For John Tomsett.
It isn't supposed to mean anything, is it? The nation state? It's just a construct. The lines on the world map are inventions resulting from geopolitical compromises between artificially divided populations.
And our values? Aren't they universal, as opposed to British, French, or Syrian? The lines of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are founded on the basic premise of maximum liberty for all.
Yet, in the light of Friday's events in the city of the revolution and of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, all rational political philosophy seems inadequate to the challenges posed by the radical other.
Depending on whom I speak to, when, and on my mood, I am sometimes French, sometimes Scottish, often British, and almost always none of the above. I sometimes even ham up my American education. Nationality, for me, is a conversational plaything, a useful rhetorical gambit and little else. Since childhood, because I moved so often, I've considered myself a citizen of the world on the good days, and a homeless outcast on the bad ones. It has been my lot to experience the longing for a tribe, and to observe in myself two factors which have consistently made that longing feel like a weight on my shoulders: love and fear.
Friday, I was French again. Despite all my rationalisations, I felt French and will not have felt it any less than any other French person. I felt a need to be there with and for my tribe. Love. I felt an overwhelming and ineffable need to cry, to scream and to be held. Fear.
The utopias philosophers speak of, beyond war and strife, depend not only on humanity conquering our fear of each other, but also our love for one another, for they are two sides of a coin whose currency is belonging.
I dreaded the RE lesson this morning, in which the cover work left for me was to broach Friday's events in the context of forgiveness, but what I learned from the process was that our personal response does not have to be our societal one. Perhaps I can't forgive, but I don't want to live in a society that isn't forgiving. The rational world of the philosophers reminds us that our aspirations and principles exist beyond our immediate emotions and needs. They must, in order to withstand reality's onslaughts. Those secular principles don't rely on a transcendent deity, but on something that transcends us nonetheless: the other.
You. You uphold what we believe in when I haven't the strength, just as I will for you. You stop me transgressing our principles when my fears overcome my capacity for love. You make sure love keeps up the fight.
How did I learn that through teaching a cover lesson? I didn't hide my emotions, but I didn't lose my professionalism. We challenged every assumption including mine, and at every turn the children chose a better world. They chose empathy and understanding over hate and easy judgments. They chose to believe that knowledge is power and that with better knowledge on both sides, less violence would ensue. They did what children do. They saw not through me but beyond me, and showed me the path.
That they engaged sufficiently in that hour was a testament to the power of an absence. Jake wasn't present today due to an internal isolation. Permanent exclusion beckons. His behaviour is more than the school can manage. Jake is from a broken home, and Jake breaks things. He is a bully. He truants. He has little regard for rules or anyone who tries to impose them.
Jake has no tribe and no sense of belonging. He is sick of home and he is sick of school. Neither seems to want him, and so he is busy, most of the time, trying to create his own. Its principles are intolerance, aggression, and transgression. Jake, to put it bluntly, is feared. He is feared by peers and teachers alike.
Nevertheless, I missed him today. I missed him because he was the only one in the class who would have truly challenged the resolve of the others in their moral choices. I missed him because we may have achieved less with him there, but it might have been more meaningful. I missed him because he stood to gain the most from it. Mostly, I missed him because there is always love in my heart for the one without a tribe, for the outcast.
Will the class community forgive him his past trespasses when he returns, or will they find themselves unable to make the link between Paris and home, between their philosophy and their lived experience, between principles and practice? Will they allow love to conquer their fears? In this class, in this instance, love just might conquer fear, but the system probably has other plans for Jake.
I can't help but wonder whether, perpetuating the folly of the adult world, excluding Jakes across the land isn't sowing the seeds of the next generation's discords. For all the talk of the supremacy of knowledge in education, are we prioritising academic knowledge over knowledge of each other?
They see beyond us, but will we let them get there?