Occupation and Education

Wow. This whole Occupy Oakland thing is happening faster than I can write and edit my reflections on it. So I’m going to offer some reflections in a few different posts. Want to catch up? I wrote about Occupation and Revolution earlier.

Encountering the Occupation

On Wednesdays, my after school program goes ice skating.

We pair the kids off into partners and put them in two straight lines as we prepare to make the 15 minute walk from the school to the ice rink. The school is in the middle of Oakland’s downtown, and the streets are crowded in the afternoons. To avoid rowdy high schoolers and busy intersections, we walk through the underground train station that spans a few blocks. When we come up on the other side, we are at city hall.

The plaza in front of the city center is packed with tents. The smells of bar-b-que and pot waft across the open air, and we can hear chanting and bongos in the distance. There are signs everywhere, including a giant banner proclaiming this “Oscar Grant Plaza.” There are folks gathered on the steps, listening to a speaker who addresses them without a microphone, so they have to lean forward conspiratorially in order to hear him.

It looks like a giant party, like an adult camp-out. Which, of course, it is in some ways.

I’m excited to finally see the Occupy movement first-hand, but I keep my concentration on counting and re-counting my two lines of kids. I don’t want to lose a grade-schooler here, in the middle of Oakland’s chaos.

Later, after our skating lesson and our walk home, the kids chatter excitedly as they wait for their parents to pick them up. They turn and ask me about the tents. “What was that?”

“It’s a protest.” I tell them. “That’s Occupy Oakland.”

“I thought it was ‘Occupy Wall Street,’” one of them responds.

“It was,” I explain, “but other cities are joining in the same movement and setting up their own occupations.”

She ponders that for a minute before saying, “I think ‘Occupy Wall Street’ sounds better.” I can’t argue with that.

“What are they protesting?” another student asks.

I try to think of a way to truthfully and appropriately explain the situation to a 10-year-old. “They’re protesting the financial system in our country,” I try, dissatisfied with my own answer.

They start to ask more questions, but the parents begin to show up and the conversation is over. I’m grateful that I don’t have to attempt to put into words such a complicated situation.

As much as I can do

I head back down into that same train station, this time to catch my own ride home, and I think about how these children will look back on their years of growing up in Oakland.

When they gain enough maturity and perspective to see Oakland from the outside of their experience, how will they process it? What will they do with its violence, its racism, its sprawling urban decay? Will they remember witnessing the Occupy movement one afternoon on their way to ice skating? When they read about this era of economic despair in their nation’s history, how will they feel? When they realize that the world they were born into — a world without the Twin Towers – is a significantly different world from the one their parent were born into, what will they do with that information? Will they become pimps or business women or political dissidents when they are old enough to decide these things for themselves?

And I realize that all I can do is make sure they get safely from the school to the ice rink. All I can do is encourage them to let go of the wall and try the sensation of gliding out on the ice, hold their hands and pull them up with they fall, bring extra pairs of gloves so their hands don’t get cold. All I can do is help them learn how to do long division and play four square fairly.

That is as much as I can give them right now. The rest will be up to them.

I have been thinking back on the story of Jesus encountering little children. When his disciples try to turn them away, Jesus calls the children back to him and says:

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:2-4)

Those of you who are educators or parents, what do you learn about faithfulness, courage, humility, or love from the children you encounter? How do you teach them about the complications of the world while still protecting the beautiful experience of childhood? How do you look back on your own childhood experiences, in whatever context you grew up?

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