Good evening. Francine, Catherine, David, and Gabe, I thank you for your poetry and for your music. And to all of you, I thank you for this occasion. It is a great honor to speak to you tonight.
I begin my response to the poem “Warriors of Light” by asking: What is a warrior of light?
There is a lingering ring in the phrase that echoes the ecclesiastical cadences of our deepest beliefs—that on our sides and in our darkest moments that, if only faith would have it, we have someone or something invisible fighting on our behalf. Some call this God. Others call it angels. Tonight I will call it Creative Determination.
For these youth, youth such as Francine, Catherine, David, and Gabe, creative determination kicks in when the darkness of oppression does not allow us to see past “the bodies strewn across tall grass like puzzle pieces” scattered across an open table.
These youth have come to us tonight, asking: “Can anyone see it but us?” The it that they are referring to is the glow within us that pierces the gloom of dark nights. This too is creative determination, the sparkling shadow of the soul that refuse death for life, clings to hope though the weight of nihilism rest on heavily on our backs. Creative determination is like the uncle “crucified to his hospital bed,” who until his last breath we find fighting.
It is a message to youth mentored, who have “a mental ward for shelter,” but who also find home within the creative mind “when the world ploughs out” the distended ceremonies of promise that enrich the soil of our destinies’ gardens.
Let us listen to them, hear their instructions, and learn to be warriors of light. Their lessons are succinct and simple. To be a warrior of light, you must:
- March until every mind you meet erupts volcanic like Etna in Italy and Erebus in Antarctica.
- Make your heart a tank clothed in resilience like the lone student standing against the red army in Tiananmen Square and push forward against the gust of uncertainty and the violent shoves of inequity until we arrive to our desired destination.
- Load new words in the muzzle of our mouths and shoot them at targets of injustice until we assassinate the last soldiers of hopeless until they no longer slay our people pitilessly with their machetes of poverty and self-loathing.
- Hold hands in solidarity, as soldiers who have each other’s backs in the ever-urgent struggle for life, liberty, and collective joy.
- Die-cast souls into a canon that vaults beyond the emptiness of our current circumstances, and blaze in harmony with the northern lights—each color a magnificent representation of God, a lamp pointing the way to freedom.
This is how we become warriors of light. We listen. This is what preemptive education has been about from the beginning. Listening to the hushed voices of youth, not only to what they have to say, but to what their saying suggests in the company of our starved ears.
We listen for the solutions that wait impatiently beyond the heavy clouds of darkness that hover over our hopes and dreams. We listen for the spirit, which is “a war cry muted by maggots,” to take on our most formidable adversary which we find too often is ourselves.
In contemporary education and in urban educational reform, we’ve been asked to schedule new and bold standards to promote growth in learning. We have become too determined to test our failures, as if by testing, we would find the most effective method to motivate achievement by creating new ways to force our students to fail. Hence, we would make plump the pig by giving her a diet of scales.
We’ve been warned that the generation before is lost, that in cities from Detroit to Baltimore, our ability to educate all is disabled. However, we see beyond school open doors for learning through organizations like Urban Word NYC to the armada of out-of-school programs that surround schools such as El Puente (in NYC). The lesson that such organizations teach is that learning is not a habit of option, but a habit of humanity—that youth, when given the opportunity, rent dark veils with sabers of light.
In so doing, these youth give those of us like Yolanda Sealy Ruiz and Ernest Morrell—those of us who have worked tirelessly in the struggle with youth and who have taken youth voices seriously for years—a chance to shine our little lights on the hills of our hopes in a time when desperate darkness has left so many blinded.
The poem I heard tonight, “Warriors of Light,” is a clarion call for change, a letter to the listening, a note to you and me from youth who have always spoken to us, although at times we have been unwilling to listen. In their call, these youth are reminding us of the light that burns fervent in this room.
In this room tonight are many warriors of light like Sarah McAdams, who began teaching English this year in Detroit, MI. Ms. McAdams’s light is in her listening, which she uses to construct lessons in the images of her students—lessons filled with the voluble voices of youth like Francine, Cahterine, David, and Gabe.
A warrior of light is a principal like Scott Conti from New Design High School, who encourages his teachers to teach creatively by fostering school environments that reflect the play spaces that youth occupy beyond the classroom walls—spaces where youth play video games and learn together, spaces where scratching as an element of hip hop and learning is subject matter, where DJ-ing is considered alongside Dante, where tags and graffiti decorate the social scape of a building, and where the building belongs not to the oligarchs but uniquely to those of us who actually occupy it.
Who are the warriors of light?
Warriors of light are individuals like Michael Cirelli, Jamila Lyiscott, and Mikhal Lee, who crisscross the country, traveling yearly from NY to Wisconsin, from MI to CA, to preach the good news of youth culture and to exorcise deficit discourses with the holy water of a hope that maintains a profit perspective. Yes we can. This perspective no only says, “Yes kids can.” It also says, “Yes they do. “
A warrior of light is the army of interested and caring individuals—like each of you here tonight—who have so chosen to dedicate time to the worthy project of rearranging the failed destinies that a broken society has impassionedly promised to our most disadvantaged children.
A warrior of light is Jen Johnson, who through hip-hop debate, has insisted that young and otherly-affected urban student can participate in a debate culture on their own terms and benefit from the exercise of ideas in the company of structured dialogue performed in verse.
Across this country warriors of light are waging a new peace on the violence and weaponry of cynicism. We are waging peace against the lifeless legislation that has too often and too boldly insisted on a single narrative of education—one of perdition in a place outlined for our prosperity.
Throughout this great city, warriors of light are convening in a sanctimonious brigade—allied to serve and support the dreams of tomorrow that play mighty in the minds of both youth who fill our classrooms and those who have been forced out. These light warriors are the safety nets for our future. They are the cushion, blocking the blows of inequity.
From Brooklyn to the Bronx, from Queens to the farthest reaches of Staten Island, every youth voice comes to us as light. In their echo, we too must become warriors of light, beating back the gloom of ignorance that says some kids can’t learn; that insists the journeys of our present hopes are obstacled by blockades of doubt. But in our waiting, we must too find refuge in their light, so as our lights dim we can stake tomorrow’s battles in the charisma of these light soldiers’ (re)births.
Thank you, Poets. Thank you, Urban Word. Thank you, Preemptive Ed.
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*This speech was delivered on September 28th at the 2012 Preemptive Education Conference held at Teachers College Columbia University in New York City.