deal. They are accepting, much more immediately and genuinely than the generations that preceded them. Even so, there is a great difference between the diversity one experiences at a school where privilege dominates and the diversity one finds on our urban streets. Discussing diversity while sitting in a warm, technologically equipped classroom is light years from spending a few cold days in February on the city streets. While the students were not exactly walking in the shoes of the less fortunate, at least they were looking them in the eye, greeting them, feeding them, finding the correct size of winter coat or pants for them among the donated clothes in the church, maybe talking with them a few minutes to hear their stories.
Discussing diversity while sitting in a warm, technologically equipped classroom is light years from spending a few cold days in February on the city streets.
Admittedly, it can be an unsettling experience. One man lying under several layers of raggedy blankets in the park across from George Washington University Hospital demanded a second bag of sandwiches and socks from a female student. She gently rebuffed him, explaining that they wanted to feed as many people as possible, but he was insistent if not downright rude and bullying. He was mean, she told me. But she remained among the most enthusiastic and engaged of her cohort.
In addition to the profound socioeconomic lessons the students learn about why someone becomes homeless — and each story is unique and captivating — the students also see that the face of homelessness, at least in their city, is predominantly black or Latino. Passive and institutional racism often play a part in the stories. In a very real way, the community service trip reinforces that, depending on your background, opportunity itself, let alone success, can be difficult to find.
After the trip, most of the students would return to their tree-lined neighborhoods and discover that the keys would still turn the doors to their comfortable, well-heated single-family houses. Toward the end of their immersion in the world of the homeless, they tended to understand their privilege in a more profound sense.
For President Lincoln, whose birthday we marked shortly after our community service trip, lightning struck, in the form of inspiration and via his pen, not once but twice. Lincoln is of course venerated for the Gettysburg Address. Less well-known is the bolt that shook his wonderfully creative mind just 16 months later: his second inaugural address, delivered as the Civil War was winding down and he had but six weeks to live. In the context of a young country’s healing from its deep and seemingly irreparable breach, he urged “malice toward none, with charity toward all ... to bind up the nation’s wounds ... to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace....”
In a different setting, I believe that Lincoln’s message of care and concern resonated with a passel of high school students. It shook their young minds and bodies, not so much dislodging them from their comfortable circumstances but enlightening their minds with the knowledge that much of their day-to-day world is a very small and privileged slice of their wider community.
I’ve always been taught to seek shelter in dangerous weather. In nonclimatic terms, however, I’m slowly learning that you’ve got to take a chance that lightning might strike. It did so for me that previous summer. I’m crossing my fingers that it did the same for two dozen ninth-graders a few months later.
From 1991 to 2012, Kent Allen wrote and edited for the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, and Congressional Quarterly. He taught upper school journalism and history at The Field School (Washington, DC) from 2011 to 2016. At present he has taken up freelance writing and editing while keeping his hand in teaching as a substitute at several schools. Discussing diversity while sitting in a warm, technologically equipped classroom is light years from spending a few cold days in February on the city streets.