"A Dickensian Holiday: Conversations with my Grandmother and Spirits of the Past, the Present and the Better Days Yet to Come" by Michael Denning
Over the past couple of weeks, I have found myself thinking about my paternal grandmother, Aida Denning. While I never knew my paternal grandfather, Martin—sadly, he died when my dad was a teenager—my grandmother supported her five children, grandchildren and communities well into her tenth decade. For nearly 40 years, Aida was an important source of perspective and inspiration for me; she has been gone for more than ten years, but I can still recall (and, in many respects, hear) her words of love, wisdom, encouragement and hope.
The arrival of the holiday season often evokes reminiscences of long-ago celebrations with family—our own Dickensian ghosts of Christmases past, I suppose. That said, I suspect that this month’s reflections also stem from my grandmother’s powerful teaching. As a close follower of politics and culture throughout her life, Aida would be profoundly upset about the devastating, horrific events, at home and abroad, that seem to dominate our news cycles. So, too, would she be deeply concerned about the lack of civility, cooperation, and moral and political leadership coming from leaders on both sides of the proverbial aisle.
Orphaned at a young age, Aida came to the United States from the Philippines, but she considered herself an American, through and through, and a member of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.” Coming of age in the 1920s and 1930s—a period in history often characterized by scholars as one of bigotry, societal divisions, economic depression and xenophobia—she bore witness to, and suffered from, great acts of discrimination. But in spite of her struggles, and the scars she carried as a result of these, she remained hopeful to the end of her life, believing that the promises of our Constitution, education systems and civil and human-rights movements would lead to more prosperous and just futures for not only her family’s members, but also those of families residing throughout our country and across the globe.
My grandmother was devoted to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, voting for him, I believe, in four elections. In the principled ways in which she endeavored to raise her children and grandchildren, she promoted (and, at times, quoted) his famous aphorism from his first inaugural address: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself...” While Aida acknowledged FDR’s shortcomings—his own legacy of bigotry and the grievous injustices tolerated and, even more tragically, sponsored by his administrations—she never lost sight of his belief that hope was an essential, ineffable ingredient in the creation of “a more perfect union.” Indeed, Aida stood with many of her generation in believing that there would have been no victories in World War II, no advancements in civil and human rights, no GI Bill, no Great Society, and no War on Poverty without FDR’s New Deal and its legacy of hope.
Last week, I had the privilege of attending Facing History and Ourselves’ Community Conversation with Bryan Stevenson, a MacArthur Fellow who is a renowned civil-rights attorney and community leader, as well as the author of the acclaimed book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Professor Stevenson brought to life FDR’s aphorism, my grandmother’s wisdom and the promise offered by Nobles’ mission, asserting that leadership for the public good requires:
working in close proximity with people from backgrounds different from our own;
recognizing and expanding the limits of our knowledge and, thus, the narratives through which we see, judge and work in the world;
acknowledging that positive change and the promotion of justice require that we all do and experience things that will, at the outset, make us feel very uncomfortable.
Last but not least, claims Stevenson, is the primacy of hope. Effective leaders for the public good, he argues, must continuously nurture a habit of hopeful thinking—both within themselves and within those with whom they work and live—because in the absence of hopefulness, a commitment to working with, and in the service of, others is impossible to sustain.
Dag Hammarskjöld was a Swedish diplomat who served brilliantly as Secretary-General of the United Nations. Posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Hammarskjöld died tragically en route to UN-sponsored negotiations between warring factions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Indefatigable, deeply spiritual and imbued with a love for people, Hammarskjöld left behind a collection of essays and reflections entitled Markings. I was first introduced to Markings by the late Reverend Ted Gleason, a former Nobles head of school, when he presented the following from Hammarskjöld during a eulogy some years ago: “For all that has been — Thanks. For all that shall be — Yes.” Powerfully revealed in 12 words are the core beliefs and ethics of one of the 20th century’s greatest leaders, a person who, throughout his extraordinary life, was able to feel and express profound gratitude and hopefulness while facing some of life’s most terrible and overwhelming struggles.
There are those who argue that today’s threats to our security represent clear and present dangers, that we have more to fear than just fear itself, and that as we prepare our students to assume responsibility for the communities they will enter, we have an obligation to help them to replace naiveté and ignorance with data, rigor and “tough” rational decision-making. But I am provoked by Hammarskjöld’s and Stevenson’s mandates for hope and haunted by my grandmother’s admonitions. Although today’s threats are real and, in some cases, dire, I worry that too many of our generation’s leaders are talking far too often about fears instead of dreams, problems instead of solutions, differences instead of the empathic community-building ethics, principles and values that so many of us share. As we prepare for, and worry about, today’s challenges and threats, I wonder what we teach our children: about human potential; about what they can and should expect from themselves and others; about the values and ideas for which they should work hard; about the primacy of hope in a life well lived.
In our communities, families and personal histories, many of us are fortunate to have (or have had) people like Aida Denning, Bryan Stevenson and Dag Hammarskjöld, teachers whose ideas and examples challenge our intellects while also nurturing our hope for—and belief in the possibility of—a more just, safe and prosperous future for all. What remains to be seen is whether or not we will have the wisdom, courage and patience to hear their messages and celebrate their visions. In an era when fears are pervasive in many of our conversations, I sense that celebrating an ethic of hope in our schools and homes is more important than ever. I wish you a peaceful, healthy, prosperous and hope-filled 2016.
-Michael Denning, Upper School Head