Heidi and I went to a big language arts conference in Philadelphia, PA. We met up with a lot of old friends and mentors. And we met some new ones. The NCTE conference is like coming home for me. But because it is so expensive to fly, be a member and register, I only get to go every other year or so. It is a wonderful time to see old friends, teachers and acquaintances.
This is a huge teacher’s conference. There are thousands of people attending, hundreds presenting. It is held in a different city every year so it is like this huge moving village. San Diego, Chicago, NYC, Atlanta, Philly. I get to see my professional village every couple years. Sometimes I just step to the side of a bottleneck in the teacher traffic and watch the people go by, occasionally spotting an old friend or acquaintance from another time in my life
Sometimes my mind sort of keeps the biological clock going on their image for me so the extra gray or thinning hair and deepening wrinkles are exactly how I know them. Others I may not have seen for 4, or 6, or 8 years and their current appearance is a surpriseOne interesting feature is seeing my old peeps in two-year intervals.
The opposite is surely true. My own hair is graying and my beard is half white. I’ve been a full-time-glasses-wearer for many years and I’ve put on a few pounds. So we clap each other on the back and exchange hugs. My old professor, Jerry Harste, gives me a peck on the cheek and a big bear hug.
Going to these conferences feels good. It’s sort of like coming home again. It is energizing professionally as well as personally. Attending sessions by young earnest teachers and college professors is a way to push my current thinking, get some fresh ideas and become juiced up for these winter days stretching ahead of us.
I had the good fortune of running into an old student teacher from the fall of ’97. Gresham Brown has become a masterful teacher and presenter. While it has been a number of years since we’ve seen each other, our relationship fell easily back into place with the stories of family and school and how the years have flown. When Gresham did his full time student teaching in Kindergarten he was able to bear witness to an important time in my son Devin’s life.
We presented with brilliant teacher friends from Hawaii and Arizona and it was a great feeling to connect people we’ve known for years who are like-minded. We were a little nervous in our preparation (at least I was) as we all hung out in Jennifer and Renee’s hotel room the night before. We shared our ideas and thought aloud about how they would fit together. That work, that thinking up together, was such a great bonding experience for us; another great shared experience around which our friendship is forged.
Of course, being in Philly, you have to experience some of the historical sites. Our friends Jennifer and Renee from Hawaii walked to Independence Hall early Saturday morning to get tickets to a late afternoon tour. I was psyched. I teach about the Revolution, the Declaration and the Constitution and I’ve seen pictures, read books, and viewed videos. But to be able to go to the actual building where Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, et al, met and argued and made deals and sweated and swore and laughed and wrote and fussed and positioned themselves and gave favors and made alliances and worried, that would be amazing. That was the wild place to be.
So, Jennifer and Renee and I trucked the six or eight blocks to get there – literally breathing in the city. Horse drawn carriages for historical tours, cigarette smoke, steam coming up from manhole covers worn shiny smooth from years of traffic, homeless folks with long beards, stylishly dressed young business people in suits and dress coats, and everywhere that cool Philadelphia accent.
Not far from our hotel we could hear an amplified shouting voice. “Maybe a street preacher,” Renee said. We walked on, the voice ahead on our path toward Independence Hall. On a riser ahead of us, shouting into a microphone, which powerfully amplified and distorted his voice, was an African American man with a long beard and wrap around sunglasses. He was really riled up.
While his message was confusing, at times quoting New Testament scripture, at times invoking God to help Black people to rise up, his message was mainly one of revolution. As we walked directly in front of his riser, he shouted, “God HATES the White man!” Not me, I thought.
Then on to Independence Hall. Being there with the teachers from Innovations Charter School made the experience that much more meaningful. Renee took pictures of her class’ ‘flat’ dolls with all of the historic backgrounds.
Just before we headed to our hotel, the big clock tower of Independence Hall struck six. We watched the crescent moon next to the tower of the building in the clear indigo sky. We shared our feelings about being in that amazing place on our return trip.
As we walked back to the hotel, it was full of Saturday evening foot traffic, busy people on their Saturday night missions. We could see a guy ahead of us squatting down with what I took as a backpack, its contents spilled around him on the sidewalk. I thought he had just dumped his stuff to reorganize it, to get rid of the trash.
Soon we were within earshot of the loud street preacher (or whatever you might call him). There were guys standing on either side of his makeshift stage with their arms crossed over their chests. Bodyguards? It was intense, scary. It was one racially charged statement after another. “You want to know why public education is mandatory for African Americans?! Because they want to brainwash all of us to do the White man’s bidding!” Not mine, I thought. “Whether you think White people are out to get you or not, it’s a good idea to treat every one of them like they are!” Not such a good idea, I thought. “You’ve got to understand that EVERY WHITE MAN WITH MONEY HATES EVERY ONE OF US!!” Not me, I thought. There was a sign to the side of his stage. In large block letters it read, “GOD HATES YOUR FEAST DAYS!” Not mine, I thought. A mixed race couple walked by, arm in arm, heads down. To the Black woman, the bearded man shouted into the mic, “You can do better than that white @#$%, Sister!”
This trip to Philadelphia was such an interesting blend of experiences. Thinking up with my professional community. Poverty. Conversations with old friends. Hatred. Getting a glimpse into the brilliant minds of our forefathers who fought for freedom. Realizing that most of them were slave owners. Hugging the necks of old friends and being introduced to new ones. Stupidity. Abundance. Crime and desperation.
As I write this on the plane on the way home to Lexington, SC, Heidi is talking shop with a friend and colleague. I can’t wait to get home to see our boys, to spring the dog from the kennel, to plan for these last couple of days before Thanksgiving. I have so much to think about, so much to be thankful for.
Philly. What a trip. The City of Brotherly Love.