Jack Comstock, Assistant Head of School
Responding to an Emergency
It’s early on in the pandemic when we hear from friends who work in NYC hospitals that doctors and nurses are being given only one N-95 mask per week while the hospital they work for, in order to maintain good PR, reports that they have sufficient personal protective equipment. This was not the case with our local hospitals who responded clearly about their needs; but elsewhere it was abundantly demonstrated that when our institutions have grown too large, too profit driven, they give themselves over to serving something far different than the purpose for which they were originally intended.
For over a month I sleep only five hours a night as I keep the 3D printers (owned by the school and contributed by parents, libraries, and local businesses) running. We’re determined to get the much needed PPE directly to the nurses who need them. I set the final print job each day at 11:30 pm, sailing to school on my bike, a bright patch of the night lit up by my powerful headlamp, illuminating the denizens of the night: opossums, skunks, porcupines and deer nestled here and there, or grazing lazily in the early spring evenings.
Each day, the creatures become more accustomed to me, and soon I fly by with only a nod of their heads. They seem to understand that I’m not a threat; my tired mind imagines that they sense the noble cause for which I ride. I’m up at 5:00 am to unload and reload the printers, readying as many visors to be outfitted with elastic and protective shields as we can each week. I don’t spend much time thinking about why, as a teacher, I have found myself with this task. I just do it because I know it needs to be done. I know that for every shield we produce, we might prevent the infection of one healthcare worker and allow him or her to save who knows how many more lives. As the most essential of workers, these nurses and doctors have been failed by the institutions that could have protected them.
We did not hesitate to start producing PPE. At first, the school funded the materials needed. Then we quickly turned to the Friends of the Homestead School (FOHS), and finally we received grants from the Community Foundation of Orange and Sullivan. We were able to produce over 2,000 shields with the help of school families, local school districts, and other businesses. It was in these “stores of goodwill,” the donations that had been collected through the nonprofit structure of FOHS, that we could move without hesitation to do what was needed to our fullest capacity. FOHS was later able to offer the gift of emergency Covid scholarships to families in need.
A Chance to Reflect
The weeks pass, and we slow production as the needs for face shields are met. Now, it’s 10:30 pm and I should be reading my students’ essays on the future of science, but instead I find myself sinking into my third hour of preparation for my World History class. I’m searching for patterns, for parallels, for facts and figures that will help my students to make connections. We’ve been studying the modern era and have been grappling with the complexities of economics. We’ve explored the Protestant roots of the capitalist ethic, considering how the “innate depravity of man” relates to a tacit justification of “greed is good” in Adam Smith’s vision of a free market system. We met Karl Marx who warned that the bourgeoisie “compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production.” We encountered the Robber Barons who consolidated empires of steel and vast banking fortunes, ushering in a time of inequality in America that has not been matched, until today. We’ve explored the harsh reality that, from the Great Depression to the 2008 Financial Collapse, those with wealth and power have circled like vultures when the chaos of disaster ensues, growing fatter off the suffering of the masses – snatching up businesses, property, and the wealth of the nation.
Questioning the Status Quo
Finally, the question comes into clarity: Why, in a nation with so much wealth, did so many of us have to take on the second job of “rescue workers,” sewing masks and manufacturing protective shields? Undoubtedly, there is great beauty, satisfaction, and learning when communities come together in a common cause, but I’m left asking: How is it that time and again the system fails us and continues to reward those who already have so much?
Today, just as in 2008 and 2009, with a manufactured collapse brought on by greed of biblical proportions and presided over by a Republican and then Democratic government staffed with accomplices in all the right places, money flows to the top, rather than to the people and businesses that are in true need. Here at the Homestead, days and days were spent on PPP loan applications and phone calls, only to find out that the funds had dried up overnight. On the second round we secured a loan, but the stipulations and confusing clauses, the exacting rules, did not inspire a deep breath of relief knowing that we could keep all of our staff employed. In the same “caring act,” no-strings-attached loans were granted to mid-sized and large businesses: Billions of dollars, as happened in the 2008 Great Recession, will likely fund the buying up of failing companies and will undoubtedly find its way into the pockets of executives as they reward themselves for their “hard-earned” profits.
I catch myself sounding cynical. It’s easy to fall into cynicism, but then I remind myself, as I constantly remind my students, “Go back to the story!” What narrative have we agreed to as a culture that promotes this extreme self-interest? How has that story shaped our laws, our ideologies, our politics, our corporations?
My goal here is not to dishearten. As in the classes I teach, I first must set the context. If we approach history as a collection of events to be merely understood and we don’t hold them up to the light of today, looking for how their silhouette mirrors and reflects elements of the present, then we will never gain perspective on the story we are living.
An Analysis of Power
There are 4 techniques of power that we explore in our World History class. Four types of stories that help cement a culture of dominance:
- Power structures have always recognized and exploited our differences in order to divide and dominate.
- Another age old technique is to discredit any ideology, any viewpoint that errs too dangerously from the accepted range of discourse. We see this happen in both political parties, which have formed an almost identical consensus when it comes to the rules that regulate the structure of our economy: the redistribution of wealth (or lack thereof), the regulation of corporations (or lack thereof), and the continued industrial militarization of the economy. In other words, they have agreed to a neoliberal agenda. This threatens our ability to eek out a living if we are lucky enough to even be employed in an economy that offshores and mechanizes its way to corporate profit. It also threatens life as we know it on this planet. Any voice, whether from another party, or from within their own, is quickly marginalized as “extremist.” The agreed upon label is then fed into the giant media conglomerates and social media echo chambers. A consensus is quickly reached, a convergence of opinion, or careful scripting of how we are to be divided and set against each other in regards to the debate of the moment. What the establishment parties agree to is far more impactful to our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness than the issues that they offer up to divide us. The voices that could enrich our perspectives, widen the discussion, are left out of the debate.
- Deny the oppressed group agency and you have a tidy justification for continued dominance. Women for instance were refused the right to vote on the grounds of a pseudoscientific claim that they lacked the requisite reasoning ability. Let’s examine a current application of this technique. As Emerson Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which focuses on identifying and exposing disinformation explains:
The majority of false claims I have observed are intended to delegitimize the protesters. By inventing, decontextualizing, or overemphasizing violent incidents among overwhelmingly peaceful protests, it becomes possible for a government to justify more suppressive force against them.
In a shrewd political move these stories delegitimize the depth of the protestors grievances and label yet another shadowy organization as the enemy, as “terrorists.” A label that can now be used against the very people who were initially denied agency. Just as we are fighting an endless war on terrorism abroad, if we want to maximize profits and extend the reach of the executive branch to its full, let’s wage the war on our own citizens.
- The final technique that we explore is the sanitization of history. As Bill Barr reminded us recently, “history is written by the winners,” by those in power, who shape the narrative, shape the story that is told about the past, and set the curriculum to be studied. When this is done in real time, we might be inclined to label it “propaganda.” When it comes in the form of a history textbook, we might have a harder time seeing it for what it is.
In a recent discussion about the protests and riots sweeping our nation in response to the murder of George Floyd, my coteacher, Kelly Adams, shared a poem her fellow children’s book author just wrote:
"Be like MLK", you say, clutching the romance of a bloodless racial revolution that never was. Recite the violent responses those peaceful marchers met at every turn— water hoses, dogs unleashed, babies bombed in churches, sweet black skulls crushed by billy clubs and the sharp tip of hatred, all televised for the world to see. It was blood that shamed the devil and moved the needle. Cite our murdered brother MLK all day, but tell the whole story. Tell it true. - Nikki Grimes
A Questionable Narrative
In our class we look for the patterns. We look for understanding of our present day, born out of the experiences of the past. Could it be that systemic inequality that is at pre-Great Depression levels has something to add to the voices of protest and yes, riots too? Could it have to do with blacks representing 13% of the population but accounting for 26% of Covid-19 deaths? The list goes on: As essential workers they are on the front lines of the pandemic as 30% of our nurses? Blacks account for 33% of the prison population. A third of black men have been convicted of a felony, which, not surprisingly, bars them from a PPP loan if that conviction was in the past five years. Those are just a few statistics to add to the fire of racial inequality that has found another inflection point with yet another brutal murder of a black citizen of this country; a country founded on the promise of life, liberty, and equality.
Could it be that whenever the voices of blacks have become too loud, have deviated from the accepted conversation, that the system of power has stepped in to divide, marginalize, and sanitize? The clean-up squad is a mighty force indeed made up of billionaire-funded think tanks, the political establishment, the media, and the pundits — all those talking heads that feed from and feed into this dizzying, shallow sea of sound bites, identity politics, and distractions.
Changing the Story
Whether it is a war on our rights, on the environment, or economic warfare, we are all under attack. Those who have been traditionally most marginalized fall victim first. The signs are pointing to an awakening, to a recognition of our common struggle, the existential crises that face us all. This holds out the possibility of setting aside divisiveness and embracing unity. Isn’t this what our world needs as the sun beats down hotter on streets filled with protests and riots?
The strength of the Homestead community went far beyond the education of children to embrace the suffering and extend its care and concern in response to this pandemic. I believe the years to come are going to challenge us as a community in an even greater way as we respond to the continued challenges of Covid, institutionalized racism, economic struggle, and let us not forget, another problem we have also failed to address for decades, climate change.
As we slowly emerge, clad in masks, storms are already raging across our country and we sense a deeper uncertainty, darker, threatening clouds on the horizon. How do we move into the light while fortifying ourselves for the turbulent weather that will inevitably continue?
I encourage us all to examine the ideologies that we have swallowed along the way, identify them and then set them down gently, thanking them for giving some structure and meaning to our confusing world. Let’s start to create a new story for how we can live and thrive and educate our children. In this, there is no room for the limiting scripts and prepackaged explanations that come with the doctrines that have been sold to us. While elements of wisdom can still be found within these, they grossly misrepresent the actual world we live in, the real crises that we face, and certainly blind us to a way forward that might work for all of us.
Embracing Our Story
So, where does this leave us in this narrative? To me, the answer always seems to point back to community and local resilience. As E.F. Schumacher once said, “Economics is not an exact science; it is, in fact, or ought to be, something much greater: a branch of wisdom.” My students understand that in our world today economics is far more ideology than science. If we are to create a new economic system, then I think we had better get started. We have quite a few inspirations that we can draw from within our own Homestead community: the generosity of the human spirit, the innocence, wonder, and potential of childhood, a commitment to equality and care for our human brothers and sisters, the celebration of community, and a reverence for nature.
The institution of slavery was born of economic self interest, justified by an ideology of white superiority and black inferiority, and protected by dividing the poor whites and black slaves who had begun allying to overthrow those at the top. It seems we have come full circle. Paying attention to history might tell us something about our current moment.
Let’s “tell the whole story,” and then let’s be the ones to write the rules of the new story. A story that we want to guide our future. Let’s agree to include all the voices on the planet this time around. This is what a Homestead education aspires to be.
In loving gratitude and service to this beautiful community,