Strategic planning. I wasn’t looking forward to it. Who would? I imagined a boardroom table and multicolored markers and endless reams of newsprint attached to walls with yellowing tape. I imagined personal agendas silently clashing in the drone of conciliatory consensus-speak. I imagined minefields and potboilers and heavy-handed dream spoilers. I readied myself. Steadied myself. I stood back and went in. I just hoped the coffee was good.
What I didn’t imagine was this: that my mind would be changed by other people’s truths; or that my own truth telling could change the way some others thought. Or that hidden agendas would be uncovered and checked at the door (within view); or that a really excellent consultant would help us join hands and dive deeper, beyond murky opinion, and into the clear waters of the absolutes we held in common.
I won’t say the consultant had me at hello, but almost. He had me at, “It is time to stop playing school.” Did he say that out loud? Did he say that too often school is playing school rather than doing the transformational, noble, and extraordinary work of living into our humanity?
I ate my lunch with Melvin Law. Twice. Mr. Law had been chairman of the school board when I first came to Richmond. I knew he was a chemist. I knew that his sons were all very successful PhD’s and MD’s and were all products of Richmond Public Schools (as are mine). I knew he was a champion of public education and president of the Richmond Chapter of the NAACP. I knew he was from West Virginia and in my father’s generation. But this week, over boxed lunches at a table littered with binders, name tags, and pens, he told me what I didn’t know.
He told me that his father had been born in the 1890’s and had about seven days of schooling, none of them consecutive. As a child, his father had worked for wages. He drove a horse drawn tobacco wagon. Finally he went into the coalmines where he worked as a miner for 47 years.
Mr. Law’s words brought his father’s story to life. I was no longer in a boardroom; I was at a mountain tent revival where his parents met. The years passed in his telling. Soon I was staring through a screen at the end of a summer day as an encyclopedia salesman bounded up wooden steps to the door. I heard the early hum of summer bugs and the call of the whippoorwill as he unpacked a set of books. I saw Melvin’s father run his finger along the spines of the encyclopedias. I heard him ask the salesman if they would help his son do well.
“If he reads them, they will,” the salesman replied. The transaction was complete and young Melvin Law had a new set of books. “Son. I want you to read these books. And when I ask you what you’ve read, I want you to be able to tell me.”
The journey began. Through those books Mr. Law and his father traversed the Panama Canal, trekked across South America, and traveled back in time to the Tigris and Euphrates. His father kept asking, and Melvin kept reading, sharing what he read. They traveled the world together, without leaving the hills of West Virginia.
Years later, Melvin found a pink receipt for the encyclopedias. His mother’s signature was on it, and underneath it was a large X. When Melvin asked his mother about it, she explained that the X was his father’s mark. His father was illiterate. He had paid four dollars a month for four years and opened up the world to his son. And his son had opened up the world to him. This is education. It is not playing school.
I gained many gifts through my work on the strategic planning team: an abiding respect for all of those involved; and a commitment to hope and to hold possibility for all of our children. And I left with a story.
There is no frigate like a Book To take us lands away, Nor any coursers like a Page Of prancing poetry – This traverse may the poorest take Without oppress of toll – How frugal is the chariot That bears a human soul. --Emily Dickenson