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Embracing the Dissonance ( Again… and again)

There is a picture in an old psychology text-book which has haunted me since I was a very young woman. In a square, in black and white, appears what seems to be the outline of a young woman. The caption beneath the picture informs me that if I look at this image in a different way, I will see an old woman. What I see when I look at this image is supposed to reveal something about my psychological make-up. I recall, as a freshman in college, spending hours gazing at this picture, sometimes finding myself face to face with the maiden and at other times staring at the crone. What I could never do not matter how hard I tried was to see both images clearly and simultaneously.

It is the struggle to bring opposing forces into a clear and harmonious vision that has spurred me on in much of my inquiry about life, teaching and learning. Questions about duality and paradox have always captivated me. My greatest need in life has been to wrest from opposites a tenuous agreement to co-exist. Whether contemplating different aspects of myself or trying to understand my relationship with others, I have found that I must constantly remind myself not to limit my perception to one point of view. This takes constant practice, persistent vigilance and enormous energy.

Such persistence and vigilance has been necessary for my survival during my first year of retirement. It has been incredibly difficult for me to forge a new identity for myself outside of the classroom after having been a classroom teacher for my entire adult life. Who am I as a person and an educator? What knowledge do I have that is valuable to others? What kinds of relationships should I forge with my former colleagues, with my former students? What kind of work can I continue to do in the world that will allow me to continue to engage in tikkun olam — work that transforms society and aims to heal the world?

Years ago, during my first sabbatical when I entered the doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, I learned the lessons of inquiry and reflective practice. I learned how to find the points of intersection between the theory I was reading and my practice. From Nel Noddings, I learned a new language – the language of ethical caring to describe the stance I took towards my students. From Sarah Lightfoot Lawrence, I learned a new way of thinking about respect in the classroom — the kind of egalitarian and democratic respect that existed outside of hierarchical positions of power; one that was derived from teachers and students shared humanity. From Maxine Greene, I learned about the unfinishedness of each individual, how each of us is her own existential project and from Paulo Freire, I learned to stop thinking of knowledge as something I had to deposit into my students, but rather as something we, teacher and students could co-construct through our mutual inquiry.

Outside of the classroom fifteen years ago, rooted in a research university, I was able to connect the work of my classroom to broader issues of educational reform and social justice, which in turn, fostered for me a new set of difficult questions.

What is the responsibility of teacher once recognize injustice? What are the ways in which we can and should act as advocates for our students? Should we be agents of change? What positions do we take vis a vis out students and “the public?” Do we engage in a deadly game of high stakes educational triage, “saving” the “salvageable”
and leaving the mortally wounded behind? Do we work to help a select few “get out” of poverty and “overcome” racism leaving the mortally wounded behind? Or do we join forces with others to ERADICATE poverty and racial injustice for everyone and to make sure that there are no communities in America that people should need to “get out” of.

When I was younger I used to believe that the answers to complex questions could be found through the compromise of opposing ideas. For the past fifteen years, I have been learning that such a compromise is not only unattainable; it’s undesirable. The lesson I must continue to learn is to accept the presence of contradictions as part of a larger truth. The questions that I brought back to the classroom after my year in graduate school fueled my learning and kept pushing me deeper into the context of my own classroom and wider to the outer reaches of public policy and school reform. But in the process, I kept bumping into more and more paradoxes. And like the young woman I used to be, taking on the optical challenge presented in my psychology text, I found myself still asking: can a teacher be what Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel has called a “tragic optimist” or what Derrick Bell has described as a “pessimist without despair?” As teachers can we continue to struggle against overwhelming obstacles while finding joy in the moments of individual triumph?

Throughout the years, my classroom and my students, like my home and my family have kept me grounded. Books, filled with theories and grand ideas have allowed me to soar high above the small spaces I occupy. It has been inquiry, with its constant questioning and searching for meaning which has provided the ballast. Just as thoughtful reflection has kept me from being mired down in the muck of daily minutiae, it also prevents me from flying off into some distant place, where ideas exist in a vacuum and theories crystallize into icy ideology.

During my sabbatical year, fifteen years ago, I relearned the lessons I have been learning all of my life. I returned to the classroom and continued to learn and to grow and to provide fertile and generative spaces for my students to do the same. Now, as I near the end of my first year out of the classroom and officially in retirement, I have new questions. What is the relationship between theory and practice when one no longer has a classroom? How can a retired classroom teacher fashion a practice in which she can do good work, continue to learn with and from others, build new relationships, practice respect and an ethic of care? What will keep me grounded now that my children are grown and I have no students?

I am not sure I have the answer to those questions just yet. But now at age 56, more crone than maiden, I am able to do something I could never do before: I can stare at that picture and see BOTH women at the same time. I can hold the tensions of opposites; I can see the bigger picture; and I can trust that I will find/make a way to embrace the dissonance again and again as I continue to figure out how to do good work in the world.

Marsha Pincus is a post-mid life woman, riding the Age Wave and writing for her life.

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