an overly-common observation: i have a love-hate relationship with letters of recommendation. most of this is derived from the fact that i can never bring myself to write anything that feels like a template or a re-write (enter margaret with an i'm-dave-molina-i-question-the-very-premise-of-your-question jab); i force myself to construct some sort of custom narrative of personal involvement with whomever i'm writing for (enter jake with a stop-making-it-about-yourself jab), and i often ask people i haven't talked to in a while to send me a couple key moments or experiences that stand out in our work together (enter sarah roth with an actually-you've-just-desciribed-a-template and/or a skip-the-parentheticals-and-get-to-the-point jab). the flipside is that i've always regretted not giving myself a more consistent and/or thorough structure for reflecting on my teaching experiences (now that i'm out of the classroom and have new context) and my work at the winter institute (now that i'm in it and have little or no context), and that shoehorning myself into a place where i try to remember what it was like to meet and/or appreciate someone for the first (or second, or third) time tends to dislodge enough material for unexpected reflective high notes to nestle in the stitching as i pull myself back from the vertigo of half-memory to some sort of near statement of why some young person or other is likely to "change the world," or whatever the accolade, scholarship, or institution begs for.
anyway, i spent a bit of time this afternoon on a last-minute rec letter for a former CRCL member, and in looking it over i've noticed the following:
(a) though the narrative details are particular, much of the nature of the appriciation and praise holds common ground with my experiences with so many of the CRCL leaders
(b) i think i'm starting to get better at unraveling what happened (and what didn't) at CRCL, and
(c) i'm hopeful that (b) implies that i'm going to get better at unpackaging the innards beneath the birth, life, and death of these groups.
I first met KB in the spring of 2007, when she came to Jim Hill High School to attend a visit by former Mississippi Governor William Winter. The Jim Hill Civil Rights/Civil Liberties (CRCL) group, a group I helped establish while I was a mathematics teacher at Jim Hill during the 05-06 and 06-07 school years, sponsored the event. At that point, CRCL participation included students from both Jim Hill and St. Andrew’s Episcopal school, and Gov. Winter’s visit provided an opportunity to reach out to more schools in the area. If I remember correctly, KB had heard about the event from her Latin instructor, Mr. J, and decided to attend with her mother. Afterwards, I remember KB staying to talk about CRCL and asking if she could come for the regular group meetings. Though it was immediately clear that CRCL had found itself a new member, it became quickly obvious that the group had gained so much more: a new leader.
Looking back, much of the continuity and growth of CRCL throughout that spring and the entire 07-08 school year relied on the involvement of KB. She was one of those rare young people whose composure, diligence, and intellectual maturity completely masked her age; every year since KB was a freshman I’ve been convinced she’s a senior. Her natural capacity for critical inquiry provided a steady anchor for the group’s youth-directed philosophies, and in time developed into an outstanding and unobtrusive model for other students in their quest for critical citizenship. Furthermore, KB’s clear commitment to intercommunity dialogue ensured that the group would always push to maintain CRCL participation from as many school and neighborhood communities as possible. She not only cultivated a core of Murrah students to attend Jim Hill meetings with her, but in the spring of 2008 KB and some fellow Murrah students attempted to establish a stand-alone group at their own school, which brought even more young people to CRCL despite the group’s short lifespan. For example, a current CRCL standout, Murrah junior HW, found her way into the group by way of KB’s leadership and outreach.
Although KB’s active participation in and promotion of CRCL meetings played a huge role in the group’s continued activity, the most crucial role she played was behind the scenes. That is, KB so valued a space after school to state her own views and engage responsibly in the opinions of a diverse set of her peers that she spent a considerable amount of time—Friday after-school meetings at Cups in Fondren, phone calls throughout the week, endless debriefing after weekly CRCL meetings, etc.—helping the group transition seamlessly through the loss of its original moderators (Mr. Jake Roth and myself) and into a new phase of increased student management and oversight. Through KB’s initiative, manifesting itself in everything from planning and running meetings to typing and printing agendas, the Jim Hill CRCL evolved into a student organization that can constantly reimagine itself—surviving not only changes in adult leaderships, but in its youth leadership as well.
In my current position as project coordinator for the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, I spend much of my time trying to develop a systemic approach to cultivating what KB and her peers at the Jim Hill CRCL have done so naturally: establish, support, and maintain a space committed to critical inquiry and intercommunity dialogue. Through looking back on now four years of the group’s activity, and in meeting other groups throughout the state, I am constantly amazed at what these young people at CRCL have been able to do, and KB especially. Though it is incredibly cliché to remark on children as our future, I can not help but wonder that hope for democracy, citizenship, and civic responsibility lies in young people like KB, who are ready to engage directly in the crucial issues of our time, and just need space to do so, faith that they will, and equal parts challenge and encouragement.