“One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying. A persistent schizophrenia leaves so many of us tragically divided against ourselves. On the one hand, we proudly profess certain sublime and noble principles, but on the other hand, we sadly practise the very antithesis of these principles. How often are our lives characterised by a high blood pressure of creeds and an anaemia of deeds! We talk eloquently about our commitment to the principles of Christianity, and yet our lives are saturated with the practices of paganism. We proclaim our devotion to democracy, but we sadly practise the very opposite of the democratic creed. We talk passionately about peace, and at the same time we assiduously prepare for war. We make our fervent pleas for the high road of justice, and then we tread unflinchingly the low road of injustice. This strange dichotomy, this agonising gulf between the ought and the is, represents the tragic theme of man’s earthly pilgrimage.”
~Martin Luther King Jr., The Strength to Love
Martin Luther King Day was Monday, which meant sleeping in a bit, no school, more time with family and a longer run than usual. I had signed up for a virtual MLK Day run, a half marathon, my third virtual run of the year, a benefit for the Equal Justice Initiative.
I played a few rounds of Harry Potter Boggle with the kids and thought about how nice it was that they are coming to be of an age that such a thing is possible. I thought also about them growing up far too quickly. I let my eggs and toast settle a bit, then dressed warmly for the freezing temps the outside world had in store for me that day.
It had snowed on Friday, around six inches, enough that we were able to sled down the little hill in the front yard on Saturday morning. By Monday, the snow was cleared, but only sort of. I set out for my run, made it a few blocks, then turned around. I was slipping all over on the ice and needed my cleats. I strapped them on back at home and set out again, but a mile into my run I found that, while I needed them to keep from slipping on the icy patches, the places where the cement path was clear made them painful on my feet. Reluctantly, I stopped to remove my cleats. To try to avoid slipping, I tightened up my gate substantially and overemphasized a delicate mid-foot strike. In this way, I was substantially slowed, but I managed to keep from falling.
I felt good, despite my snail’s pace, and followed the trail out for eight miles before turning around. By that time, some seventy-five minutes into my run, the temperatures had risen to above freezing, and on the return trip I found myself sloshing through what I had on my way out slipped upon. It was treacherous, technical running, but it was peaceful—I was nearly the only person I saw in sixteen miles. By the time I got home I was tired but felt great. Sixteen miles at the rate I’m currently pledged means I raised about forty dollars for the Refugee Empowerment Center today. Not bad.
Tuesday I got up early, ran five miles on the treadmill while watching a documentary about blind tasting wine, and stretched out. My left achilles had an ominous twitch in it, and my right hamstring occasionally gave in to erratic fits of stabbing pain. Still, nothing too strange given yesterday’s workout. I rode five miles on the Peloton while I drank my protein shake and recovered as best I could, hoping for another week in the forty or even fifty-mile range.
All around us, schools are shutting down, in part or in full. I ask my students Tuesday morning if they were ok, and their looks assured me they are not. I offered what comfort I could, then made my confession about beginning the narrative on Afghanistan in the wrong place. I pointed them to the Buddha’s, and we talked about how they shouldn’t be defined by their destruction by the Taliban, but instead understood as part of Afghanistan’s rich and complex cultural heritage. Their assignment that morning: find something beautiful in Afghanistan and report back. While they worked, I added the word “Dignity” to the quote on the world map, crossing outside the borders of Greenland and nearly reaching the western edge of Iceland, and I sat down to write this post.
Wednesday morning I forced my achy body to cover five difficult miles on the treadmill. I continue to harbor concerns about my ability to sustain this level of mileage, unprecedented for me, over the course of an entire year. Thursday morning, however, seven miles flew by quickly while I watched a documentary about sommeliers and winemaking. It seems silly to say, but especially for a distance runner, feeling good feels… great.
Thursday in class, I had scheduled back-to-back-to-back Socratic Seminars. For my honors students, it was their second, and for my seniors, a somewhat less rigorous, more relaxed pace had us on our first one. I have come to expect a lot from my students, and what I’ve found is that when you expect a lot you get a lot, if you’re willing to honor the abilities of those you’re working with. I favor Socratic Seminar for many reasons. I think it’s good for all of us to be able to articulate our views aloud. I also love that Socratic Seminar allows me to assess what students do know, rather than what they don’t. A student who had read three hundred pages of a four-hundred page book could expect, at the very best, to manage a C on a traditional assessment, but in Socratic Seminar that same student can easily earn an A. I have little doubt that many people will find such an approach scandalous, though I have equally little difficulty telling them how wrong they are. Most of my kids are taking between six and eight classes and working jobs or playing sports on the side. You read three hundred pages? Awesome—tell me what you learned.
At one point during Socratic Seminar, a student pointed out that I chose all of these books, chose these ten from a field of twenty-five. He’s quite right of course. We extended that idea first to the entire class—I chose every book in the Humanities course he’s taking, and then to encompass education in a broader context; someone always chooses the book, and between the person who writes it and the person who chooses it, there starts to become an awful lot of degrees of separation between the subject and the student. Who we entrust to make these decisions is important, my students concluded. One student wondered aloud how Afghans see Americans, to which another replied without hesitation: “We can’t use these books, written in English,” he wisely emphasized, “as a mirror in which to see ourselves from the Afghan perspective.” Brilliant, I thought.
It was a day jam-packed with quotable moments, and I won’t here make a list. I will share a few common themes, however. The realization that sometimes, our efforts to help aren’t helpful, came up repeatedly, as did our prior look at the beauty of Afghanistan, and our newfound commitment not to portray Afghans as victims nor to think of the nation merely as a war zone. There were references to national parks, cultural landmarks, and so much more. The conversation ranged all over, and was undeniably thoughtful and fruitful and enjoyable. Near the end of class one of my students—the one who previously had suggested that perhaps the common narrative of Afghans rising above conflict as a singular story about an entire people might be problematic—put a punctuation mark on the class by holding up her book, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, and saying simply “This is the best book I ever read.” I’ve known the young lady for three years, and I know for a fact that she’s brilliant and has read hundreds of books. I could have retired happy at that moment.
While my honors class predictably thrived in their Socratic Seminar, my seniors did especially well also. They had a lot of questions about 9-11, which occurred several years before they were born, and they were willing to chase squirrels all over the place in their conversations, regularly catching them to my pleasure and surprise. One senior called I am a Bocha Posh “inspirational” while another went on at length about the line from The Kite Runner, “there is a way to be good again,” and how it had sucked them into the story, made it impossible to stop reading until they found out why Amir, the complex protagonist, needed to be redeemed. I left school Thursday teeming with faith in young people and optimistic about the future. Days like that—and there are many of them—remind me why I signed up for this teaching gig in the first place.
Friday morning, TJ and I met at five to go for a run. It was four degrees out, or would have been if not for a strong headwind that dropped the temp well into the negatives. It didn’t take long for the beard-sicles to start forming, and after nine miles the hot water of the shower burned my frigid skin as I scrambled to get ready and to work on time. Fortunately, Friday is tee-shirt and jeans day, which makes getting dressed a bit quicker. At forty-two miles on the week, I’m now at a hundred and twenty-five for January, and there are still ten days left in the month. I’ve never logged this kind of mileage before and it feels great, though the burning in my knees could go away and it wouldn’t bother me.
I got to school and pulled up my lessons for the day, then logged in and sent a quick email to Khaled Hosseini. I wanted him to know what my student said about his book, and I wanted to know more about the Broadway production of The Kite Runner. Assuming I’m still in the same teaching position next year, and assuming the pandemic ebbs again, taking kids to New York to see a show would be great. I’ve done it before and they love it. Taking kids to New York has been a highlight of my teaching career for over ten years now. We’ll see what happens, I suppose.
Saturday, I was reminded of the difference twenty degrees can make. I needed eight miles to clear fifty for the week, something I’ve never done in back-to-back weeks, but I felt so good when I got out on the trail that I went ahead and did ten, giving me fifty-two for the week, a hundred and two for the past thirteen days. I feel strong, building up this base, and many of my nagging injuries have ceased to nag, at least for the moment. If only I can maintain this all year, I thought to myself as I wrapped up my run in the late morning sun, jogging back to my house just in time for lunch. I opened a small bottle of sparkling wine, a Moscato d’Asti, to pair with my gargantuan un-wich from Jimmy John’s. I normally favor brut bubbles, but the added RS (residual sugar) of this traditionally sweet Italian sparkler was just what I needed after a solid week of running. That and a long soak in the bathtub, which I made it a point to fit in as well.
I’ve always enjoyed running, but so far 2022 feels entirely different than any year prior. I get the same level of exercise, the same destressing and relaxation that the sport has always provided to me and countless others, but now I have something of a greater purpose behind it too, as if for the first time in my life my running isn’t just about me. I started to think about all of those folks I’ve seen over the years at various races, running for a cause, running for a cure, and suddenly it feels quite strange that I didn’t think to join them until now. As ever, I suppose, it’s better late than never.
It was in graduate school, back when I was getting my theology degree and had vague plans to become a military chaplain, that I first read Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr. and fell in love with it. King, like X, another of my heroes of that era along with John Lewis and others, wasn’t one to mince words. As I studied theology, I found myself increasingly drawn to what is often called the “social gospel,” a place where I found an intersection between the faith of which people are so quick to speak and the actions by which I judge them. “Don’t’ tell me what you value,” I teach my students. “Tell me how you spend your time and your money, and I’ll know what you value.”
James, the ambiguous author of his eponymous New Testament text, writes that “Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” I liked that so much at one point that I had it tattooed on my body, and while today my faith rests more in my fellow human beings than perhaps it did at that time, the principle to me remains clear and true. If I’m going to run, to devote countless hours and exert almost unthinkable energy on a daily basis to this singular activity with which I am clearly so obsessed, then I can’t do it only for myself any longer. My time is borrowed, after all, and I need to employ as much of it as possible to the betterment of the world in which I am so thankful to live. Perhaps this is how I can once again bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between the ought and the is. Perhaps this is the way to be good again.