Who tends to the spirit? Tackling Character Education in Public Schools.

Last week my daughter performed in a school play inspired by the life and times of the celebrated underground railroad conductor Harriet Tubman. “Freedom Train” recounted the defining moments of Harriet’s life against the backdrop of the national debate about the Fugitive Slave Act. In other words, as one woman sought her freedom from bondage, the nation as a whole struggled to define its stance on slavery as an institution.

Should fugitive slaves be recognized as free once they entered the North? Or should their status as chattel follow them wherever they went; their owners assured protection — under the law — of their human assets? These were the questions that animated this important national debate. While slavery’s future remained to be decided, Harriet’s mind, however, was clearly made up.

Having suffered slavery’s insults and injuries from birth, Tubman was convinced that freedom was worth the risk of recapture. She understood the stakes of her decision and was prepared to live with the consequences should she fail. Still, she was committed to following the path to freedom on the underground railroad. And neither her husband’s threats, nor the perils of the journey could dissuade her from traveling north.

She was driven by her conviction that all men — and women — were meant to be free. God had said as much to her in a vision. She knew it in her bones. And, most importantly, felt it in her heart. She let her spirit guide her as she challenged conventional wisdom that justified her people’s servitude, as well as the laws of the land that kept blacks like her ‘in their place.’

She heard the call to action. And she fought. Not only for her own freedom, but for all slaves across the South. Her tireless devotion to the dual projects of slave emancipation and slavery’s abolition made her a hero not only in her own time, but in ours, too.

It is for this reason that Harriet’s story features so prominently in the Spirit Series performance. The goal of this facilitator-led, three-week long theatrical workshop is to use history as a means to build character. Students are steeped in history via intensive research and role playing and, in doing so, they gain an appreciation for these ‘turning points’ that define not only the soul of a nation, but also the spirit of an individual.

Actors are reminded of Harriet’s unique strengths at the end of the performance when they are asked to address the public and to say their name, the role they played, as well as the ‘gift’ Harriet gave to them. Her gifts, written on river stones that are passed out to the students before the curtain is raised, are none other than her character traits: courage, vision, faith, strength, and commitment. These are the modern-day take aways from the story.

In the words of the Spirit Series organization, students are awakened, confronted, challenged, empowered, and inspired by the experience of working through the Freedom Train program. The goal is for “each student to become their own hero.” By living their life in accordance with their own values, even if they might be at odds with convention or, even, the law. Hearing the call — and answering it — takes character. How, though, in the context of everyday life do we go about giving it?

As a parent and an educator, I have long been preoccupied with this question of character building. Not only how to do it, but also to whom to turn to get the job done. Especially if you, like me, are more secular than religious and don’t have Sunday School to help lay a moral foundation for your children’s upbringing. In large part, I count on the schools to instill my children with a moral code, building on the understanding of right and wrong they have been developing since early childhood.

Still, though, there remains the problem of how to separate the spirit from the spiritual. How do you engage in a discussion of what Google Dictionary defines as the ’nonphysical part of a person that is the seat of emotions and character; the soul” outside of a religious context? The Spirit Series does this beautifully by operating the subtlest slight of hand. In the workshop, the two definitions of ‘spirit’ get used interchangeably.

In other words, spirit as ’those qualities regarded as forming the definitive or typical elements in the character of a person, nation, or group’ stands in for and, more often than not, slips into the ‘spirit’ that means ‘soul.’ The discussion stays secular, but the conflation of the two definitions — what literary types like to call ‘denotations’ — expands and elevates the discourse so it can hold space for these more esoteric qualities of being human. So, being ‘spirited’ can, at the same time signify that Harriet has a strong character informed by a righteous soul.

To bring the spiritual into the secular universe of the public schools is to walk a fine line. The Spirit Series, through this strategic conflation of character and soul, doesn’t just walk it, but breaks into a run. This group displays such confidence maybe because it has found the right formula: taking on character at the center of historical crisis and, in the process, firmly rooting moral choices in the public sphere. By doing so, the spirit — whether it be character or soul — becomes fair game for inquiry and discussion.

In my own teaching, I want to look to this example of blurring the lines between the religious and the secular. I believe that the spirit, in both senses of the word, is something that needs to be cultivated, nurtured, and engaged in schools maybe now more than ever. My job as an educator is to create that space for exploring what it means to be fully human. Maybe not by revisiting historical crises, like the Spirit Series, but rather by delving into the everyday experience of being an embodied heart and mind.

I am new to the world of the spirit. I’m more of a humanist than a Jew. More thinker than prayer. And, as such, I come to the project of engaging the spirit with equal parts incredulity and trepidation. The adjective ‘spiritual’ doesn’t suit me. It conjures up too much personal history that I’d rather forget or, at the very least, just leave abandoned in a heap behind me. That being said, I still connect strongly to the imperative of meaning making that it represents.

In brief, it’s a strained relationship. But it’s a relationship nonetheless. And, for that, I am grateful. Getting at these deeper questions of what moves us as individuals (and as a society) brings me closer to my personal goal of creating conversation around the vexing problem of how to live. I am profoundly interested in what it means to be human. And to have a body in which the mind is sometimes — read often — at odds with the heart.

How do we negotiate that conflict? What guides us if not character? What sustains us if not the soul? Harriet was right. The choice between freedom and slavery is ours alone to make. While it takes spirit to decide our fate, it takes character — every day and every hour — to make it so. Character education sounds the call for the soul to awaken.


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