Make the Road While Walking It

Words of Wisdom from Mike Klonsky on finding our path

Phil Fallway
Oct 7 · 7 min read
Photography by Phil Fallway and Molly Green

When I was in elementary, my teacher repeatedly tried to make me write with a rubber pencil grip to ensure I had correct form. Of course, there was nothing wrong with the teacher doing her job to help me write well, but I was adamant about doing it my way. After her 3rd or 4th attempt at correcting my poor form, I took off the rubber grip and threw it to the other side of the classroom when she wasn’t looking, purposefully losing it. When she returned, she asked what happened to it, and I simply replied “don’t know,” smiled, and kept writing in my own way. She scowled, then walked away and never bothered me about it again.

I write the same to this very day.

I hold my guitar pick in a similar fashion, and it works — for me. As a result, I play and write more from my shoulder, which lends itself to pouring out lyrics at lightning speed when I’m inspired to write a new song. Or anything else I need to take notes on, like last year when my business partner and I traveled to Chicago and met Mike Klonsky, a prominent education activist since the 1960s, to get advice on how to start a possible music education program for at-risk youth in our community back home.

Talking with Klonsky over coffee put the current state of American education into perspective — how far our nation has come, yet how far we must go. Throughout the decades, he pioneered many of the things we take for granted now in education, freedom, and social justice. In fact, Klonsky knows a thing or two about creating something new, innovative, and tailored to specifically fit the needs of the community for which it’s built. One of his primary projects, the Small Schools Workshop, implemented those ambitions by helping schools and communities around the nation design more personalized learning environments.

Klonsky is a revolutionary, but true revolutionaries don’t change the world overnight, then walk away. They stick around to see it through. Even in his 70s, it’s clear he hasn’t lost that fighting spirit. In fact, he said he was coming back out of retirement to teach again the same week we met up with him.

After all, these guys never really retire.

The central question we had for him was this -

“Where did you begin?”

“We had no idea what we were doing,” Klonsky explained while recounting the beginning of his mission. At the start of building what later became known as the Small Schools Workshop, he and a group of other local educators took on the task of trying to serve kids in their community by meeting in a local pub at the end of the day. As interest grew, they had to find a new space to accommodate their group. Soon, colleagues suggested they apply for grants and other sources of financial support to launch what they were working toward. Klonsky realized they had no one with that particular skill set, so they recruited someone who did, thus refocusing their recruitment tactics.

Eventually, they decided that instructing communities how to build something specific or handing out blueprints wasn’t their aim. Instead, the goal was to provide a roadmap for how to put together a group of local community leaders, teachers, parents, and other supporters for whatever each project required. Then, they had to get them into a room and work out ideas through dialogue for the needs of the kids that community intended to serve. In essence, Klonsky’s group was helping small communities create their own education workshops.

In musical terms, this would be the equivalent of starting a band by simply getting some of the best musicians around town, sticking them into a room, then jamming to see what comes out. That’s what Klonsky’s group was doing:

They were jamming.

And in these jam sessions, everybody had an equal say, an equal interest, and an equal role to play in elevating underserved kids from communities. They had to work through it to find their common ground. Like an unfinished song, it’s not enough to have a bunch of colorful chords if there’s no melody to bring it all together. What’s the riff? The hook? What are we trying to sing?

What’s our anthem?

At the height of the 90s, grunge, a powerful genre of rock music, took hold of my generation, forever influencing the musical decades that followed. A brutal yet masterful album, Dirt, by the legendary rock band Alice In Chains (AIC) served as an anthemic outcry for disaffected youth of that era. It chronicled the cold, hard truth about the destructive nature of isolation and how it can overtake the human spirit if left unchecked by hope, understanding, and community.

Years after grunge rock fell out of style, during my career in human services, one of the kids I worked with in the juvenile justice system struggled with mental health issues related to isolation. He often expressed how no one understood his pain, no one knew the darkness he experienced day to day. At one point, he discovered the album Dirt. Soon after, he started to write poetry and talk about why his thoughts were so overwhelming and sometimes suicidal. He revealed how deeply he missed his family back home and how the music helped him realize that others out there were struggling with addiction like him. Later, after he left treatment, he called back regularly to tell us how well he was doing.

Hope, understanding, community.

That’s what these kids need. It’s what we all need. And it’s what education should embody.

What we need is a path; if it can’t be found, we must create it.

“Make the road while walking it,” Klonsky suggested when we inquired about what kind of path we could take to begin a music program in our own community. Again, he explained from experience how there was no set model, no actual blueprint, just different paths to pursue. Paths that, in the end, we must create.

The beauty behind what Klonsky revealed to us was his willingness to admit his humble beginnings in creating some of the initial small schools. He wasn’t afraid to say “I don’t know” when his group first got to work. When asked what kind of education model they used, he said the same one we should always be using:

Dialogue, critical thinking, and asking questions.

In other words, the Socratic method.

Ironically, despite being considered a founding father of Western philosophy, Socrates allegedly never claimed to be a teacher. He often cited how little he believed he actually knew, with his own poverty serving as supposed evidence as to the truth of this claim.

Virtue, friendships, and community, not material wealth, were his pursuits and what he consistently promoted as being above all else.

Shouldn’t that be our focus too?

We’ve been told for decades that we need to go to grade school and college to get a lucrative job, to make money, and to make decent lives for ourselves. But what does all that matter if we have no one to share that life with, no one with whom to connect? If we are invisible to those around us, as those kids lost within the juvenile justice system so often are, what’s the value in a piece of paper that provides little more than a pat on the back and a slightly higher paycheck?

“Kids aren’t anonymous,” Klonsky pointed out while describing his early days of becoming more involved in his community. He would go out to the local basketball courts and start shooting hoops alone until the neighborhood kids would take notice and join him. Despite the fact that he was one of the few white guys for miles around, these kids connected with Klonsky simply because he was meeting them on their terms, their turf, and by having fun with them. Eventually, he began coaching them on how to play better and earned the trust of the community by giving his time and energy to this end. He used that opportunity to meet parents and talk about programs he and fellow teachers were implementing around the area. These measures were simply the rough sketches and prototype for what would later develop into his Small Schools Workshop.

Recently, Klonsky took up learning to play guitar. “I can do anything, I just have to do it my way,” Klonsky declared when describing his challenges in learning to play. He explained that he’s had to work around a couple of old finger injuries from his past basketball days. It was an illustration of how kids and adults alike have the innate ability to be natural, life-long learners — if given the space and time to find their own way.

Central to that idea is the importance of not forcing any one particular mode of teaching or learning. Klonsky emphasized, “We have to connect curriculum to the lives of children.” Each student has her own abilities and interests, and every teacher has his own talents and expertise. Both must be involved as we recreate the world in which we grow. The road ahead isn’t clear cut — and that’s the real beauty of it.

Nothing is set. We must make our own roads by kicking up the dirt ourselves. At least now we can recognize that it’s not what we think we know, but what we don’t know that can ultimately be our greatest strength in finding a future we can truly believe in.

We’re writing a new song. We have a few chords, a place to start. That’s good enough for now. The rest will come in time. We will find it together — that melody, the hook, that thing we’ve been searching for…

Our anthem.

Edited by Courtney E. Taylor https://www.facebook.com/byCourtneyETaylor/

Photography by Phil Fallway

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