(This week’s letter is adapted from my remarks to the MICDS 7th and 8th grade classes at the Middle School Ram Impact Summit, or RISE, assembly on January 14.)
I believe that it is an essential habit of a happy life always to seek and to find gifts in our experiences. Many of you may know that before I came to MICDS, I was a head of school for several years in northern Alabama, and during that time one gift that I received was an appreciation for the music of Jason Isbell, a singer-songwriter who was born and raised in that region. Many of my colleagues at my former school grew up with Isbell or with members of his family.
Isbell’s 2017 album The Nashville Sound, which was nominated for Album of the Year by the Country Music Association, and which was honored as Album of the Year by the Americana Music Association, features a song called “White Man’s World” that includes these lyrics:
I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes
Wishing I’d never been one of the guys
Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke.
Ol’ times ain’t forgotten.
The gift of this song to me was its exposure of my former self to the man I have become, because I, too, like Isbell, was once “one of the guys / Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke.” Our work together today will focus in part on the importance of being an “upstander” when we witness instances of unkindness or cruelty. I have not always been an upstander in my own life, particularly when I was about the age that you are now, growing up in a small, effectively segregated Virginia town in which racism too often passed for humor, and during a time in my life when I felt keenly a desire to fit in, to be cool, to be accepted – as I expect that many of you experience such feelings in your own lives today. I regret that I did not push back against the cruel jokes that were sometimes told in my presence. I wish for you greater strength than I demonstrated then.
I have learned since that time in my life a secret that helps to give me greater strength than I once had. I will tell it to you today, but my telling it alone won’t make a difference. It will only make a difference if you hear it and take it to heart.
The final line of the stanza that I read to you from Isbell’s song is “Ol’ times ain’t forgotten.” It is a lyric with multiple layers. On its surface, it tells us that Isbell has not “forgotten” his past failures to push back against “another white man’s jokes.” Nor, one might suppose, has the man into whose eyes Isbell now stares forgotten the insults and injuries he has suffered as a result of such failures to act – instances of complicity when, in the words of the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, “good men look on and do nothing.”
Beneath its surface, however, “Ol’ times ain’t forgotten” surely also refers to the opening line of the song “Dixie,” which was effectively the national anthem of the Confederacy during the American Civil War: “I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten.” By alluding to “Dixie,” Isbell acknowledges the terrible durability of racism in American life. Heard this way, the words “ol’ times” extend beyond the short term of Isbell’s individual past to the long term of our nation’s collective past.
The lyric’s surface and sub-surface meanings, though distinctive, are nevertheless mutual. As long as people tell jokes or make assumptions that discriminate on the basis of race, then a social climate of racism will persist within which people will continue to tell racist jokes or make racist assumptions – or, for that matter, tell ethnic or homophobic or sexist or other discriminatory jokes, or make ethnic or homophobic or sexist or other discriminatory assumptions. A climate of unkindness is conducive to small acts of unkindness, which in turn sustain a climate of unkindness.
When I was your age, I did not work hard enough to break this vicious cycle. I hope that you will work harder than I did. Doing so requires extraordinary social and emotional strength. It requires extraordinary strength to say to a friend, “Maybe you didn’t realize it, but I think that what you just said was unkind. Can we talk about that?” It requires extraordinary strength as well to be that friend, and to listen, and to say, “Maybe you are right,” and then to approach the other person and say, “I am so sorry if what I said was hurtful to you.” It also requires extraordinary strength to be that other person, and to listen, and to say, “I believe you, and it’s okay. Thank you for saying something.”
The strength to stand up, the strength to acknowledge, and the strength to forgive. I wish all of these strengths in your lives, here at MICDS and beyond. And I wish for you discernment as you continue to grow, to be able to sense when the words or actions you are about to speak or to take might be hurtful, and to govern yourself against speaking or taking them. If we do this work well, then there will be less of a need to stand up, less of a need to acknowledge, less of a need to forgive.
So what is the secret I have learned that gives me greater strength than I once had? It is simply this: Every single person I meet is more important than I am. And every single person you meet is more important than you are. If you believe this in your heart, and if you live out this belief in your life, extending dignity and kindness and grace to everyone you meet because you believe that person to be more important than you, then you will never commit an unkind act. And when you witness an unkind act, you will always find it easy to stand up to it.
Every single person you meet is more important than you are. I hope you will carry this secret to happiness with you today and in your lives ahead. Thank you for spending some of your time with me this morning. I wish you a wonderful and inspiring RISE day together.