School ends Thursday for Carol Charismas’ seventh-grade English classes at Paseo Academy. But I will always remember a folk tale they covered driving home lessons of community versus the individual.
Charismas had written some quotes on the board to better illustrate the lesson. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, “Whether you think you’re important or not, you are.”
Larry Flynt, who has pushed free speech boundaries on issues of pornography, said: “Majority rule only works if you’re also considering individual rights. Because you can’t have five wolves and one sheep voting on what to have for supper.”
Charismas laughed. She told her second-hour class, “It’s food for thought.” Charismas has had me in her classroom as Kansas City Public Schools works to achieve full accreditation this year.
Oscar Wilde wrote: “Society exists only as a mental concept in the real world. There are only individuals.” Charismas added, “You are challenged to go deeper than ever.”
Embedded in the quotes are concepts the seventh-graders will have to grapple with their entire lives. They will have to determine whether they as individuals are more important than the community.
In class, behavior matters so that all of the students can pay attention and hear questions and instructions from the teacher. Safety also is a concern so that no one person’s action is a threat to the teacher, other students or anyone in the school.
That’s not been true all of the time. This school year a student tried to set a girl’s hair on fire. That same student a few weeks later in December set a fire in the second-floor boys restroom, forcing the evacuation of the building and everyone into the cold for about an hour.
The consequences? The boy was allowed to return to the school, where last month he damaged Charismas’ desk during class.
A quote on Charismas’ board from Mohandas Gandhi said: “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”
But a difficult, disruptive youth in a class can negatively affect the behavior and learning for others. I have seen it happen, and that must not be tolerated.
Charismas shifted to a story in the Common Core Literature book, the “Coyote Steals the Sun and Moon,” a traditional Zuni tale retold by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz. The story personifies an eagle and a coyote as hunters who happen upon a Kachinas pueblo. The Kachinas, who possessed the sun and the moon in separate boxes, were doing sacred dances when they invited the coyote and eagle to dine with them.
When the Kachinas went home to sleep, the eagle and coyote stole one of the boxes. The coyote pestered the eagle repeatedly to let him carry the box.
The eagle, who refused initially, finally relented but made the coyote promise not to open the box. Out of curiosity and greed, the coyote, lagging behind the eagle, opened the box.
The eagle had put the sun and moon in the same box, and each escaped from the coyote. The consequences — in the folk tale tradition — were dire. The plants turned brown, the leaves fell from the trees and it suddenly was winter. When the sun fled into the sky, “the peaches, squashes and melons shriveled up with the cold.”
The coyote, as the individual, had his way, but the consequences for everyone were awful. The eagle said: “You fool! Look what you’ve done! You let the sun and moon escape, and now it is cold. Now your teeth are chattering, and it’s your fault that cold has come into the world.”
The folk tale concludes: “It’s true. If it weren’t for coyote’s curiosity and mischief making, we wouldn’t have winter; we could enjoy summer all the time.”
I hope the lesson wasn’t lost on Charismas’ students as they leave for summer and prepare for eighth grade. Because it’s in the community of learning with students being responsible for their well-being and that of others in the school that the district will have a shot at full accreditation.