Illustration by Cariné Müller


Stories of Our Moral Deformation

“The illness, if it was an illness, had cut even the living off from one another,” writes Octavia Butler in her short story “Speech Sounds.” Everyone on the planet experiences a sudden stroke. As a result of this plague, people are left with the inability to speak, write, or use language to communicate—conditions that have devastating impacts. In the opening scene, the main character, Valerie Rye—who will come to lose her parents, children, sister, and husband—witnesses an altercation on a bus caused by a misunderstanding that quickly escalates to chaos and violence.

Written in the 1980s, “Speech Sounds” envisions a world fraught with pandemic-related challenges containing broken systems and fear. This story imparts a chilling metaphor—one of the roles of story in the sci-fi genre. Issac Asimov, science fiction writer and former biochemistry professor at Boston University, wrote that “‘Speech Sounds’”’ is committed neither to marvels nor to disasters. It deals with possible situations. It tries to draw a rational and self-consistent society, different from ours, which may be better than our society; or worse.…” The point is how people in the story “live and react in such societies.” Science fiction isn’t about making predictions about the future, writes Asimov, but rather, it is a comment on society. “Octavia draws a picture of an all-but-destroyed society that is so vivid that you will find yourself living in it.”[1] 

While reading Butler’s story of a plagued world, I couldn’t help but make parallels to today’s pandemic. Covid-19 has revealed foundational cracks in our society, especially in education—from the debated topics of book banning and mask mandates at school board meetings to the politicization of climate change, history, and social justice in curricula.

But what lies at the root of this divisiveness is nothing new. Our inability to communicate effectively as a society, as communities, and to each other is a problem that has plagued human societies again and again throughout history. In 2022, we’ve positioned ourselves—and students in particular—to become ill-equipped learners of history and culture, with the incapacity to recognize, let alone live and model, what connects us as human beings.

New York Times columnist and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Jal Mehta writes, “If a measure of a society is how well it takes care of its young, the past nine months [of the pandemic] are a damning indictment of our nation.”[2] Mehta’s work focuses on how we can transition in education “from rote learning to deep engagement,” in order to “[foster] cognitive, and interpersonal competencies”[3] and move beyond “shallow testing.” One big challenge to this goal is when “the system responds to perceived threats by asserting more control, rather than allowing for a natural release that empowers kids to make more choices and to take ownership of their education.”[4]    

We’ve witnessed, in the last two years, an assertion of control as systems struggle to keep up with the unpredictability and instability wrought by the pandemic, raising questions about how we as educators and parents can best respond and meet the needs of our students. In the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, I hosted authors and educators Parker Palmer and Rabbi Dr. Ariel Burger in a series of online webinars. Their work collectively encourages teachers and students to get to the heart of moral education, and they each model how to embrace a “capacity for connectedness” within ourselves and through a community of learning.[5] During this time, the Covid-19 pandemic had halted in-person events and travel, and schools abruptly ended for the summer. While Covid cases and deaths were on the rise around the world, tensions were high due to the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, and issues such as climate change, inequality, and injustice were sowing widespread discord. The murder of George Floyd caused outrage and thousands of protests against police brutality. 

As we prepared for a webinar about moral education in this context, Parker, Ariel, and I agreed that the focus of the conversation was to inspire educators and to include practical tools for pedagogical support. Yet, Parker voiced a significant concern. Before we talk about moral formation in the context of education and learning, he said, it is essential to look at examples of moral deformation. “It often comes in forms that we don’t recognize.”[6] 

The term deformation has multiple definitions in science. In the life of a well—a structure underground to access water—the process of deformation is often unseen on the surface. Pipe deformations—when a pipe becomes dented and distorted—can occur due to the conditions of a geographic location. “Wellbore deformation” events are often discovered underground during an intervention, such as drilling.[7]  Moral deformation, or moral disengagement, can occur when an individual acts out of disregard for others. If moral transformation is defined as evolving to become better humans, moral deformation is an act of regression, involving conscious and unconscious thoughts and behaviors. Like wellbore deformation, moral deformation is often unseen. Looking beneath the surface to locate and challenge our biases and misconceptions is key, yet this is an immense challenge and requires motivation and commitment.

If we are going to ask questions about what engages us as human beings and as learners, we all agreed that we need to also ask questions about what disengages us. Are we aware of our assumptions and prejudices? How are they learned?

Illustration by Cariné Müller

To set the stage for our conversation, we first defined moral education. Ariel describes this beautifully in his book Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom. “In order to transform, moral education must entail more than a transactional exchange of information. It is not only the content of what is taught—the history, the data—but the context that defines impact. It is the emotional relationship between student, teacher, and subject. It is the implicit Why? at the heart of learning.”[8] This why is a foundational element that enables us to not only connect to ourselves and those around us, but to our relationship with learning. In what ways can we become more conscious of our larger story? What history and data are we learning, forgetting, or ignoring? Do we challenge these narratives? In other words, Parker asks, “How do we know? How do we learn? Under what conditions and with what validity?"

Parker shared his own story about deformation. He was educated at some of the best institutions of higher education in the country as both an undergraduate and a graduate student who studied history, the rise of the Nazis, and the horrors of the Holocaust. “The way I was educated in those subjects—knowing about the murder of 6 million Jews and the Aryan mold— made me feel—and this is a hard thing to know how to say—that it all happened on another planet to another species. It had no lived connection to me in my life.”

The information about the Holocaust was presented to him at an objectivist distance. “The set of facts, figures, and theories may have been cognitively and factually correct, but with which I could have no heart connection, no emotional connection, no bodily connection. Nobody grabbed me by the arm and said, ‘come close’ and experience this in a more intimate way.”

What he should have been taught, he said, was how to make the connection between the bigger story of the Holocaust and the “little story” of his own life and community. Born in 1939, he grew up during the 1940s and 50s on the North Shore of Chicago in Wilmette, Illinois. This area was almost entirely a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant community with some Catholics living there as well. The Jewish community lived in nearby Glencoe. Close to five miles north along Lake Michigan, the people who lived in Glencoe were as wealthy as the people in Wilmette, but they were not permitted to buy houses next to their Christian neighbors. Glencoe, referred to as the “Jewish ghetto,” was created by systemically racist real estate practices, or redlining. This discriminatory practice was designed, Paker describes, to keep people like “them”—racial and ethnic minorities—apart from people like “me.” 

Had it not been for his father—whose best friend in high school was Jewish—and the stories about this friend’s life, Parker said, he might not have made a human connection to Jewish people. Amid all of the distorted images circulating during that time about Jewish people, including antisemitic stereotypes, he questioned what might have happened to him and his worldview without this heartfelt connection that he experienced through his father.

The rampant antisemitism at this time, he described, “was driven by the same kind of shadow-side darkness of the human spirit, the same kind of fear and loathing that drove the Holocaust.” It was on a smaller scale, but “all big evils begin with small seeds. They are then perpetuated, those small seeds, if we don’t uproot them, which needs to be a part of moral education and challenging peoples’ bigotries, biases, prejudices, and illuminating their fears to help them deal with it.” If we don’t do this, he said, “we are completely missing the boat.”

Parker then asked our virtual audience this essential question: “How do we connect the big stories of human history with the little story of the learner?” He continued, “Everyone is human and everyone has a connection in their own microcosmic way to the macrocosmic issues…. So much of school is about [the big issues] in a surface way that we never stop to make those connections.” 

What Ariel said in response to Parker surprised me. He said, “Education at its heart, is an act of subversion and is countercultural.” This is a profound statement, an overwhelming call to action. I called Ariel to continue our conversation on this topic and he probed further: “We have all been acculturated in ways that are invisible to us. We are driven by a lot of invisible assumptions. Our job, as educators and learners, is to make those things visible.”

In a society that is paralyzed by fear, we must pivot to a human-centered, and story-centered, approach to teaching and learning. What is at stake? How can stories act as tools to illumine our fears and our unconscious biases? How might we use stories to offer a roadmap towards a better understanding of our common humanity and ourselves in today’s fraught world?

In 2017, I traveled to Helsinki, Finland to take part in an education summit hosted by HundrED. One night, I was invited to dinner, along with a hundred educators from around the world, inside a large secondary school. It was a pleasure to witness how Finland’s education system operates. There, educators, along with chefs, are two of the most respected professions. I shared a table with Michael Baran, a cultural anthropologist, author, and former Harvard professor. Our conversations over that long weekend examined how and why our perspectives shift as learners, educators, and travelers of the world.

In the introduction to his book Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify, and Stop Microaggressions, co-authored with Tiffany Jana, Michael writes of his own experience growing up in a homogenous small town in Connecticut, perhaps similar to the one Parker grew up in Chicago. “I had many questions about why it was historically so common for humans to exploit others, form unequal societies, and discriminate against groups of people both consciously and unconsciously.”[9] For the last twenty years, in an effort to address these inequalities that defined his experience as a young adult, Michael has worked as an author, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioner, and researcher. He works with organizations, schools, and individuals to better understand subtle acts of exclusion and create more equity and inclusion for all.

“Studying one’s own culture,” he writes, “is sometimes challenging because we take so many things for granted and don’t even notice.”[10] When thinking about the violence that is caused by race, for example, there are a range of actions that cause harm. “Some of them are horrendous, explicit, and very visible,” he said, “like what we witnessed with the murder of George Floyd.” Others are less visible, like the “inequalities that are built into structures” which often fly under the radar.[11] “People have no idea how disparities happen at a structural level. My strategies work to bring people in, see where they are, and build some deep understandings that help combat our biases.” To illustrate this point, he shared two examples of how these disparities can arise, and be reinforced, in a school’s culture and curricula.

In the first example, Michael referenced Herbert Kohl’s book, Should We Burn Babar?: Essays on Children’s Literature and the Power of Stories, in which Kohl presents a version of the story of Rosa Parks called “Rosa Was Tired,” which he created “from an analysis of the most widely used school texts and storybooks that discuss Mrs. Parks and the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.”[12] In that version of the story, Rosa Parks is presented as a hard worker who is old and tired, and, therefore, does not want to give up her seat. Kohl’s intention in sharing this version of Rosa Parks is to point out what is often excluded from this telling. “What is missing from that story,” Michael said, “is everything important and [everything] that matters—the strategy, the community activism, the planning, the intelligence, the bravery. It’s all missing."

Years ago, Michael did some consulting work at the Harvard Institute of Children’s Study and learned that a child’s brain, from birth to age three, forms 1–2 million new synaptic connections per second. “Their brains are building the foundation for everything they are going to understand later in life.”[13] Children are active observers of the world. Crucially, they are equally learning and creating their worldviews from what we aren’t teaching them, what we decide to exclude.

The second example had occurred just a few weeks prior at his son’s middle school in Maryland. Horrific images surfaced of some white eighth-grade students holding guns, communicating racial slurs, and saying that they “would shoot Black people.” A firearm was found during the ensuing investigation. 

In the wake of this deeply troubling event, Michael wrote a letter to the school’s principal and Board of Education members and posted the letter online. The letter’s introduction explains that he is writing not only as a concerned parent but as a cultural anthropologist who “spent eight years getting a doctorate specifically looking into how children learn about race and other categories of identity.” He specified the need for parents, especially white parents, to become less silent and take “a more active role.” Schools also have a vital role, he said.

“Inclusion really matters for students in school, not just for feeling good, but also for their learning outcomes. Education researchers I’ve interviewed have told me that students feeling like they are in a ‘network of care’ is one of the biggest factors to their learning. And if incidents like this are not adequately addressed, students of color will not feel psychologically safe, even if there is work done to try to make them feel physically safe.”

Michael emphasized that this is hard work and that “communication is key....” He was surprised that so many parents, even those he knows to be conservative leaning, reached out to him, thanking him for writing this letter. They overwhelmingly expressed that the letter clarified an essential need and opened their eyes.

Michael’s work so clearly tethers us to the formations of bias that are rooted in a common language. Bringing students into a “network of care” is essential. This is a moment when we need to bring students in closer, as Parker emphasized.    

In K–12 education in the U.S., unfortunately, multiple factors inhibit students from getting to the root of societal and historical injustices of the world with their peers. As I’m writing this, in March 2022, new laws have been passed and new bills have been introduced in some states that restrict what educators can teach in the classroom.[14] The use of certain words and phrases could lead to a teacher’s dismissal. This year, a teacher in the state of Tennessee was fired for teaching that white privilege was a fact.[15] “The 1619 Project”—an initiative from The New York Times Magazine with an essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor Nikole Hannah-Jones that “aims to reframe the country’s history by replacing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative”[16] — is being targeted by lawmakers to ban its use in school curricula.

In the proposed bill for the states of Arkansas and Mississippi, “The 1619 Project” is labeled “a racially divisive and revisionist account.” In response, Hannah-Jones said, “Attempting to control what teachers can teach in the name of patriotism is seeking indoctrination not education. Education should open our minds, not close them.”[17] The banning of the project, she said, “is actually trying to control the collective memory of this country. And trying to say we just want to purge uncomfortable truths from our collective memory. And, that’s very dangerous.”[18] 

One of the reasons I am drawn to the literature of Octavia Butler is how her characters and plots examine many uncomfortable truths. Her stories are being taught in classrooms around the world—from African American literature courses to curricula that focus on themes about historical consciousness, colonialism and science fiction, political philosophy, antiracist pedagogy, and Afrofuturism. Many of her stories focus on narratives about love and power.[19]  

Described as “the theorist of fear for the twentieth century,[20] ” Butler was born in 1947. Four years prior to her birth, scientists at the top-secret Manhattan Project were experimenting with nuclear weapons. When she was a year old, physicists and astronomers founded the big bang theory— “the scientific origins of the universe.”[21] Butler entered the world during the Space Race, the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement, and the Red Scare—the fear of communism during the Cold War. 

Her middle name, Estelle, is a French name that originates from the Latin stella, meaning star.[22]  She was an only child and while frequently alone, she visited her local Pasadena Central Library, a safe place from the bullying she often encountered as a child. She immersed herself in science fiction stories by John Brunner, Zenna Henderson, and Theodore Sturgeon.[23] 

Although she didn’t know how to be with other children that well, she said, “I knew how to make little worlds of my own and that’s what I did for my amusement. I told stories.” She was deeply curious about the qualities that make us human. “I write about people and the different ways of being human. And you can’t really do that unless you write about a lot of different kinds of people. One of the things I tell people who are reading my work critically is that what they bring to it is at least as important to them as what I put into it. And that’s true.”[24] 

Instead of recommending a major in writing, Butler advised students instead to major in history or anthropology. “Something,” she said, “where you get to know the human species a little better….”[25] Butler demands something from us as readers, to pay attention to the bigger stories of the world. She is calling us into action. “I have written books about making the world a better place and how to make humanity more survivable.… You can call it save-the-world fiction, but it clearly doesn’t save anything. It just calls people’s attention to the fact that so much needs to be done.”[26] 

Butler imagined the future of the human species. Her characters struggle with human-centered power dynamics and “hierarchical tendencies.”[27] Many of her stories represent paralyzed individuals living in unstable and paralyzed societies. Butler had a tenacious understanding of humanity’s ability to turn on each other.  She describes that her books are “warnings” as if to say that these human-created atrocities will go on if we don’t intervene.[28]  The following New York Times review hones in: “The probing mind that animates her novels, short stories, and essays is obsessed with the viability of the human enterprise. Will we survive our worst habits? Will we change? Do we want to?”[29] 

We need to be asking ourselves these questions. The right stories can act as keys, allowing us access to challenge, examine, uproot, and illumine our habits and fears.

Illustration by Cariné Müller

How do we know and question our worldview when we are submersed in it? A good story can reflect stereotypes and misconceptions in subtle and direct ways with just enough distance from students’ own cultures and points of view for them to enter the story and make connections to their own lives. I’m thinking again of Parker’s question, “How do we become conscious of our larger story and the little stories of our lives?”

As a curriculum writer, I’ve thought about this question and I’ve witnessed how big stories, such as ones that document migration, war, and language loss, impact the experience of student and classroom learning. The sharing of these stories can present students with a range of complex emotions. “What makes it possible to conquer despair? You do not do it alone,” said Elie Wiesel. “You tell stories. You may have to tell a thousand stories before you find the one story that will awaken [students]. But everyone has a story [they] will react to.”[30]  

Five years ago, I met Natasha McKeown, a seventh-grade history teacher, at an education conference in Denver. We had an in-depth conversation on the importance of universal values in the classroom. I realized she was a teacher at my son’s school in California. We had met serendipitously over a thousand miles away.

Our meeting inspired a partnership between the middle school history team and me. I shared with them a recently published film from the Global Oneness Project, Welcome to Canada, by Mary Fowles and Adam Loften, and its companion curriculum, “A Refugee’s Story.” The short film highlights the story of a young Syrian refugee, Mohammed Alsaleh, who fled violence and imprisonment by the Assad regime during Syria’s Civil War. He was granted asylum in Canada and now counsels newly arrived Syrian families through a non-profit organization.

The history team discussed the film’s relevance to global events in 2017: the conflict in Syria, the refugee crisis throughout the world, and the U.S. President’s executive order blocking immigration from six nations, including Syria. They decided the film would be age appropriate for seventh graders, as their existing curriculum concentrates on the history of Islam.

I interviewed McKeown for PBS Learning Media, asking her how she integrated the film into her curriculum. “Learning about Islam is one of California’s standards for social studies in 7th grade. Each year, students have more questions about Islam and how it relates to current events than they do about any other culture or time period we study.” She decided to “turn the unit into a larger project” using the film “to better understand the current debate over refugees, especially those coming from Muslim-majority countries, like Syria.”

After screening the film in her classroom, McKeown said that the film was impactful. “Students were genuinely saddened to learn what the refugees had suffered through in Syria. They watched the film just days after the women’s marches across the United States and the world.” Many students, she said, were “shocked that the government in Syria attacked the people just for protesting.” The story, she said, gave students “a human face to the refugee problem, something they could connect with beyond a number. However, they were surprised to find that the process was so long and difficult and that families were often split up.” 

Students were challenged to create a Public Service Announcement (PSA) about Islam. “Their first goal,” McKeown said, “was to understand the causes of Islamophobia in the United States and how it is negatively impacting Muslims.” Students researched and learned about the religion, culture, and history of Islam. They presented their final projects to the community with the aim to “educate their audience about the positive aspects of the religion and the history of Islam that many might not be aware of.”

I attended the event at the school. Students were eager to talk about what they learned and created. One group of students created a postcard. They redesigned the iconic 2007 image from artist Shepard Fairey— “Greater Than Fear”—featuring Munira Ahmed who is covered with an American flag hijab. The postcard had two sides. One side of the postcard included positive words and stereotypes (such as peace, kindness, equality) while the other side depicted negative words and stereotypes (such as terrorist, evil, “you don’t belong”). Students created a school and community-wide social media campaign using the hashtag #AllFaiths. Additional projects included short films, poems, and PowerPoint presentations.

In 2020, I hosted a webinar with Mohammed to discuss the film and his current work counseling Syrian families. I asked him, “What would you like students to know about the Syrian Civil war, the Syrian people, culture, and history.” He said, “The best way to know people is to meet them, to learn about real-life stories, and realize that we are all humans. We live the same life but in different colors, in different ways.”

A couple of months later, the middle school students performed Fiddler on the Roof, another story in which individuals are forced to leave their homes at a time of political and social upheaval, resulting in violence and destruction. I was delighted to see that the students had understood the parallel between this story and Mohammed’s story and had included a poem from the PSA project on the back of the program. One of the stanzas read:

The love which used to shroud the land 
Has vanished without a trace
Generations of dreams    
Destroyed in an instant

Students could have been describing Ukraine, or another war-torn place, where individuals are inhumanely separated from their families and their lives in their beloved homelands. I was moved that students had witnessed the love that Mohammed had expressed in the film for his family and home and how quickly his life, and so many others, had changed in an instant.

A few years ago, when Ariel and I began to discuss Elie Wiesel’s work in detail, he recommended that I read a three-volume collection, Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel, published by the Holocaust Library in New York. The volume contains Wiesel’s powerful writing and captures his voice through interviews, articles, lectures, and addresses at universities, among others. This profound quote from Joseph Conrad invites us into the introductory pages of Volume II.

“He [the artist] speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation—and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men {us} to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”

I keep re-reading this powerful passage as it speaks to our human experience on many levels, that we have a real capacity to embrace an “invincible conviction of solidarity.” Conrad weaves in the human tendency for our hearts and minds to go dormant, to become latent. The word latent means “a quality, force phenomenon” that is “hidden, concealed” or “not yet manifest or developed.”[31] This “invincible conviction of solidarity” is the quality within ourselves that we must work to activate. It lies beneath the surface of our personal and unconscious armor.

Wiesel was a Nobel Laureate, a champion for human rights and peace. He was a professor and author of over 50 books, many of which document his experience as a Holocaust survivor, both directly and indirectly. After the war, he was encouraged by the novelist Francois Mauriac to write about his experience in the concentration camps. Wiesel wrote in Yiddish Un de belt hot geshvign, (And the World Remained Silent), published in 1956. This manuscript, well over 800 pages, was later abridged and shortened to create La NuitNight—in 1958.[32] This new title, according to Ariel, was more accessible to a larger audience.

Night recounts Wiesel’s experiences as a teenager during the Holocaust in the German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald from 1944 to 1945. Wiesel wrote Night because he believed that “we can use words to break the prison, to break the walls around the prison.”[33] Finding a publisher, he said, was difficult, and finding readers was even more difficult. Children started to read the book and brought it home. “The children,” Wiesel said, “forced their parents to remember.”[34] 

I discovered Night later in life. I don’t know why I was never introduced to it in my middle, high school, or college classrooms. I read the book in its entirety one rainy evening as an adult. I was so deeply moved by his story, learning what he endured and witnessed. What occurred during the Holocaust was unconscionable and unfathomable. It wasn’t until I read Night that I understood Wiesel’s message: “Listening to a witness makes you a witness.”[35] My heart ached.

When Wiesel was asked what message he would like people to take with them after reading Night, he responded by saying, “First of all … that it happened. Generations ago, a civilized nation decided not to be civilized anymore.” Night, Wiesel said, was an appropriate title, because “that was a time when night descended upon Europe, night and its darkness dominated everything that existed—all efforts, all thoughts, all aspirations, all were enveloped in night.”[36] 

Stories from Wiesel, Butler, and Conrad document the realities of a world cloaked in darkness. Their characters inhabit the pain and suffering caused by fellow humans. These great storytellers bring their lived experiences to the page, sharing them with readers so we can in turn contemplate and face the darkness and fear. Yet, they don’t want us to stay in this paralysis. In their stories, they lead us from fear with the hope to mobilize and “to fight indifference.”[37] If we listen attentively, if we allow ourselves to enter these stories, our hearts become open. One can hope that we will then refuse to see the world with divisive eyes.

If our hearts remain open, will our own stories of deformation tell us their secrets? Stories have the potential to unlock the doors within us. In my first essay, “Doorways to Our Childhood Selves,” I quote philosopher and phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard. He writes about the door as a symbol, an invitation into our conscious and unconscious selves. As children, we see the world as an open doorway, an invitation. Yet, as we get older, our relationship with this invitation shifts. Is the person who opens a door the same one who closes it?

Illustration by Cariné Müller

As educators and students, our relationship and commitment to teaching and learning are integral to locating how and when we close doors that could lead to shifts in awareness and consciousness. Ariel offered a position that we can take as we confront our own deformation, our own moral disengagement. “We need to ask questions,” he said, “to be humble, to be honest about our failures, to learn from them, and to listen to people with other stories. This is a capacity we need to be forever cultivating in ourselves.”

This is a challenging task for all of us, especially teachers. “Teachers are confronted with big questions,” said Wiesel in a 1976 lecture at Stanford University. He spoke about the relationship between the teacher and the student.

“What can we tell you, our young students? What can we evoke? What ideals can we exemplify? We teachers are supposed to be wise and worthy, yet in your eyes do we not symbolize the failure of our kind of wisdom, the failure and the bankruptcy of our kind of culture? You look at us, and you see our past covered with ruins and our memories full of ashes and darkness. Once the past filled us with pride and glory, but now when we look back upon it, somehow we cannot but close our eyes because we cannot stand the sadness it evokes. You listen to our tales, you share our fears, our terrifying questions, to which we teachers have no answers, to which there can be, there should be, no answers. …

But who will teach love to [us]? Nothing could be more important on earth. One answer, at least, we do have: that it is love and friendship that link knowledge to experience.”[38]  

This profound message extends well beyond the relationship between teacher and student. It captures the quality of life “which binds together all humanity.” This just might be the truest thing we can learn. It is an interconnected web, precious and alive. And, it needs our attention. Can we pass it on and model its nature with our children? As we forge ahead and face new challenges and injustices, can we keep our stories of deformation out of the shadows and bring them into the light? We must if we are to take ownership of life and learning.

1. Octavia Butler, “Speech Sounds.” PDF file. 1983. [^]

2. Jal Mehta, “Make Schools More Human.” The New York Times, December 23, 2020. [^]

3. Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine, In Search for Deeper Meaning: The Quest to Remake the American High School (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2019, p.10). [^]

4. Jonathon Shaw, “Rethinking the American High School.” Harvard Magazine, May-June 2019. [^]

5. Center for Courage and Renewal[^]

6. Ariel Burger, Parker Palmer, and Cleary Vaughan-Lee. “Exploring Moral Education.” Global Oneness Project, September 2020. [^]

7. Gabriella Griffith, Justin Bell, “Wellbore Deformation: A Silent Assassin.” Journal of Petroleum Technology, September 1, 2021. [^]

8. Ariel Burger, Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018). [^]

9. Michael Baran, Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify, and Stop Microaggressions (Oakland, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2020.) [^]

10. Ibid., 8. [^]

11. Shelley Irwin, “Subtle Acts of Exclusion.” WGVU Public Media, June 23, 2020. [^]

12. Henry Mayer, “Turning Fact Into Fable.” The New York Times, August 20, 1995. [^]

13. The Mosaic Project, “Leveraging the Interpersonal for Social Change.” July 2, 2020. [^]

14. “Teachers Could Face Penalties for Lessons on Race, Gender, Politics.” NPR, February 3, 2022. [^]

15. Hannah Natanson, “A White teacher taught White students about White privilege. It cost him his job.” Washington Post, December 6, 2021. [^]

16. “The 1619 Project.” New York Times Magazine[^]

17. Sarah Schwartz, “Lawmakers to Push ‘1619 Project’ from Schools.” Edweek, February 3, 2021. [^]

18. Tom Jones, “It’s Banned Books Week in America …” Poynter. September 27, 2021. [^]

19. Tarshia L. Stanley, ed. Approaches to Teaching the Works of Octavia E. Butler. (New York, The Modern Language Association of America, 2019). [^]

20. Claire P. Curtis. “Theorizing Fear: Octavia Butler and the Realist Utopia.” Utopian Studies 19, no. 3 (2008): 411–31. [^]

21. Ibn Zoboi, Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Butler (New York, Dutton Children’s Books, 2022, p.11) [^]

22. Ibid. [^]

23. McCaffery, Larry, and Jim McMenamin, Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.) [^]

24. Octavia E. Butler Interview with Charlie Rose, June 2000. Library of America, April 9, 2021. [^]

25. Consuelo Francis, ed. Conversations with Octavia Butler. (Jackson, University of Mississippi, 2010, p.185). [^]

26. Ibn Zoboi, Star Child: A Biographical Constellation, 116. [^]

27. Consuelo Francis, ed. Conversations with Octavia Butler, p.178. [^]

28. Ibid., 200. [^]

29. Stephen Kearse, “The Essential Octavia Butler.” The New York Times, January 15, 2021. [^]

30. Irving Abrahamson, ed. Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel Volume II (New York, Holocaust Library, 1995, p.159.) [^]

31. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v., “latent, adj.,” accessed May 4, 2022. [^]

32. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopedia. "Elie Wiesel." Encyclopedia Britannica, September 26, 2021. [^]

33. “We May Use Words to Break the Prison: Elie Wiesel on Writing Night.” Facing History and Ourselves Video Resource Library. [^]

34. Ibid. [^]

35.  Ariel Burger, Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom[^]

36. CSUSM Inspiration Studios. “Elie Wiesel Interview, Carlsbad, California (Dove Lane Library) April 19, 2007.” YouTube video, 1:09:19. July 13, 2016. [^]

37. Ibid. [^]

38. Irving Abrahamson, ed. Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel, 158. [^]

More to Explore

Doorways to Our Childhood Selves

This essay explores the power of our imagination and how stories can act as thresholds to our childhood selves.

Turning to Face the Dark
Educators Parker Palmer and Ariel Burger explore themes on suffering, healing, and joy in a contemplative dialogue.
Learning and Teaching from the Heart in Troubled Times

Ariel Burger explores ways to embrace curiosity and celebrate questions in challenging times.