It would be God’s incarnate presence in human life. Not the only presence, but one that many people could enter into. Not so much an institution with structures, rules, and layers of leadership, but rather a dynamic, ever-shifting community that gathered in various ways, ranging from small circles of friends to mass assemblies for special purposes.
It would look outward, unlike other human institutions that look inward. It would see people wanting to draw closer to God. It would see human needs such as grief and tragedy, hunger and hopelessness. It would see key moments in people’s lives, such as partnering and parenting. It would see the ways people hurt each other and the tendency of injustice to become systemic.
The question for me as a teacher is not so much "What could have been?" as it is "What can be?"
I think of my fourth grader holding signs that say, "I am MLK," "I am Anne Frank," "I am Harvey Milk," "I am Daniel Pearl," "I am James Byrd, Jr.," "I am Matthew Shephard," and "I am Yitzhak Rabin." Though she cannot really be them, she certainly can take up their work and carry it on in her own life. She wants to become a doctor so she can help people live. With that spirit, she will help these martyrs live, too.
As a teacher, it is my job not only to help students imagine a world without hate, but also to help them find the tools and the heart to build it.
"Faith in America's Future" — that was the theme of Monday's inauguration activities.
Watching the prayers, the songs, the speeches, the crowd massed on the Washington Mall, I felt the faith. We don't have to hate each other. We can work together for a future that will be good for our country and for us as individuals. We can, as the President charged us to do, make the "values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American."
Inaugurations are times for setting aside differences and wildly celebrating. While Richard Blanco read his inaugural poem, even John Boehner looked teary-eyed.
The political divisions will be back in full force this week, of course. And yet we Americans are in the midst of some really big changes — changes that may make today's partisan squabbles look hopelessly antiquated in just a decade or two. Monday's events highlighted these changes.
I try to teach in the present. With Billy, though, I found myself thinking about the future. Will middle school be a challenge for him? Will he be an outcast in high school? Or a target for bullies?
I wondered what contributions he might make to society as an adult. Would he start a revolution in the art world?
If his peers constantly slap their hands down and say there's no room for him, how will he react? Will he become a part of what author Alexandra Robbins calls the "cafeteria fringe,” those people who are not a part of the school's or society's in-crowd? Because he seems different, will he be labeled “geek,” “nerd” or “weirdo?”
As a teacher I want to help him overcome. But what can I do?
I love to receive letters. When I was a little boy, I lived on a long, straight street and I could see the mail truck coming from a long way off. After the mailman stopped in front of our house, I ran with hope in my heart down our front walkway, between our two giant maple trees and across the street to our mailbox. Would there be a letter for me? Was someone in the world thinking of me?
One day last year it was not the mailman, but a second-grader on the school playground, who handed a letter to me. I unfolded it.
"Dear Mr. Barton, hi it Odeth from 2th grade I miss you a lot I wanted to know about you so much I am being good I am in 4th grade Do you miss me. I live in __________ I go to school in __________ I hope you will come to my school … can you come visit me in school ask for my name…I am 10 year old I want you to come to my school.
Your best student,
What a wonderful thing, to be remembered by a student.