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James Baldwin and Writing Through Disaster

by Jose Vilson on December 8, 2013

in Jose

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

On Tuesday, at 7:30am, right before class, I found out my father passed away from my brother. The opaque skies of the early morning didn’t let up all day. My students acted as they usually do: adolescent, chatty, enlightened, irresponsible. My energy, however, didn’t betray me except in the few times they decided to quit on themselves. My tolerance level for their defeatist retorts was next to nil. My reaction to adults in our teacher team meeting didn’t help things.

The few people who knew about my situation kept their distance, but those who didn’t quickly found out through my other colleagues. I felt like I got no break from people.

Under the advisement of a few family members and friends, I took the day off on Wednesday, unplugging from the everyday routines to recalibrate my energies, just to understand why I reacted to my father’s passing as I did. I was planning some time away from the Internet to finish the edits in my book, hoping to deliver the best book possible to everyone. This made the urgency of my writing that much greater.

Right before I headed out the door on Wednesday, I started reading Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin. This resonates with me now:

” … So that any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next – one is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next.”

I shouldn’t have cared that my father passed. I only saw him once a year on average, four times in the last seven years. I shut him out of my son’s life for not responding to my son’s initial fetal scan pictures. Even though I made peace with the idea that he would never transform into the loving, caring grandfather I had hoped for, I didn’t want to spark any real conversation with him. He didn’t raise me, and my whole idea of fatherhood came from his (and my stepfather’s) lack thereof.

Teaching prepared me for child-rearing in a way technocrats and people who diss soft skills dare not understand.

When I got home, I changed the channel to ESPN to find out that Nelson Mandela, a man who meant so many of us fighting for social justice, had passed away as well. My fingers had a reason to finish this book, my own long journey home.


It’s Just Different [The Three Vilsons]

by Jose Vilson on August 2, 2012

in Jose

I have another confession: I’m still working with a few different Vilsons here.

People assume that by now I’ve closed the gap between the Vilson that works for school and the one that writes in this blog. I wouldn’t say I’m suffering from multiple personality disorder, but let me expound a bit. Recently, someone asked me, in essence, to merge these entities I have into one image I can use at school. I stared blankly at first, but then I gave it about a split-second of a thought. Within that second, I asked myself if my current school is an appropriate setting for this fusion of the very public and vociferous me (who some refer to as TheJLV), the very private and intimate me (Jose for short), and the teacher and instructional coach working to improve his students’ academic futures (Mr. Vilson if you must). In spots, I have certainly let out the other personas; I’ve danced at conferences, exchanged jokes with colleagues, and sung in spaces people normally don’t.

But at school? Split-second over. No. Hell no.

Teacher leaders in most schools ought to heed the words of James Baldwin, who would have been 88 today), when he said, “The price one pays for pursuing any profession, or calling, is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.” I would add that the more you start to believe you can become more personal, the more you need to maintain a safe distance. Sometimes, people mistake the professional and the personal sides of you, make their judgments, and take it out on both sides.

Naw, I’m good.

With all the opportunities I’ve been blessed with to grow outside of school, I would prefer not to say too much about this life there, much like I don’t tell too much about this life here. Come to think of it, the classroom and the blog are two spaces where I feel the most passionate, most successful, and often the most disappointment. As much as I’ve celebrated in both of these places, I still have a long ways to go before I’m satisfied with either.

Oh, and I wouldn’t want either to be disrupted by people who don’t understand what I’m doing.

I mean, it’s just different.

Jose, who knows better.


Because James Baldwin Educates Educators, Too

by Jose Vilson on November 1, 2011

in Mr. Vilson

James Baldwin

Here’s James Baldwin, acclaimed writer and activist, on the purpose of education:

Since I am talking to schoolteachers and I am not a teacher myself, and in some ways am fairly easily intimidated, I beg you to let me leave that and go back to what I think to be the entire purpose of education in the first place. It would seem to me that when a child is born, if I’m the child’s parent, it is my obligation and my high duty to civilize that child. Man is a social animal. He cannot exist without a society. A society, in turn, depends on certain things which everyone within that society takes for granted. Now the crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society. Thus, for example, the boys and girls who were born during the era of the Third Reich, when educated to the purposes of the Third Reich, became barbarians. The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.

Way past whining, he posits what some of us actually know about education currently. Further, he lays out the contradiction we as teachers face as we revolt against the current establishment. #OccupyTheClassroom belongs to no one. It’s a movement that’s been around for decades; it’s just got a new name.

I think I’ll let the man speak for himself some more.

Mr. Vilson, who’s still working on getting to be this type of teacher …