Que sçay-je?

(Middle French, Modern: Que sais-je?) Once upon a time, I heard that this question was posed by Michel de Montaigne to himself as he went forth to write his famous essays (in the 1500s) trying to explain what he knew, or thought he did at the time. I’m going to try to do the same, at least make some attempts. For this first essay however, I am going to try to explain myself to others: Qui suis-je?

There is that expression “do not judge a book by its cover“ but everybody does anyway. And it’s true, I am now an old white guy. So, this might be what goes on my dust jacket – for my friends on the left caught up in their current zeitgeist, and for my enemies on the right caught up in a strangely different one. More importantly, in this moment of history it is necessary for old white guys to explain themselves. (Just FYI, I was not among the over 70 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump. Imbeciles!)

I hope you too can be proud of my humility when I say that there are some accidents of my birth that I like. By that I mean, I cannot be proud of what my ancestors have done, nor should I be ashamed, because blood should be water. Or not. I should create who I am from scratch, create my destiny. However, there are a couple of stories in my heritage that I embrace…

Every year I bring a gun to school. Actually, a gun and a sword. They are artifacts from the Civil War that have been handed down. They come from a relative who was in the Illinois infantry, and I have both the little notes explaining these artifacts, and a book with his name in it. Frankly, I am not proud of being an American, but I am proud of being a Yankee. 

(Digression: I’ve had the opportunity to visit both Normandy and Hiroshima, sites of the D-Day invasion and ground zero of the first atomic bomb. Reading thank yous in the guest book at the cemetery in Normandy did make me proud of the United States, but seeing the images of death and destruction at the Peace Museum in Hiroshima made me ashamed. And, I’ve variously apologized for the actions of the US in France, Togo, Japan, Cuba, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Ideals should be challenged by reality.)

As it turns out, I am not a Christian. But I am very proud of my relative who might be the most disappointed by that revelation. My maternal grandfather, Frank B. Fagerburg was the minister of the First Baptist Church of Los Angeles from 1930 to 1952. Growing up, I was inspired by the titles of the books he wrote: “This Questioning Age,” “Here for a Purpose,” “Is this Religion?” I got lost in the biblical references, but I liked the search for meaning. Dr. Fagerburg quit after 22 years preaching to his large congregation in Los Angeles because the board of deacons would not allow a black woman and her daughter to join the church. (Notice in Jet magazine, here & elsewhere) I admire his integrity and his conviction. 

(Digression: I had not heard the full story until a protegé and successor, Dr. John Townsend told me. In fact, he took me to the archives at the First Baptist Church of Los Angeles to show me the documents and explain what had happened. A few years later he invited me to the installation of the first black minister of that church. I attended in vindication of my grandfather’s beliefs. BTW, Dr. Townsend married Mary Lynn and I at the First Congregational Church in Riverside.)

There is much more to both of those stories, but you’ll have to read more than just my dusty jacket. For those who don’t, at least appreciate that I am anti-racist, value social justice, and aspire to being at home in the whole wide world, a people person (all of ’em), an earthling. I am not proud of the white part, nor the man part (accidents of birth), and you saw me just disavow the Christian part. However, I am proud of the old part (it takes time!). I’m starting to figure stuff out, just a bit. And, “I like what I know.” 

(Digression: My master’s thesis at UCLA was called “Vintage Thoughts: A Search for the Wisdom of the Elderly.” I had researched the topics of wisdom and age, interviewed several old people, and conducted oral history projects with my students. While I discovered that age does not guarantee wisdom, cultures and societies that respect it, have reverence for it, or venerate matured human experience tend to do well. More on my “Reformed Confucianism” in a future post…)

Coda: Perhaps this next bit should be a separate essay, but I’ll squeeze this notion in here. I am proud of what I tried to accomplish in creating small learning communities at North Hollywood High School. 

After working in three different magnet schools: Hamilton Humanities Magnet, Bravo Medical Magnet, and the Highly Gifted Magnet, I created and coordinated two “Academies” with grants from the California Department of Education. The Naturalist Academy began with a Specialized Secondary Program grant, and the Home Engineering Academy continues with a California Partnership Academy grant. 

Borrowing from Harvard Education professor Howard Gardner’s idea of a naturalist intelligence, we built a program to emphasize ecology and environmental studies for previously unidentified gifted students. [Not shown in the PBS documentary “Beyond Brown.”] After the four year funding cycle, we became a School for Advanced Study, still supported by LAUSD. 

The Home Engineering Academy [named so we could call the students “homies”] was designed to teach vocational skills to students on the opposite end of the academic performance spectrum. [Shown in the Discovery Channel show “Monster House.”] 

I’m particularly proud to report that, fourteen years after leaving NoHoHi, those two programs are still running! Check it out: formerly The Naturalist Academy, still The Home Engineering Academy.

I just want to do something like that – create a cool school program – one more time

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