I have been trying to wrap my brain around that thought this week and hope to connect some seemingly unconnected thoughts and ideas on this page.
We are putting the finishing touches on “REBIRTH: New Orleans,” our 1-hour film about schooling there since Katrina and the flooding. We’ve dedicated the film to the kids who were shot to death with handguns during the years we filmed there. That casualty list includes a young girl who is in the film. Christine Marcelin was just 15 when she was murdered.
When you meet Christine early in the film, you learn that she wants to go to Princeton and become a veterinarian. She was killed last spring in an act of senseless violence, shot by teenagers who apparently feared that she might know something about a murder they had committed a few days earlier.
Life is tragically unfair.
Here’s another example: This week the obituary page of the New York Times reported the news of the death of 82-year-old Olen Burrage, a long time member of the Ku Klux Klan and owner of the Mississippi farm where the bodies of three slain civil rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, were found in 1964. Burrage died in Meridian, Mississippi.
The Times article comes as close as it can to declaring, “Burrage was guilty” without saying it. It points out that he had built a dam on his property and offered it as a burial ground. “An F.B.I. agent, John Proctor, claimed to have learned from an informant that Mr. Burrage had said something quite different, telling a roomful of Klansmen discussing the arrival of the civil rights workers, ‘Hell, I’ve got a dam that will hold a hundred of them.’”
To further convince the reader of Mr. Burrage’s guilt, the obituary includes a version of events described by someone who was convicted: “The Klan had arranged for the bodies to arrive at Mr. Burrage’s property at midnight. Mr. Burrage was waiting in a 1957 Chevrolet to direct Klansmen to the dam site. After the bodies had been buried, the top of the grave was bladed off so it looked undisturbed.
Mr. Burrage and several other Klansmen then went to his trucking company garage, and Mr. Burrage filled a glass gallon jug with gasoline, to be used to burn the civil rights workers’ 1963 Ford station wagon, which had transported their bodies. He said he would pick up the men assigned to do the burning in a diesel truck as it would be a normal vehicle to see on the highway late at night.”
As a final bit of damning evidence, the obituary notes: “Many who have studied the case have noted that Mr. Burrage consulted an agent of the federal Soil Conservation Service about possible subsidies for the dam he planned. It turned out he was eligible for the subsidies. He never followed up.” That sentence just hangs there, letting the reader absorb the implication–he didn’t follow up because…..
But Olen Burrage lived a long and seemingly satisfied life with his wife of 62 years, three children and ‘many’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Life is unfair…but, happily, sometimes it’s not.
Some good men and women live long and honorable lives and create living monuments that will improve society for years to come. One such man turns 85 this week. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., the unassuming, proud and occasionally feisty intellectual who created Core Knowledge schools, observes his birthday on March 22nd. Don Hirsch was a widely unknown English professor at the University of Virginia when he published “Cultural Literacy” in 1987. The book’s subtitle–”What Every American Needs to Know”– outraged liberal intellectuals, many of whom, I suspect, did not read the book before condemning Professor Hirsch as an elitist. He is anything but. He’s a proud ‘small d democrat’ who believes that knowing lots and lots of things actually levels the playing field for rich and poor.
Don did not stop with Cultural Literacy, still hasn’t stopped. He created the Core Knowledge Foundation and began issuing curriculum guides, grade by grade. “What Every First Grader Needs to Know,” and so on up the ladder.
Before long there were Core Knowledge Schools, several of which I have visited over the years. I wish his critics would make that trip. The ones I have seen (in several states) have been vibrant places where everyone seems engaged in learning and discovering. On one visit, I selected kids at random and asked them to read aloud from books I knew they had never seen, books that were either grade-appropriate or one step above. All read flawlessly, probably because students in Core Knowledge schools do a lot of reading.
They don’t practice taking reading tests because, as Don wisely observed, “if you want children to do well on reading tests, they ought to read a lot.”
About 800 US schools use the Core Knowledge approach. While that’s not even one percent of our schools, the number is growing. Perhaps someday Core Knowledge schools will be as ubiquitous as Starbucks.
There’s no point to cursing the dark truth about life’s unfairness. It is what it is, and so, while we rage against the dying of the light, let’s embrace each day. Every chance you get, tell those you love that you love them. Because life is unfair, they, or you, might not be around to say those words tomorrow.
And Happy Birthday, Don.