To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.  E. E. Cummings

Free at last, they took your life, They could not take your pride. U2

I was listening to U2’s tribute to Martin Luther King,  Pride (In the Name of Love) as I drove across town the other day, and the song prompted me to wonder what it was about Dr. King that made it possible for him lead in the way that he did.  What is it about any person that makes it possible for them to be a powerful force for good?

Many ideas came to the surface.  Dr. King had a crystal clear moral purpose. He was passionate. He had a deep faith. He was magnificently articulate, disciplined, hard working and so forth.

These were the leadership characteristics I thought of first, but then I arrived at something that is at least equally important: Martin Luther King Jr., and others like him, live an undivided life.

I learned about the divided and undivided life in Parker Palmer’s profound and beautiful book, The Courage to Teach. Here is a what he wrote:

Many of us know from personal experience how it feels to live a divided life.  Inwardly we experience an imperative for our lives, but outwardly we respond to quite another… there are extremes of dividedness that become intolerable…

The institutions we inhabit, Palmer explains, can make it very difficult to live an undivided life because those institutions make claims on us that are at “odds with our hearts”:

That tension [between who we are and what our organization asks us to do] can … become pathological when the heart becomes a wholly owned subsidiary of the organization, when we internalize organizational logic and allow it to overwhelm the logic of our own lives.

Palmer describes Rosa Parks as “our most vivid icon of the undivided life.”  When she chose to sit at the front of the bus, he explains, she was deciding that she would no longer live the life divided. Indeed, when asked why she stayed in her seat, Palmer tells us, she said “I … was tired of giving in.” To live an undivided life, then, is to stop giving in.

And just like Rosa Parks, Palmer writes, teachers need to stop giving in.

I meet teachers around the country who remind me of Rosa Parks: they love education too much to let it sink to its lowest form … These teachers have decided that teaching is a front-of-the bus thing for them, even though their institutions want to move it to the back… they act in ways that honor their own commitment to the importance of teaching. What these teachers do is often as simple as refusing to yield their seat on the bus: they teach each day in ways that honor their deepest values rather than in ways that conform to the institutional norm.

It is the undivided life, I believe, as much as anything, that fuels many of our greatest actions whether we are talking about leading a generation-defining movement for freedom, or teaching a five-year old child to read.  And each of us carries within us the potential to stop living the life divided.

To know who we are and what we stand for, and act in ways that truly express that knowledge is an act of courage and integrity. But that action is also precisely what will save our schools, our students, and our selves.

There is so much we can do to improve the way all the people (adults and children) in our schools learn.  One way to start is to “stop giving in.” We can make it clear, in our words and actions, that education must always be a humane, authentic activity for everyone.

The divided life is soul destroying.  But the undivided life liberates us and our students and it is the beginning of creating the schools our children deserve.