Over the weekend I listened to Solomon Burke singing Patty Griffin’s magnificent song, “Up To The Mountain”—her tribute to Martin Luther King based on the famous mountain top speech Mr. King gave the night before he was assassinated in Memphis. This song is so important to me that I’ve asked Jenny to have it played at my funeral, which I'm hoping is many years from now.
Here are they lyrics:
I went up to the mountain because you asked me to. Up over the clouds to where the sky is blue, I could see all around me everywhere. I could see all around me everywhere. Sometimes I feel like I’ve never been nothing but tired, And I’ll be working ‘til the day I expire. Sometimes I lay down no more can I do, But then I go on again because you asked me to. Some days I look down afraid I will fall, Though the sun shines I see nothing at all. And I hear your sweet voice come and then go, Telling me softly you love me so, The peaceful valley just over the mountain, The peaceful valley few come to know. I may never get there ever in this lifetime, Sooner or later it’s there I will go. Sooner or later it’s there I will go.
There are many important messages in this song—the power of knowing you have a calling, that you are doing what you are meant to do, that you are acting on the force and focus that come from a perfectly clear personal vision. But what hit me this weekend as I listened was the difference one person can make when all of those factors are united laser-like in action dedicated to making the world freer, more just, equitable, humane. This is what George Bernard Shaw has written in the “true joy in life,”
the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy...
The people who strive for mighty purposes shine like lights in the darkness of our day-to-day struggles. These heroes, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, seem like saints who have accomplished so much, people so far above us that we can never approach what they do. And yet, the fight they fight, for freedom, health, equality, respect, goodness, that is a fight all of us can fight. And that is a fight, I believe, that is especially there for every teacher to choose.
When a teacher’s kindness and empathy help a student find self-respect, when a teacher’s high expectations compel a student to believe she can be more than she realizes, when a teacher’s commitment to self-improvement helps him better teach students to read, the teacher is engaged in the same struggle that our saintly heroes fought—the fight to make the world a better place.
In a real way, profoundly dedicated teachers are climbing "up to the mountain." To teach with integrity is to hold up hope that the world can and will be better. There is no measuring this hard, good work; there is only the knowledge that we are doing the best we can.
And who is to say that a second-grade teacher in New Orleans or an AP English teacher in New York City won’t ultimately have as much impact as Martin Luther King.
It was a teacher, after all, that brought Mr. King into the world and taught him how to read.