nelson mandela Archives - The Jose Vilson

nelson mandela


Confession: I didn’t get a chance to see Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom before taking my students.

Confession #2: My kids wouldn’t have gone to see it either if I didn’t bring them myself.

Here’s the thing about auto-bio pics that people don’t want to say, but will readily admit: if our youth don’t get a sense of why something or someone is important, they won’t pay attention to it.

Even before Mandela’s passing, I was excited to hear Idris Elba play Mandela, if only because we sanitize the image of civil rights leaders all the time, and we ought not to. If anything, we should find ways to make those “miracles” more concrete for the people. It’s important for all of us to understand people as multi-dimensional, even the people many of us have proclaimed as heroes. The stains and dents make the statues more real.

Just as I started planning for the trip, he passed. For better or worse, the news on him turned on a switch for my kids. “The guy who Mr. Vilson just talked about” became “the famous guy who passed away and was on the news last night.”

Without a movie like Mandela, I have a harder time helping students visualize his importance. Fortunately for us, we won a free trip to go courtesy of Share My Lesson (check out these lessons too), the AFT, and the Weinstein Company, and so I took all the students I could on the trip. They had no idea what the movie was save for the few who had already done some research beforehand.

After coming out of the movie, most of them started making connections to the readings in their classes, specifically To Kill A Mockingbird. Yet, my draw to the movie wasn’t necessarily academic reasons. It’s to help plant the seed in students that might spark a thought. The movie does a good job of laying out his legacy in such a way that doesn’t pretend sainthood, yet asks us to look at the mountain of a man for all his flaws.

Most of my kids thought it was good, and appreciated being taken to see it. Someone had to. Rather, I had to.


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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.