The Search for Illumination: Education In the Penal Colony



for my mother, on her 91st birthday, 12/19, who tells me she wishes she were 30 so that she could once again teach kids about this world today and take to the streets

“I don’t know. I don’t think I can go to study abroad in Paris,” she says and hesitates and grins.

When she sits across from me, her shoulders are barely higher than my desktop. Her hijab frames her face perfectly: wide, inquisitive, dark eyes that are alive, dancing, penetrating; high cheekbones; her lips are full and when she smiles she gets small creases at the sides of her mouth that resemble ripples edging from the shore of a serene lake.

I ask why not?, though I know the answer: She’s from Sierra Leone and a Muslim.

“Even when I flew to Kenya,” she continues, still smiling, “the police at the airport stopped me — it was very scary — because they thought I was Somali. No one is safe — no one that looks like me. An African Muslim.”

She giggles a bit, this time as if to call attention to the tragic irony of it all.

This young woman, but nineteen, left her family and traveled from Sierra Leone to Hong Kong to the United States to the state of Vermont andMiddlebury College for an education. She’s earned scholarships all the way. She’s brilliant and will undoubtedly do great things in the future.

But reality is harsh; the world she — and all of us, really — navigate is dark, foreboding, threatening, many parts forbidden.

How then do we justify this world to our students? What do we tell her? Where’s opportunity now?

What is the educator’s role in addressing the harsh reality that not everyone has the right and capacity to move about freely in what we still falsely call the free world?

Continue reading…

5 thoughts on “The Search for Illumination: Education In the Penal Colony

  1. My car broke down a few weeks ago and I found myself in a bit of an existential crisis, Franz-Kafka-style-Uber ride to my work at a Community College. It was early, I am quiet, contemplative, perhaps slighlty cranky in the morning on my commutes. The Uber driver insisted on chatting me up. “So, are you a teacher? What are you teaching these kids these days? Our educational system is a mess?”

    Against my best judgment I responded thinking he and I might be on the same page about education. Then, the words fell from his mouth like a car bomb rupturing my eye sockets and deafening my ears with permanent hearing loss. “You know, the thing that I don’t get, it’s a damn shame–why the hell are we wasting tax payer money on teaching these kids history? They don’t need to know about History.”

    History is repeating itself and I’m struggling with trying to understand why we as a nation, as a world, can not see that.

    Thank Hector for bringing me back to my history of having previously read Kafka and Said. I need to get back to it, I need to be reminded of their words–I need, our nation/our world, needs to look closely at their words. And if we don’t look, if we look away, history will repeat itself.

    • Betty, how great to hear from you! What a story! Wow! I can’t believe – and maybe I should – that there are people like this around. Yes, indeed, I think that we need to put our heads together and re-visit these texts, watch movies, look at art; we need a renaissance of sorts, a kind of stimulation back to language, images, everything we’ve gone through and have forgotten or put aside to live our lives in the pursuit of god knows what.

      You’re inspiring me to continue down this road, Betty. These are very challenging times, I think, and will perhaps be more so …

      If you care to, and along these lines, The Policy published 2 of my pieces and as of Dec 15, both lead the journal:

      Interested to see what you find here … 🙂 I’ve been moving over to Medium, of late, finding it a better system, though a harder one to be noticed. So we continue!

      Happy Holidays, Betty! And thank you so much for reaching out. I still can’t believe the story! It actually scares me…

  2. Yes! Please! You’ve said it eloquently Hector. Let’s do this thing, otherwise I don’t how I will get through the next couple of years. My husband and are devoting our next writing-thon to just this type of topic–we’re tyring to frame it, but something along the lines of dystopian future… uggh!

    I can’t help but think of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, I’m feeling like I need to choose an important text and memorize it/tatoo it on my heart so I have it safe with me to be able to share its history at any given moment. [I met Ray by the way… adored him. He spoke often all over Los Angeles, I went to hear him speak several times and I always offered extra credit to my students to go see him. I can’t believe he’s gone. I wonder how he’d voice his perspective on our current state of affairs if he was still with us?]

    Thanks Hector, keep this going. And happiest holidays to you and your familia!

    • Thanks, again, Betty! And thanks for the link to Kiefer. I’ll certainly check it out.

      Now, as for you writing-thon with you husband, have you guys ever thought of writing these on something such as Medium? I mean, you can create a “writing-thon” magazine, on Medium, and start putting things up.

      I say thing because, as I’m trying to advocate, we need more voices, more us speaking, and those of us that can write, must; it really boils down to our responsibility now.

      I see that you saw this: Well, you can always be a writer in the Uncanny. Actually, given our history, it would be very cool, no? Think about it.

      And I see that you saw my other “stuff” on Medium, too. So when you / if you feel like commenting and even passing these things around, please do. I’m really trying to excite people.

      It’s so great to “talk” to you, Betty!

      Merry Christmas, Happy Holiday, and I hope that 2017 brings you all that you want!


  3. PS Regarding images that I feel resonate with this topic, check out the painter Anselm Kiefer’s images. I was in Paris in April and was so lucky to view a retrospective exhibit of his works at the Pompidou, wow. A German artist grappling with his country’s post war/post Nazi past. He says things though painting that you can’t say in words.

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