Martin Luther King Chapel 2016–The Present and Future are Ours to Make

Martin Luther King speaks at the Mason Temple in Memphis April3, 1968
Martin Luther King speaks at the Mason Temple in Memphis April 3, 1968

[This morning I gave a reflection as part of our Martin Luther King Chapel for grades 6 – 12 at St. George’s Independent School in Memphis. It will stand as one of my favorite memories of this year. From the opening of a student singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (he nailed it!) to the choir beautifully singing a spiritual, it was a lovely service. With a daughter in the sixth grade, I kept thinking about how important it is for her and all of our students to be part of  a community that values coming together in this way on this day. My comments from chapel are below.] 

Good Morning!

A photograph, a certain kind of very rare photograph, can come to stand for a period of history. It can somehow capture a moment larger than the scene depicted in the frame itself, and most relevant to my comments this morning, it can make the past feel present, immediate, relevant. Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.38.02 PM The foggy brown and black and gray frames of Civil War dead after the Battle of Gettysburg, Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.57.54 PM the inferno of the USS Arizona as it tilted into the shallow water of Pearl Harbor, and Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.38.46 PM the Naval seaman kissing the nurse in Times Square on VE Day 1945 are each photographs that take us right up to the edge of the past—a place where we can feel strong emotions and yet be completely powerless to affect any influence. A more recent photograph that holds a similar poignancy for me is an image of the body of a young boy, a three-year old Syrian refugee washed up on a Turkish beach after drowning in a perilous and desperate attempt to escape his war torn country with his parents—his name, it turns out, was Alan. No amount of sadness or concern now can help Alan—we are powerless to provide him comfort or aid. To be honest with you, I did not include this image this morning because as a parent, as someone who has dedicated my professional life to young people, I couldn’t bring myself to show it. It is heartbreaking.

I was born on the fifty-yard line of the 1960s, and that decade has a large number of powerful images associated with it. I have picked out images that I find particularly striking— Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.34.41 PM the image of Jacklyn Kennedy, still in shock and standing beside Lyndon Johnson as he took the oath of office on Air Force One on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.36.08 PM John-John Kennedy saluting as his father’s casket is drawn toward Arlington Cemetery after the assassination of President Kennedy,Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.39.58 PM The Beatles, just arrived in the US for the first time, stepping up to the mic on The Ed Sullivan ShowScreen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.32.33 PM Bob Dylan, fresh from going electric for the first time, making a controversial tour of England, Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 9.08.02 PM marchers bravely and peacefully marching toward a violent reception over the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.31.45 PM a young woman silently calling for peace during the troubled years of the Vietnam war by pushing a daisy down the barrel of a soldier’s gun. Photographs like these have the power to make the past immediate, to make it present again, and in so doing they act like a computer compression file holding more than their surface alone portrays.

1968 was arguably the crucible year in a crucible decade, for it was when many things occurred that led the country to pull hard at its seams—and photographs bring the intensity, and often the anguish, of that year to life. There are far too many to choose from, so I will just include two— Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.41.30 PM American Sprinters and members of the Black Panthers, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raising black gloved fists during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games, Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 3.44.33 PM Marines carry a wounded comrade out of the Citadel in the bloody aftermath of January’s Tet Offensive. There were other traumatic events that year—the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the subsequent Democratic National Convention, for instance, come immediately to mind. Photographers caught both of those moments in photographic images as well.
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However, no images from 1968 pack more cultural impact behind their shiny surface, than two from a cloudy April day in 1968 on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Hotel here in Memphis. The first shows a group of men gathered casually outside. On its own it may seem to be a forgettable moment, if not for the photograph taken only moments later. The wrenching power of this before photograph juxtaposed with the after photograph awakens us to the tragedy of Dr. King’s assassination as if it occurred only yesterday. We glimpse that last moment before a single act of violence changed the course of history. Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 8.44.48 PM And we see the immediate aftermath—the now stilled and silenced body of Dr. King at the feet of men pointing in the direction from which the shot came before the full impact could have possibly set up in them regarding who and what had just been lost. They are not cowering in the after photograph—they are bravely assertive, as we witness them at the final moment between when Dr. King’s death occurred and their mourning, and the mourning of the nation, began.

We are powerless when we view these photographs—indeed we are brought up to the edge of history, but we can go no further. The before photograph reveals that we are caught in a painful dramatic irony, for we know what is coming before it occurs, before the actors know themselves, and yet we can not change the course of the narrative. We wish to warn Dr. King on the balcony, but we cannot. And so we feel the loss as if new, the experience of his death is present in us even though only a handful of us were actually alive when it happened.

There is an intriguing message for us in all this, I believe, and it is wonderfully relevant to the life we recognize and celebrate on Monday. It is this: Dr. King’s various and ranging messages regarding race, justice, oppression, war, and poverty are each grounded in a belief, intertwined with his remarkable faith, that we can affect the world around us, we can make the world a better, more just, more peaceful place for all, but there is much work ahead.

Too often, I believe, we think of the world as it is now and as it might be in the future the same way we think of an historical photograph—as something we can not affect. That is absolutely not true. One of the central messages of Dr. King’s legacy is that we are only powerless to change the past. The present and future are ours to make and that our obligation is to work faithfully for a better world for all.

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 9.14.03 PMThe final photograph on the screen now is of Dr. King speaking at the Mason Temple on April 3, 1968. He gave a long reflection that evening. Not having planned on being there that night perhaps made him particularly ruminative, and his thinking flowed to his own mortality. The following day he was assassinated. I will finish with the end of that final speech and his call of encouragement and hope not for himself, but for those present with him. When you hear it, remember the scripture from today’s service as Dr. King creates a parallel between his role and the role of Moses leading his people to the Promised Land.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.[1]”

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Revisiting a Guiding Idea: Creating A Progress Culture in a School

Photograph by Katelyn Jones, Westminster Class of 2013
Photograph by Katelyn Jones

Recently I had two photographs framed. Made by Katelyn Jones, member of The Westminster Schools Class of 2013, right now they are leaning against the wall of my office ready to be hung. By digitally layering images on top of each other, she created something compelling. There is a magical, somehow dreamlike, quality to each. They leave the impression that they are at once complete and incomplete–that they are finished constructions but they could also be reimagined and reconstructed. By subtracting one image, a book could disappear; by adding another image, a red coat might appear on the front corner of the bed. The images have a kind of elasticity I find fascinating.

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Just over a year ago, I started writing about an idea I have called Progress Culture.  In an October 2011 blog post (“School Transformation: Becoming a Progress Culture”), I tried to define the idea as concisely as possible, and in a November entry (“Stretching the Rubber Band in a Progress Culture”), I wrote about the necessity of creating a more elastic school culture. Now a year later I am still intrigued by the idea of creating a Progress Culture in a school, and I am excited about where the effort to create one will lead my school.

At the heart of the idea is this: the goal of a Progress Culture is to put a school forever in the position to reflect on and respond expediently to a changing world and to an evolving understanding of how students best learn.

Recently, we have been studying implementation of a new schedule, and it looks more and more as if we will be fully ready to put it in place by the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year. There are two central goals of the schedule—goals that, if not met, would scuttle the process: first, better align with the Strategic Plan and Learning for Life Vision Statement, and second, improve student life and balance in our program.

I have a third goal as well, and while it is a different sort of objective, I perceive it as almost as critical as the first two: our new schedule should be flexible enough to allow for it to develop and evolve as new needs and opportunities arise. This schedule should include the potential to grow with us as we move toward the school’s strategic vision.  In short, it should have some elastic qualities similar to those I named in describing the idea of a rubber band holding a Progress Culture together.

Most academic day schedules are problematic on at least two fronts. They are often an ill-fit suit of clothes for the daily learning we hope to have take place, and they don’t allow easily for changes of pace or unusual circumstances. So, on a day-to-day basis our schedules fall short in terms of what they deliver, and when there is a particular need to support something outside the routine, the old schedule is too brittle to bend without turning the entire school up side down.  In our new schedule we hope to address both problems. While we recognize that no daily schedule can resolve either issue fully, we do think we can put in place a schedule that will substantially improve our daily routine, as well as our ability to be flexible.

The ideas related to creating a Progress Culture remain relevant to me in virtually every conversation I have about our strategic direction as a school. Schools should not be built to stand still.  While keeping an eye on what should never change in a school, we should continually strive to position ourselves so that we can move toward what might be better for our students learning.

Approaching a Mystery: A Shaft of Shade and Lightning Over the Ocean

Lightning off the coast of South Carolina 24 July 2012 (Copyright Ross Peters 2012)

I have become so used to getting immediate responses. I bet you have too.

So when I looked at this picture in the moments after I took it earlier this week using “Instagram” and my iPhone, I wanted an instant answer to the shaded column dissecting the middle of the photograph, yet instead the mystery just deepened. While I may yet get a clear and simple answer to what caused it, to date no believable answer has come in from anyone who has seen it (though my nine year old daughter did hypothesize that it was related to an alien space-ship).

Here’s how the mystery became more mysterious: I assumed it was an effect caused by the camera itself, yet when my wife and brother-in-law joined me on balcony to see some of the lightning now moving far out to sea, they both gasped at the same time after a flash in the same area. Both of them reported seeing the same shaded shaft with their naked eyes.

Additionally, when I tried to get another shot of the lightning, I kept seeing the shaft on the screen of my phone (unfortunately I never did get another picture of a lightning strike).

As we looked more closely at the photograph, we noted several other details that confounded us further:

  • The shaft comes down from the clouds, not from the top of the photograph. In fact the top border of the shaft is ragged making it appear that it dropped from under the clouds. Given the fact that the shaft goes to the bottom of the picture, it seems strange that it does not go to the top of it.
  • The right edge of the shaft has two lines, so there is a sliver of a more lightly shaded area. To me this seems to give it a kind of dimensionality.

I am certain someone will fill me in on this (Please help!), and the answer will definitely be more pedestrian than an alien space-ship. However, seeing it has brought to mind for me how uncomfortable it now feels not to have an immediate answer. The hegemony of Google and assorted search engines gives us access to a universe of answers that would have required phone calls to experts, trips to libraries, or extended stays at institutions of higher education. This blog entry is not a rant against our easy access to information, but rather it is a recognition that we are becoming less and less comfortable with not having every mystery explained in the moments right after we identify it.

As a teacher I sense that we should be doing a better and better job of equipping students to extend investigation and to sustain inquiry. This will require better questions and imaginative uses of class time in order to fend off instincts to provide a quick answers. The real problems of the world demand that we don’t mislead our students into thinking that we can find peace in the middle east or even the explanation of a shaded shaft of shade in a photograph from the first page of a google search.

Travel Post from Norris Lake: The Walk Outside Our Door

Looking Over Norris Lake (Photograph: Ross Peters)

I wrote a blog in December entitled, “Travel Post From Atlanta: The Walk Outside Our Door,” in which I argued one doesn’t have to get far away to get away. We have been spending the last week on Norris Lake in East Tennessee. This is a place that is as familiar to us as our home in Atlanta. While we have been here many times over the last eight years or so, I had never taken the walk all the way up the hill back up to the road. Instead I had worked out in the small fitness center watching CNN and listening to music on the headphones.

One of the docks at Stardust Marina (Photograph: Ross Peters)

This year I have largely abandoned the fitness center in order to head uphill and pay more attention to where we are. Each day I have taken the hour long walk I have seen different things, including a red fox and a great horned owl. I have also seen rabbits everywhere.

A not-so-rare rabbit (Photograph: Ross Peters)

I have only taken the camera with me once, and unfortunately it was the haziest day so far. I am still learning the hard way to take the camera every time both because of the photographs I will miss otherwise and because of the fact that having it influences the way I see what is around me. I wrote about this idea on a post entitled, “A Way of Seeing: Learning to Make Photographs.” In short, I notice more and observe somewhat differently when I have a camera. For instance, I had walked by the tree below several times before I took notice of the plank that has grown up within it. Any idea how this happened?

Oak Tree (Photograph: Ross Peters)

Because of the early morning fog and haze, the walk didn’t offer up any great shots of the big view from the ridge top, but being naive, I tried to get one any way.

An earnest attempt at the long view (Photograph: Ross Peters)

At the top of the ridge is the Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church. Its cemetery has very recent stones as well as some weathered limestone ones that appear to go back to the mid-1800s. I particularly liked the wreaths on the door.

Church Doors of the Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church (Photograph: Ross Peters)

After the stop by the church the walk is all down hill detouring from the route back to the start in order the stop by the marina. Down below even with the dry conditions this summer, the foliage is lush enough to provide respite from the heat if not the humidity.

View looking down the road to the Stardust Marina (Photograph: Ross Peters)

From the Marina it is a short walk along the lake back to where we are stay.

Heading home (Photograph: Ross Peters)