Sunday evening as I walked to my hotel from the ISTE 2010 opening keynote I was struck by the difference on the downtown Denver streets compared to 25 years ago. In a surreal coincidence I saw 2 young men dressed in white shirts and ties and saw myself those many years ago when I served the people of this city. As a 19 year old young man, I spent my time downtown and in the Five Points area helping many people that could not help themselves. I don’t share this to shine a light on what I did, but I want people to understand tough times. In several of the sessions I attended at ISTE the current dire state of affairs was shared. Come back in time with me and we shall compare and contrast.
25 years ago I spent 18 months of my life, unpaid (I saved money as a teenager to do all this on my own dime) helping people. The time was 1985, the organization I represented had shortened service time from 24 to 18 months because we were in an economic recession, interest rates were 13% and higher, unemployment was up, and there was an influx of Vietnamese and Hmong refugees from Laos and Thailand here in Denver. The streets I walk today were filled with desperate people, and I spent time with them, helping them. We delivered clothes, beds, food, helped them find housing and jobs, gave them rides, did whatever we could do to help them have a better life. Many of the young children I knew back then are now adults, and are out in the world helping to make it a better place.
The service I was involved in was meaningful, frightening, rewarding, painful, full of heartache and joy at the same time. I had worked hard growing up on a ranch in western Wyoming, but this was something else: a different kind of hard work. I benefited from each experience, I am a better man because of these times in my youth, but where did all the people go? There are a few I see, but are they all still there? Do we not see them because they were shooed away, because they are hidden elsewhere, were they cleaned up like crude oil on a sandy beach and taken away out of sight and out of mind?
It is easy to be concerned when we have something shoved in our faces. It is right there, not to be ignored. We may get concerned for awhile because it is a popular thing to do, it captures our interest for a time, or it impacts our personal lives so directly that we have to deal with it. I was taught at an early age to serve people. I don’t mean the occasional helping the neighbor. I mean consistently giving of my time, money, and life to those that I live amongst with an eye to the big picture of things and with a hope that others will do the same across the globe.
I heard a comment during an ISTE session on Monday that we must think global first, and I wonder if that is misguided thinking. If we can’t think about our neighbor and help them, how can we know what it really takes (time, energy, heart, etc.) to help around the world? It may be a case of semantics, but family first, community second, and global third seems like a natural progression of thinking, or in the case of students learning. We can make a huge difference for good where we are at a given time. I think we should.
Yes, these are tough times. There have been tough times since I took my first breath in November of 1965. We live in a troubled world, we face great challenges, and we do need to help our children prepare to meet problems head on just like I was taught to deal with things by great and noble people in my past. We do that via authentic opportunities of service. I shall restate the key term: do.
Doing something requires action. Yes, I can join a social network group and discuss the issues, make a plan, but it serves no real purpose until that action is carried out in the form of service to others. Hands on, get your hands and white shirt dirty, help a guy stand up on California Street in Denver, feed him, get him some clothes and housing, take him to a job interview, check back and make sure life is getting better kind of service. Selfless service, not out to make a dollar service.
We can talk about it and it is a noble, idealistic effort, but until you act I have a hard time listening. Would you really help someone you see in need on California Street? Will you? If you came back 25 years later and saw no one in need, was the problem solved? Today, the economy is tough, but I would say better than it was 25 years ago. A trip to the Exhibit Hall of ISTE 2010 sure makes me think everything is okay in the education world. Tax dollars will buy many of the gee whiz items that grace the hall, but will these items help our kids go out and find people in this city, in your city, that are in dire straits? Maybe that is a lens that we can use to help us decide before we choose that new interactive whiteboard, set of clickers, or information management software.
I listened to a man on Sunday night speak of solving the world’s challenges. Would he go out on California Street, just a few hundred yards from the very stage he stood on (25 years ago California Street ran through the Convention Center!) and help someone in need? I hope so. I have.
Let’s help our children, students, young people look the hundred yards and go out and help. That is good hands on experience that will help them look a mile, 100 miles, 1000 miles, and all around the globe. It will help them to see the people on California Street that we may not see anymore, but they are still there in need. Most of us already do this in our classrooms and schools, and we must continue to extend that vision beyond those spaces keeping an eye on that young face within our view making sure they see the challenges ahead and that they learn how to do something about it as we do something about it with them, today.