Aug 23

Community

[This probably isn't all that different from some things I've written before, but right now, I've thinking about many edu-things through the lens of what we see going on in Ferguson, and while I am not naive enough to think that school can single-handedly fix what is broken in America right now, I also think that schools can do much more to create spaces that do not exacerbate the problems we are seeing.]

This week, the SLA@Beeber staff was working together as our second cohort of teachers were learning about the philosophies and systems and structures that inform what we do at SLA. We were talking about advisory and how we try to look at student behavior through a therapeutic lens, rather than a punitive. One of our teachers who is coming from a very different school, and she talked about what a different frame of reference that was for her, because at her old school, it felt like students were suspended for every minor infraction. We were talking about what it meant for every student to have an advocate (their advisor) who could work with the student to navigate the often challenging world of high school, and how we all have to work to create the kind of community where everyone takes care of everyone – students, teachers – everyone. We were talking about what it means when everyone is known, where people truly know one another.

And it struck me that was what was one of the things that was missing in Ferguson. Now, I am not Pollyanna enough to think that if we just all held hands and cared about each other, all that went wrong in Ferguson – institutional racism, abuse of power, fear, militarization of the police… just to name a few – suddenly goes away. There are deep societal and policy issues that need to examined and changed to greatly reduce the chances that what we are seeing in Ferguson – from the changing racial demographics that did not result in a change in political power dynamics, to Mike Brown’s death, to the police reaction to the anger and grief of that town, to the national polls that suggest a wider-than-we-want-to-admit divide between how whites and blacks are viewing every aspect of what has happened.

But also missing was a lack of care – a lack of being known. What if Ferguson had a community policing program where Darren Wilson wasn’t in his car, but was on foot in the neighborhood and knew Mike Brown? Would this have played out the same way? What if the police had thought for a moment about the deeply traumatic effect leaving Mike Brown’s body uncovered in the street for hours would have on the community? What if there had been any thought given to the effect of snipers and military tanks rolling through the streets in the name of order? What if anyone thought about what it does to the humanity of all involved to turn a police force into an occupying army?

I don’t have answers to those questions. I can’t imagine many do. But I want to live in a world where those questions are asked before, not after, tragedy.

And then I start to think about school. I think about how in many schools – especially schools where the majority of children are kids of color and are poor – there exists the educational equivalent of “shoot first, ask questions later.” The message that the citizens of Ferguson received both in the killing of Mike Brown and near martial law that was enforced in the days after his death is communicated in so many of the schools like the one our new teacher described.

It is communicated when suspensions are the first response to any problem.

It is communicated when students of color are suspended at rates far higher than white students.

It is communicated when schools house thousands of kids in a building, and there’s no guarantee that a student who connects with a teacher one year will ever do more than pass that teacher in the hall from time to time for the rest of their time.

It is communicated when teachers have teaching loads of over 150 kids, so that the chance of knowing a child beyond being a student in a seat in a cinder block classroom is reduced even further.

It is communicated when teachers pass off disciplinary problems to a dean or an assistant principal or a school police officer who then simply deals with “the problem,” because listening and responding therapeutically is time-consuming and hard and messy, and the pink slip and the suspension form take less time to fill out.

It happens everywhere the policies and procedures and actions of a school send the message to students that the content of the curriculum is more important than the content of the student’s character.

We can change that. That is within our control.

We can all redouble our efforts to make schools humane and human places where students are known and cared for. We can build the systems and structures that enable students and teachers to talk to one another. We can create policies — and carve out the time — that make it possible for teachers to see students for who they are, to understand the flawed, wonderful people they are and can be, and to understand that there are more ways to deal with the mistakes that kids make than suspensions and the criminalization of non-criminal behaviors.

These are things we should do because they are the right things to do. They are not easy, nor are they silver bullets that will magically cure what ails us. But they might help. And they can’t hurt. And as we continue to watch the events of Ferguson unfold, as educators, it is incumbent upon us to think about how we can help the next generation do better than we have done, and help them see the prospects of a better world than the one in which we currently live.

Doing a better job of caring for one another in schools might be one good place to start.

Aug 13

What Do We Teach When Kids Are Dying? #MichaelBrown

[After the trial where the man who killed Jordan Davis was not found guilty of his murder, a group of amazing educators and education activists (I was lucky to be one of the folks involved) came together to create a teaching guide for talking about Jordan Davis' killing and the trial that followed. Many of the resources -- and equally as important, the frameworks for thinking about creating curriculum -- are equally applicable for creating conversations and curriculum around talking about Mike Brown. And we need to talk about Mike Brown.]

When I heard that Mike Brown was shot – unarmed, multiple times – by a police officer, my thoughts immediately went to the many stories I have heard over the years from my students of color about their experiences with the police. Their stories are not monolithic, and I have students of color who are the sons and daughters of police officers who often bring a different lens to these conversations, but overwhelmingly, the conversations I have heard have spoken to a deep level of distrust and fear between students of color and the police.

With the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin’s death, with Michael Dunn not getting convicted of murder in Jordan Davis’ death and now with Mike Brown’s death, many of SLA’s students of color have come to the understandable conclusion that the systems of American justice – from the police to the courts – are not there for them. Clearly, there are too many statistics that support that conclusion.

And the reaction of the authorities in Ferguson, MO since Mike Brown was shot by a police officer despite being unarmed has looked more like a police state than anything I can remember in America in my lifetime. All over the country, students are on social media asking - what kind of country does this to its own citizens?

For me, both the shooting of Mike Brown the actions of the government to Mike Brown’s killing has made me think of my grandfather. My grandfather escaped Germany in the 1930s, because he saw the writing on the wall and saw that his country was no longer safe for him. When I was young, I remember my grandfather saying to me, “You must remember that you are a Jew before you are an American, because when Jews forget that, Jews die.”  And I think about the many parents and students of color who have talked to me about “the talk” — what to do if a young black man or woman are ever confronted by the police. And I think about how we live in a country where — especially if you cannot pass for white (which I, for example, can most often do) — the rules you live by are different. You are not simply American, you are a Hyphen-American, and for you, the rules are different and not as just. And, much like my grandfather said to me over thirty years ago, if you forget that fact, you can die.

So what do we do as educators? What is our role? For to pretend that this does not enter our classrooms, our schools, is to run the risk of allowing ourselves to be complicit in the system that left Mike Brown’s body in the street for hours. How we teach, how we frame this issue with students is incredibly difficult and complex, and so many of the resources, ideas and suggestions created after Jordan Davis’ killer was not convicted of murder are appropriate again. It is incredibly daunting to think about how we frame this issue in our classrooms, but that cannot be the reason for educators to shy away from it. And, if nothing else, now is a moment where educators need to listen deeply to students who need to express what they are feeling.

And what I have learned in my time at SLA is that when I am struggling with hard questions myself, that those questions are the ones we can ask as a community. Perhaps now is a moment for educators to ask hard questions about our country. Some questions I’ve been asking myself, without great answers lately.

  • What happens to a society that seemingly has one set of rules for one race and another set of rules for everyone else?
  • What happens when too many people lose faith in the government’s ability / will / desire to actually keep people of color safe?
  • What happens when too many people feel that the dream is not accessible to them?
  • What is the role of the police in a civil society?
  • If a society becomes more militarized in the name of “safety” and “security,” is it any wonder that those who were already feeling the effects of disenfranchisement and racism would bear the brunt of the increasing militarization of its police force?
  • How do we get better than this?
  • How do we become a more just society?
  • How do we not lose hope?
  • How do we close the gap between the best ideals of America and the reality that we see around us every day?

I have had to say much the same thing before. I will keep saying it until I don’t have to say it anymore. Mike Brown’s death must serve to remind us that there is no such thing (to quote SLA teacher Pia Martin) as passive anti-racism. His death — and the police state that Ferguson, MO has become since his death — must remind us that institutional racism is the norm in this country and therefore we have to actively work to do better. This must remind us that we are nowhere near being the country we need to be for our citizens of color — and, therefore, for all of us.

Aug 11

The Teaching Life – They Grow Up

SpiritFamilyOne of the wonderful things about the teaching life is that – when we are very lucky – we get to see the adults our students become. This past weekend, I got to see Spirit Family Reunion play a concert here in Philadelphia. They are a wonderful “Roots Music” band out of New York City, and three of the musicians are former students of mine from my days at Beacon.

The show was amazing, and I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire time. And it was a blast to see some Philadelphia folks who were at the concert as fans of the band, and since I was — ahem – a bit older than the average concert-goer, there was some surprise from these young Philadelphians that I was there. That gave me the chance to brag that “I was friends the band…” which is not exactly something I expect to say often in my life.

More importantly, I relished the chance to spend some time after the show talking to my former students. It was simply lovely to hear about their lives, to hear about the band, and I was touched that they were excited that I had stayed up late enough to come out and hear them play.

Mostly, I was thrilled to see the adults they have become, and I was honored that they wanted to share their adulthood with me, their old English teacher.

I’ve been teaching for eighteen years now. My first seniors are in their mid-30s. I have seen students become parents. I have seen them become PhDs. I have seen students become teachers and lawyers and doctors and programmers and police officers and artists and musicians and more. I have written letters to them in prison. Some former students are now some of my very dear friends. I have celebrated at their weddings, I have met their children and, sadly, I have mourned at their funerals.

And this is more than just an ancillary piece of the teaching life. The perspective of seeing students become adults can powerfully inform the way we teach. Knowing that we can play a small role in helping students on the pathway to adulthood is something that teachers are taught to understand from early on in most pre-service teacher programs, but the reality of knowing the your students as adults is different somehow.

There’s a humility needed to really see them as adults. If you don’t merely want to be part of their past, you have to learn who you are to the person they are now. And you have to see all that they are now, not only the student they were then. You do see the person they were as part of their adult self, but you have to see all that they are. On one level, you feel a little like Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time, seeing two people at once – the young person you know and the adult in front of you who you now get to know. And seeing that journey can — and maybe should — inform the way we work with the kids we teach now.

As teachers, we get to play a role in the development of the lives of our kids. More often than not, the role we play is small but, if we do it right, the role has meaning. And when we are lucky, we get to know the adults our students become.

Nov 10

Movember

That's one itchy beard.

That’s one itchy beard.

As many readers know, my father passed away a year ago this month from prostate cancer. My dad’s battle with cancer taught my entire family a great deal about men’s health in general and prostate cancer in specific.

So this November, I’m growing a beard along with thousands of other men across the world as part of the Movember movement. This movement has already raised over $26 million dollars worldwide, and I’m hoping that I can do my part in contributing.

You can help by contributing to my page or by contributing (or joining) Team Sid. And I promise to keep posting silly pictures of me with a beard all month long.

Aug 01

Trayvon, Creating ‘The Other’ and the Cover of the Rolling Stone

[It has taken me a while to find the mindspace to write coherently about this. I've been talking to a lot of people about this, and while I don't think my thoughts are anywhere near fully evolved on this yet, I think I need to take some time to write about it, if I am going to be able to push my own thinking. Thanks to Jose Vilson and Bob Dillon for being early readers of this, and thanks to the summer tech girls at SLA for talking through some of these ideas with me.]

I, like many of us, been thinking a lot about Trayvon Martin lately. One of the quotes that resonated more deeply than any other was the priest who said, “I want to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home.”

That’s the world I want to live in too. To do that, Zimmerman would have had to have seen Trayvon as a young man out in the rain, not as a threat. He would have had to seen his humanity first and foremost. He would have had to have been willing to see the young black man in a hoodie as something different than a threat… something different than “the other.” He clearly didn’t, and in my opinion, George Zimmerman’s unwillingness to see the shared humanity between two people – regardless of race – set in  motion the tragic — and yes, in my mind, criminal — events that unfolded that night.

I also have been thinking a lot about the Rolling Stone cover story about the young men who are responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings. More than anything else, what I think is perhaps truly troublesome to me about the story — and about the events of that tragic day — is that this was American terrorism. These two brothers were American kids. They had, in their upbringing, as much — if not more — in common with Timothy McVie as they did with the 9/11 bombers.

What happened to them? Why did a young man who grew up in Cambridge, MA as a seemingly ‘normal’ American teenager become a bomber? What happened such that he turned against the only country he really knew? When did he stop believing in the American Dream for himself and his family? And why? And how could he believe that a radical terrorist act, mere miles from his home, was the right thing to do?

And let me be clear here – the Boston Marathon bombers are no more a victim than George Zimmerman was. Both took a lens on the world that allowed them to see people they did not know as “other” and that allowed them to commit horrible acts. The Boston Marathon bombers made a decision that “American” meant that any runner in that Boston Marathon was guilty of crimes against the Muslim world and therefore deserved anything they got. George Zimmerman believed that “Young, Black Male” meant Trayvon Martin was up to no good, and therefore had to be stopped. Both need to be held accountable for their actions.

Both George Zimmerman and the Boston Marathon bombers felt justified in their actions because they refused to see the fundamental humanity of the people their actions would impact. Both George Zimmerman and the Tsarnaev brothers showed no empathy for people who were different than they were.

Both were powerfully and tragically wrong.

If we, as a nation, do not start to do a better job of bridging the divide between peoples… if we do not do a better job of enfranchising the disenfranchised… if we do not re-invest in ensuring that the American Dream is inclusive rather than “I got mine,” we will see more and more Jahars and we will see more Zimmermans. And while I believe that both Jahar and Zimmerman need to be punished for the actions that they undertook that caused the loss of life, I also believe we need to ask ourselves what kind of society we live in that creates the conditions that allows people to ignore the fundamental humanity of those around them, and instead reach for violence.

For me, that happens when, as a society, we too often react with fear and abandon hope.

And where this really has been resonating with me is this… as a society, are we teaching fear, lack of empathy and loss of hope?

Think of all the young African-American men and women who are learning a powerful lesson from the Trayvon Martin case — that the United States justice system will not serve them, and ask if they are learning the next lesson — that the United States will not take care of them.

Think of the young men and women who have come to this country, brought by parents before the children could choose, and think of the vitriolic rhetoric against the DREAM Act where US Congressmen state that “For every valedictorian, there are 100 drug dealers,” and ask yourself whether those young men and women believe that this country will take care of them.

Think of the young men and women in rural America who have seen their local economies dry up as we have not replaced the working-class jobs that once existed, and think of the political rhetoric that suggests that they must “defend” what they have against those who would take it away, and ask yourself whether those young men and women seeing a nation that is taking care of them.

Think of the many young men and women who are working at a minimum wage that, according to McDonalds, is a living wage as long as you are willing to work 75 hours a week, forego heating, and find health insurance for less than $20 / month.

Think about a generation that is growing up where 80% of the population fears joblessness, and the divide between rich and poor grows wider and wider.

Think of all the kids in our cities who go to under-funded schools, who watch their parents struggle to survive on sub-standard wages… think about how many indignities our children suffer…

And now ask… are we creating the next-generation of home-grown terrorists?

Are we creating a generation of kids who do not believe that America believes in them? And if so, what will some of them do? And how many Trayvon Martins have to die, how many Boston Marathon-style bombings do we have to endure before we ask ourselves what are the systems at work in our society that are creating this kind of fear, hatred and disenfranchisement?

I have been thinking a lot about MLK lately… thinking that we need both sides of his message right now… we need to increase the amount of love *and* the amount of justice in this world… and we need to understand that if we don’t, people from across the wide spectrum of America are going to get their needs met…

By any means necessary.

Jul 11

Medicating Ourselves To Death

I’m going to start this post by saying that it is really just a case of out-loud thinking. I don’t really know where this leads… I just know I’m thinking about it a lot lately, and I’m hoping that by writing, I make some sense of my thoughts.

I struggle a lot with issues of drug use among American teens– I’ve written about this before when I wrote When I Learned to Hate Drugs — and I worry about it both with the illegal drug use – with 6.5% of high school seniors smoking marijuana on a daily basis according to the NIH – and with the legal drug use where we see more and more kids getting medicated for things like ADHD. As Ken Robinson has noted, it is a bigger issue the further east you go in American, and in my home state of Pennsylvania, 5.6% of all kids between ages four and seventeen are being medicated for ADD / ADHD. And scarily, there’s a huge crossover of kids who fall into both categories, as approximately 30% of people with ADHD have a history of substance abuse.

And I can say, anecdotally, that I have seen multiple kids getting prescribed ADHD drugs without ever being asked if they are using any illegal drugs. Worse, I also know kids who have been prescribed ADHD drugs when their doctors have known they are also using recreational drugs.

And yet, a half-hour search of the internet could not find any really definitive research on what happens to teenage brains when a drug like Ritalin is used in conjunction with marijuana. There were, however, a lot of sites where teens were asking questions about what happens when these drugs are mixed. And there were a fair number of doctor sites that suggested that the symptoms of marijuana use could be mistaken for some of the symptoms of ADD.

So as we have created an adolescence for so many children that is really nothing more than a holding pattern for adulthood — where we tell them that “school is good for you some day,” rather than daring them to be engaged now, empowered now, caring now, where they are bombarded outside of school with an ever more sophisticated marketing industry that preaches instant gratification for material desires — and then we wonder why kids can’t focus or won’t focus and choose to self-medicate or end up getting medicated.

This isn’t to say that there are not kids with real attention issues that profoundly impact their lives in negative ways — there most certainly are. But I worry that there are also many students who are currently being prescribed drugs who have something more resembling situational ADHD, caused by any number of circumstances from really boring and unconnected schoolwork to marijuana use to poor eating habits.

I don’t know that we know the long-term consequences to the behaviors around drug use that are both being explicitly endorsed (major increases in the number of children in American being prescribed drugs for ADHD) and implicitly tolerated (the passive acceptance of teenage drug use which we see in so many families and so many communities.) And I certainly don’t think we know what happens, long-term, to the kids who overlap in both camps.

I want to see us combat the illegal drug use with care. Both the way we care for kids, and by daring more and more kids to care about the lives they lead now such that the allure of drug use is less powerful than the allure of all there is accomplish in front of us.

I want to see us combat the legal drug use by slowing down a bit. I want families to look at sleep patterns of kids (as I finish this blog entry at 2:36 am.) I want families to be smart about healthy dietary habits. I want kids to learn meditation as a way to quiet the mind, not a pill. And perhaps most of all, I want schools to create more work for kids that is actually worth focusing on, relevant, powerful and driven by the student, not the teacher.

There are probably lots of folks who will tell me that I’m too hyper-sensitive about marijuana use among teens. There are probably lots of folks who will tell me that ADHD medication isn’t being over-prescribed to kids today. And there are probably folks who will tell me that the reason I can’t find any red flags about what happens when kids mix these drugs is because no one has found any red flags yet.

Maybe.

But the cost-benefit analysis just doesn’t seem worth it to me. I worry that we inch closer and closer to some Huxley-like dystopia where we simply take our soma and go blithely about our day, never taking the time to really do the hard work of looking around us and taking more ownership of our society and our world.

I worry.

Dec 09

A Thought From #BlackInAmerica

[Influencing this post - tonight's CNN documentary - Black in America]

I watched Black In America for a lot of reasons tonight. First, much of the documentary was shot at SLA, focusing on the incredible work of the poets of PYPM and one of PYPM teacher / mentors, Vision. Whenever you get to see people you like and care about on television, doing amazing things, you watch. But the show was thoughtful and powerful and explored issues of racial identity and how that racial identity is defined. One of the stories they followed was the evolving sense of self of a young bi-racial woman, raised by her white father.

I’ve seen a lot of bi-racial students struggle with identity over the years, and much of it has been about the word “or.” “Am I black or am I white?” And, in so many ways, that’s an impossible question that forces kids to somehow deny some piece of their identity. It strikes me that American racial dynamics — largely defined by a dominant white culture — has been so oppositional for so long that we want these kids to choose a single identity, rather than embracing the complexity of what makes them who they are. It should not be as hard for a kid to say, “I am black and I am white” or “I am Afro-Latino” as our society makes it.

I watch the kids of SLA deal with issues of race and racial identity in ways that both seem familiar to the questions of twenty-five years ago when I was their age and also deeply unfamiliar. I see them engage with the issues of race with an openness and honesty that I would have been unable to do when I was their age. But I see so many of the same challenges and issues still around. And I still see too much pain as kids figure out the complexity of who they are in a world that still wants to put people into too many neat little boxes that rarely represent the complexity of their lives.

Thank you, CNN, for focusing on the amazing poets of PYPM, and thank you for the work you are doing with Black in America. With luck, it made a lot of people think tonight.

Nov 22

Thankfulness

The last few weeks have been an incredible reminder of how incredibly lucky I am because, in the midst of the sadness and grief of losing my dad, I was reminded of just how full both his life was and my life is.

So today, while it is so hard to have Thanksgiving without my dad, I am making an active choice to remember how thankful I should be — and am — today.

I am thankful to have a father in my life for 41 years who was an incredible role model and dad.

I am thankful to have a close-knit family that rallies together at the big moments.

I am thankful to be married to an amazing woman who I love more every day.

I am thankful for two incredible children who bring me joy every day.

I am thankful for the many, many friends who enrich my life.

I am thankful to be able to do work I love, that makes a difference in the world, and that asks the best of me.

I am thankful to work with and for a community that takes care of each other — including taking care of the principal when needed.

I am thankful for all of this and so much more.

And so here’s my thought for Thanksgiving Day: We should remember to be thankful every day, because, no matter how hard our lives are, we have things to be thankful for – and more often than not, the “things” we have to be thankful for are people. Let’s make sure we take a moment every day – not just Thanksgiving Day – to be thankful for our lives.

This coming year, let’s try to live in a state of thankfulness more often. Let’s say make it a point to say “thank you” to the folks in our lives who matter — and mean it — every day. And then, let’s see if that actually makes us more likely to realize all the amazing pieces of our lives and maybe even a little more likely to be willing to live our lives as people others are thankful for. That’s my best idea today – that I will try to live more often in a state of thankfulness. I hope you are willing to join me in that idea.

Happy Thanksgiving Day everyone.

 

Nov 18

My Eulogy for My Father

[Today was my father's funeral. Over 600 people showed up to mourn my father's passing and to celebrate his life. It was an incredible difficult, sad and yet powerful day. What follows is my eulogy, which a few folks asked me to post. It borrows, not surprisingly, from my post from the other day, but not completely. I have to say, it was probably the hardest speech I have ever had to give.]

I am not sure how I’m supposed to follow Elizabeth’s speech… I think she gave us all our call to arms… but I’m going to try anyway.

Thank you all for being here today. To see so many people who loved Dad and want to be here to say goodbye to him is just incredible.

In a moment of true, wonderful irony, though, Dad’s funeral is, of course, happening during an Eagles game. I’d like to think that if there is an afterlife, Dad is somehow flipping the afterlife remote control between being here with all of us and the game. And of course, he would be doing so for two reasons… first, let’s be clear, he’d want to know the score of the game, but second, Dad would be profoundly uncomfortable with all of us saying really wonderful things about him. So, as we say goodbye to my father and say all the things we love so much about him, I just want you to imagine that high laugh of his – and picture him changing the channel to the Eagles game, because he could have never sat through this.

And that’s as good a place to start as any – because my father was a great man who did not accept his own greatness. Even as he was fighting against cancer with more strength and courage and honesty than I can imagine, he complained about his procrastination. My father… who was expending such energy and will and strength to fight for more time… still talked about the things he didn’t do. He never quite accepted his own greatness, all he had done, all the lives he profoundly changed. I wish he could have been here today if only to see the incredible good he did in the world.

That’s not to say he wasn’t proud – he was. He wasn’t vain at all. He was the most down-to-earth person you could know. But he was proud in all the right ways. When I was in high school, I had to do a paper on a US Supreme Court case, and my father took some friends of mine and I to the Trenton Law Library, so we could do research. Dad stayed with us, and about a half an hour into the day, he called me over to one of the stacks. He had some of the books off of the shelves so he could show me where he had argued cases in front of the New Jersey Supreme Court. He told me about the cases, and there was such pride – justifiable, earned pride – that he could show his son those accomplishments.

That was one of those moments with my father that I cherish, because it was this window that let me know that as important as it was for me that he was proud of who I was, he wanted me to be proud of who he was as well. Needless to say, I was always incredibly proud to be Sid Lehmann’s son.

How could I not be?  My father was, simply put, my hero. He spent his life in service of working people. He could have used his considerable, powerful intellect chasing down wealth and power, and I have no doubt that he could have acquired both, but instead he chose to serve. My dad is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, and he chose a life of service. And more than that, he had a fundamental and powerful respect for the people he served.

Because my father’s intellect was really only matched by his humility. It didn’t matter how smart he was, he respected the gifts and the intellect and the lives of the working people he served – and really of all the people he met. One of the many lessons I learned from him was that you should never use your own intellect to make others feel less smart than you, but as smart or smarter than you, and if you respected the ideas and perspectives of others, you could and would learn from anyone and everyone. My dad believed that whatever gifts one was given, they had to be spent lifting others up, not putting them down.

Dad believed also that kindness could be created writ large in the work you did in the world. You felt it from him, and his work as a labor lawyer came from a few deeply held beliefs. One was the idea that the purpose of life was that you should try to leave the world a little bit better off because you happened to live in it, and the other was that every person had a right to dignity and a fair shake at life.

He learned that idea first from his own mother -  it came from her belief that you should never intentionally try to hurt another person. He had a fundamental and abiding respect for all people -  or most anyway. He couldn’t believe or understand or forgive those who occupied a place of privilege–whether by birth or through their own success–and did not use their position to better the lives of others. It simply made no sense to him.

I remember when I was in college at U. Penn – and probably a little more (a lot more) full of myself than I should have been. I was questioning a lot of my beliefs about unions and working people and what people “deserved.”  At the time, the New York Daily News was on strike, and it was looking like the paper was going to go under. My dad and I got into a heated argument about it. I’d call it a discussion, but in my family, we argue. I was arguing that it made no sense for the unions not to give in and I said something about the paper not really “belonging” to them anyway. My dad replied by saying, “You know, maybe the union would be better off if they were run by a bunch of [expletive] Wharton MBAs, but that doesn’t mean that working people don’t have a right to a say in their own lives, and you should remember that of land, labor and capital, only one of the three is sentient.”

That was over twenty years ago, and I’ve used that argument ever since. No one has ever made a better one.

And so it was from my father that I learned that kindness has to be tempered by true steel in your spine – a lesson that has proven invaluable to me as a teacher and principal. But my father’s steel -  my father’s courage -  was incredible. Last year, after most people with a terminal cancer diagnosis would’ve long retired, my dad was still fighting. I remember him telling me about taking on Gov. Christie’s state appointed monitor in a case where my dad represented the custodians for the Trenton Public Schools. Gov. Christie’s unelected appointee wanted to privatize the custodial jobs, and my father would not let him. He rallied the Trenton Board of Ed to side with the union, imploring them not to lay off the parents of the very children they served, and in a letter to the state he wrote, “the state monitor should learn that urban communities and school districts exist for reasons other than transferring public monies to private corporations.” He did this while he was dying of cancer. We should all wish for one-tenth of the courage and the steel and the resolve that my father had.

That resolve that belief in standing up for what is right was not just in his public life but in his private life as well. That was who he was, that is what he passed on to me and to my sister who probably understood that lesson better than I did. There was no delineation between the morality of my father’s public life and morality of his private life. He was who he was in all aspects of his life, deeply committed to justice, deeply committed to fairness, deeply committed to kindness.

And he was so much more than political. He also loved the life of the mind, and there was nothing more fun than great passionate debate. I remember coming home from college shortly after having gone to a pro-choice rally in Washington, DC. Dad and I were driving somewhere and my Dad – who was deeply pro-choice – was arguing an anti-feminist, anti-choice line of reasoning, and I finally got so angry that I said, “You don’t even believe your own argument right now!” And he replied, “Yeah, but I just really love to debate with you.” And after I finished banging my head on the dashboard of the car, I realized even then what an incredible compliment that was. That love of the give and take of a debate — that willingness to learn from others while you were debating, even if it meant you didn’t “win,” I learned that from him. It was from my dad I learned how you can argue to learn, not just argue to win.

The list goes on and on… my dad was my baseball and soccer coach when I was a kid. He embraced Ultimate Frisbee when I fell in love with the sport, even learning to throw a forehand, just so we could have a catch. He was my moral compass. And as my life and my career has become what it has become, he was my best advisor and strategist. In one of the great joys of my life, over the past decade, I was able to be a strategist and sounding board for him as well. And he has been the most amazing grandfather to Jakob and Theo and my niece Amelia. He is one of the truly greatest men I have ever known – and likely ever will.

It’s funny, I say all of the time, “I am the son of a union lawyer and a teacher. I am the most derivative human being ever, none of my ideas my own.” Dad tried to argue that point with me–perhaps not surprisingly–but it really is true. My best ideas are merely an outgrowth–a logical extension–of all he and my mother taught me.

I haven’t quite come to terms with the fact that I will never have another conversation with my father again. I am sure I share that with many of you. And as much as anything else, I am angry that we were robbed of his third act. He and I talked about the things he knew he wasn’t going to have time for. There were still windmills to tilt at. There were still battles to fight. And in an era where it is so important to make sure that all people have a right to a say in their own lives – a right to self-determination and self-worth, we have lost one of our great champions in that fight.

So, Elizabeth has already given you her list – and it is an excellent one – but let me add one more thing. Let us all – to quote my Dad -  try to make the world a better place because we happened to have lived in it. The world is a better place because Sid Lehmann lived in it for sixty-seven years. It is because of the way he lived both his private and public lives. Now it is our turn. We have to ask ourselves – “What would Sid do?” And granted, the answer would usually involve profanity, but then there would be action. We should all work just a little harder to make the world a better place because we happened to have lived in it. To do that is to honor his life and honor his memory. And it has the added benefit of being the right thing to do, too.

Thank you, Dad, for being the most incredible father I could have ever wanted. Thank you for making me want to make the world a better place and for, along with Mom, showing me a path to do so. Thank you for making sure that I have known I was loved every day of my life.

I love you, Dad, and I’ll miss you more than I can say.

Thank you.

Nov 15

Sidney Lehmann – 1945-2012

Early this morning, November 15, 2012, my father ended his six-year battle with cancer. He was with his wife and children who made sure that his final moments were filled with laughter and love as he had lived. He will be deeply, deeply missed by his family and the many friends whose lives he touched. And as I wrote, I will miss him more than I can possibly say. And thank you to everyone who has reached out across so many media – your words mean the world to my family and me.

There’s much more to write in time about how we all in the edu-world have an obligation to the folks in my father’s generation who have fought the good fight… and how it is now our job to pick up the mantle, but that is a post for another day.

 

I wanted to let everyone know the funeral arrangements:

Services will be held Sunday November 18 @  2:00 pm

Adath Israel Synagogue
1958 Lawrenceville Rd.
Lawrenceville, NJ 08648

Shiva will be held at my parents’ house on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.