Souls Tempered With Fire
On the occasion of this year’s observation of Dr. Martin Luther King Day, I felt compelled to share some thoughts on one of my favorite figures from American history.
In his incredible “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King, writes these unforgettable words: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” It goes without saying that in this day and age of divisive and demeaning rhetoric, the images of a “network of mutuality” and a “garment of destiny” to which Dr. King refers should describe our own responsibilities as educators and leaders of children and families.
Too many leaders today, as I see it, view their primary tasks as centered on leaving their marks on the institutions they shepherd or the efforts they champion. Whether this drive is the unfortunate result of hollow ambition or, worse still, simple hubris is for others to discern. However, I am sure of this: such an approach to leadership is far from the heart of Dr. King’s challenge and even further from the leadership style that we at Presbyterian School (or, any school, for that matter) should embody. Honest teachers know that students leave more lasting marks on us than we do on them, and honest leaders should know that tapping into our own institution’s “network of mutuality” and weaving ourselves into its “garment of destiny” are critical to our success as leaders and vital for the people, places, and programs we are called upon to lead.
Several years ago, I received a moving challenge along with a large group of independent school educators when we heard the late Harvard professor and theologian Peter Gomes confront us with the increasing hollowness at the center of our educational system. Education—particularly independent school education—should, according to Gomes, weave together personalities and destinies in much the same sense as Dr. King’s garment mentioned above. Borrowing imagery from Matthew Arnold’s “Rugby Chapel,” Gomes compelled those of us in the room to enliven in our students, parents, and colleagues “souls tempered with fire.”
What a perfect image for us to embody today. It seems clear that hollow souls seeking to leave their marks are succeeding only in producing equally hollow institutions—choose examples of this hollowness from one of any number we see around us today. On the other hand, institutions inhabited by souls tempered with the fire that comes from respectful relationships; from shared intellectual, emotional, and spiritual pursuits; and from laughing, crying, mourning, and celebrating together will reflect the very sentiment about which Dr. King wrote so many years ago.
Let’s all agree today that the support and education of each child is too important an endeavor to leave to hollow souls.
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