The result of the 2016 Presidential election silenced me. Listening to Meryl Streep’s speech when she accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes Award gave me back my voice.
Since November 9, 2016, I have questioned the point of writing about public education anymore. Why should I continue to criticize the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts when what I find harmful in them for students is now being normalized by the President-elect? How could I continue to criticize standards that limit the amount of literature students read when we have a President-elect who boasts of the fact that he doesn’t read? How could I criticize standards that recognize only predetermined right answers instead of critical or creative thinking when we have a President-elect who says he has all the answers and doesn’t need dialogue with others to explore possibilities or revise his thinking? How could I continue to advocate for excellent public schools for all children as the bedrock of a democracy when that President-elect nominates for U.S. Secretary of Education someone who wants to destroy public education? It all seemed futile.
Then I heard what Meryl Streep said about artists and journalists and knew that it applied to educators as well. You can listen to her speech here: https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=tightropetb&p=video+of+meryl+streep+speech+at+golden+globes+on+january+9%2C+2016#id=59&vid=c81a5c9dd5861ac45c2c81b50d1964b9&. Or you can read it below.
I love you all, but you’ll have to forgive me. I’ve lost my voice in screaming and lamentation this weekend, and I have lost my mind sometime earlier this year. So I have to read. Thank you, Hollywood Foreign Press, just to pick up on what Hugh Laurie said. You and all of us in this room really belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it: Hollywood, foreigners and the press.
But who are we? And what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places. I was born and raised and educated in the public schools of New Jersey. Viola was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina, came up in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Sarah Paulson was born in Florida, raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Sarah Jessica Parker was one of seven or eight kids from Ohio. Amy Adams was born in Vicenza, Veneto, Italy. And Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. Where are their birth certificates? And the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, raised in — no — in Ireland, I do believe, and she’s here nominated for playing a small-town girl from Virginia. Ryan Gosling, like all the nicest people, is Canadian. And Dev Patel was born in Kenya, raised in London, is here for playing an Indian raised in Tasmania. So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners, and if we kick them all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.
They gave me three seconds to say this. So an actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like, and there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that, breathtaking, compassionate work. But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hook in my heart not because it was good. It was — there was nothing good about it, but it was effective, and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart, and I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing.
Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence insights violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.
This brings me to the press. We need the principled press to hold power to account – to call them on the carpet for every outrage.
That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedom in our Constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists because we are going to need them going forward and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.
One more thing. Once when I was standing around on the set one day, whining about something, you know, we were going to work through supper or the long hours or whatever, Tommy Lee Jones said to me, “Isn’t it such a privilege, Meryl, just to be an actor?” Yeah, it is, and we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy. We should all be very proud of the work Hollywood honors here tonight. As my friend, the dear departed Princess Leia said to me once, “Take your broken heart. Make it into art.”
And that is what I will do. I will stop being defeated. I will end my two-month silence. I will let my broken heart energize my art as a teacher and as a teacher of teachers.
I will go back to speaking my truth. I know what good education is and will advocate for it. I know what the art of teaching entails. I am passionate about children having the best possible education because I know first-hand how education that privileges diversity, independent thinking, and social responsibility can transform lives. I will not stop because of the disrespect, violence, and bullying that now surround us. I will not stop empathizing with the children in this country who so need us educators – especially now.
I will ask of myself what Meryl Streep asked of journalists: How can I hold power accountable and safeguard the truth. The truth I want to safeguard is that the purpose of public education is to build the minds and hearts of all students by developing their potential as engaged learners and increasingly independent thinkers in every way imaginable. To do that, I must go back to opposing the Common Core Standards, designed by entrepreneurs and testing company personnel instead of educators. I must also go back to opposing the evaluation of students by standardized tests because that kind of assessment reduces learning for all students, especially those who need engagement and stimulation the most. I must go back to opposing charter schools because they take money away from the vast majority of children without notable results, and they encourage segregation. As Meryl Streep urged journalists, I must hold precious my responsibility to play a part in taking this democracy to its highest ground.
Meryl Streep is right. The oligarch-in-chief and the oligarchs with whom he has surrounded himself have incredible power and have the privilege of wealth. But we educators, like the actors and journalists, have our art. We can teach. We can speak the truth about kids, about learning, about diversity, about excellence. With that art and with one another we can fight back.
Let’s get busy.