Yesterday afternoon, Dan and I saw The Imitation Game, a superb rendering of the life of Alan Turing, the man who cracked Enigma, the Nazi cipher believed to be unbreakable. Turing’s contributions to the Allied efforts remained classified until only recently and his tragic death at his own hand devastates me. That one of the greatest minds of the past century was treated in such an inhumane way breaks my heart. I broke down in tears on the way home from the theater. I haven’t been so affected by a film in years.
But it’s easy to mourn the loss of someone with such potential, someone who used his powers for good in a time of such darkness. It’s easy to mourn someone so exceptional in his thinking, someone so ahead of his time. And while I am incredibly sad for all of us that we lost Turing too soon, it’s impossible for me to not also mourn the potential of other lives lost, other suicides of young men and women, who still today cannot fully enjoy the same rights and privileges as me. The right to marry, for example. LGBT teens have a suicide rate four times higher than straight kids. LGBT kids have hopes and dreams, just like anyone else, and yet they suffer quietly the traumas of adolescence that we all did, and more, and most do so with a great deal less support and a great deal more derision.
This week, Brandon Stanton’s photography blog, Humans of NewYork, featured a boy named Vidal from a dangerous neighborhood in Brooklyn. When asked who he most admired, the boy championed his principal Ms. Lopez, who held the students to high standards and refused to allow the students to think poorly of themselves. Brandon found his way to the school and met Ms. Lopez. Together they brainstormed a way to provide critical opportunities to the students at Vidal’s school. They launched a fundraiser which raised a half million dollars for the school in a very short time – a few days, only. I was simultaneously grateful and resentful. Grateful that Brandon Stanton and Humans of New York had created an opportunity to make school funding sexy, and resentful that many of the donors perhaps voted against school bonds and overrides in their own communities.
And so, how do the stories of Alan Turing and Vidal from the Brooklyn connect? As exceptional as Turing was, viewing his life and times through our modern, enlightened lens, we can see that he was treated poorly and our instinct is to go back in time reward his exceptionalism by canonizing him, just as we feel compelled to reward the exceptional leadership of Ms. Lopez by empowering her students.
But let us not forget that all children have dreams – it is not unique to those who are exceptional or to those who find themselves in otherwise dead-end circumstances, like a dangerous and violent neighborhood. All children have dreams, even the ones who are annoying, who have few social skills, whose parents have little to do with them, or who think themselves above following rules or doing homework.
Late last spring, I happened upon a quote from Father John Naus, a Catholic priest who had recently passed away. He said, “See written on the forehead of everyone you meet, make me feel important.” I set that as a goal for myself for the school year. I wrote it out and taped it to my podium in the classroom so I’d be reminded of it every day, multiple times a day. I’ve been grateful for the reminders, because I need them, as I am not able to remember it when facing 150 students each day, each with his or her own particular need to feel important. The goal has manifested in a consistently singular way every day. It’s forced me to be a better listener. What I hear again and again is that each of the souls I’ve been entrusted with has dreams, big and small. Some have dreams that are reasonable in scope, and others so far beyond their reach. Again and again, I remind myself to make each child feel important simply by hearing what he or she has to say, which is light years away from making someone feel different, or apart, which is perhaps our unfortunate human inclination.
I have no idea if, in my classroom, lurks the next Alan Turing or the next Adam Lanza. Neither is likely, for which I am grateful and relieved, but I can’t know. For now I’ll keep reminding myself to listen to each of them, because, as a wise one once noted, we have two ears but only one mouth. Perhaps Virginia Woolf said it best, “It seemed to her such nonsense----- inventing differences, when people, heaven knows, were different enough without that. The real differences, she thought, standing by the drawing room window, are quite enough, quite enough.”