Through Example…

Sometimes education is as simple as leading through example.  Tonight Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the story of the West Memphis 3, premiered at the New York Film Festival. For those not up to date, this was the final installment of three HBO documentaries chronicling the story of the three teenage boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, who were wrongfully convicted of killing of three second-grade cub scouts back in the early 90’s.

Having followed the case for more than a decade and stewed in my own anger over the intransigence of the legal system to rectify an egregious wrong, I stood eagerly in line to purchase my ticket to the film’s release. What would make the evening even more memorable was that the convicted men were released from prison only six weeks ago—entirely because of the movement the documentaries set into being. It is not often that we can so accurately point to a book or film as the source of true change in the world. Tonight, it was unmistakable. And I wanted to be part of that.

Looking back, most anyone can see that the teens (dubbed the West Memphis 3) were convicted largely on innuendo, shoddy police work, and the incredible rush to judgment of people who assumed kids wearing black t-shirts and listening to hard rock music must be up to no good. Dubbed Satan-worshippers in a small community understandably enraged at the murders of innocent children, these young men never really had a chance. It’s a cautionary tale of mistaken perception, of needing to place blame somewhere, of arrogance. Not very good lessons for our kids.

Thankfully, the release of the first film sparked a remarkable awakening, and as the years passed by, more and more people came to recognize the gross injustice perpetrated in the case.  Websites were built, books were written, money was raised—all by people incredulous that such perversions of justice could occur in our system. Even one of the murdered boy’s stepdad came around—becoming a fierce advocate for the men’s freedom. Of course the terms of the West Memphis 3’s release would make theirs a pyrrhic victory of sorts: their “Alford Plea”required they plead guilty while maintaining their innocence—a circuitous way for the State of Arkansas to prevent the men from suing.

As a teacher of social justice, I wanted to support the film tonight because I see the journey of these men from arrest to release eighteen years later as a textbook example to students everywhere: perseverance, conviction, and a willingness to speak out CAN effect positive change. Sometimes, it’s okay to get angry about injustice. Sometimes, anger is what fuels action. Sometimes, anger is exactly what you need to rally people to constructive action when the system fails. The film tonight reminded me of all the reasons this story has angered me over the years.

Then following the film’s bittersweet ending, two of the West Memphis 3 took to the stage with the filmmakers to answer questions.  It was here that Jason Baldwin, sent to prison at the age of 16, brought forth a different message from the one I’d imagined I’d take away with me.

Sometimes, there’s no room for anger.

With a beaming smile on his face, this man who’d lost half his life told us about going back to school and working with kids to help them navigate the legal system and avoid the fate he’d been dealt.  As I marveled at his eloquence and grace, I realized that amidst the outrage and frustration that drives our activism, we must also make room for forgiveness. And there is no better way to teach forgiveness than to see someone so justly deserving of vengeance effectively say to an audience of people who would follow him into battle, “Hey, I’ve got much more important things to do with my time. I’m moving on.”

It’s a powerful message to convey to kids, to anyone really.  Integrity. Imagine if we could all embrace this idea…

Yeah, what happened to me wasn’t right, but rather than spending a second trying to get even, let’s just make sure we do better for the next guy.

That is leadership.

What Do Leader’s Discuss at Dinnertime?

October is around the corner and with September’s passing will go an hour of coveted daylight. But with the darker days comes opportunity!!!  Get home earlier, fix dinner and spend an hour talking to your family, roommates, friends. So often we don’t make time for meaningful conversation. Yes. We all talk ad nauseum about our schedules and the myriad things we need to do, but I find that to be more talking AT people—a dramatic itemization of why our lives are more challenged and stressful than anyone else’s. (A self-indulgence of which I myself am quite guilty.)

Because some of us occasionally forget how to talk to people without the help of an ipad, smartphone, or text-message translator (What the heck does BHIMBGO mean anyway?), I have decided to include a few suggested conversation starters with parenthetical notes regarding importance:

1.             Name one thing you saw today, that did not directly impact you, that you wish you could’ve made better? (encourages us to think about the world outside our immediate sphere)

2.             What were the three highs and three lows of your day today? (makes every day distinct, so they don’t barrel past us in one gelatinous lump)

3.             What’s one thing you can do that will make tomorrow an even better day? (gives hope—which is always good—while also reminding us WE live life…life does not happen TO us)

4.             What did you eat today and how’d it make you feel? (complements question #3…grumpy and tired people rarely check-in with the simplest of explanations…)

5.             What’s in the news? (Don’t have time to pay attention to the news and chime in? Then we forfeit our right to complain about things later. Period. We teach our kids plenty well how to complain. How about sharing with them the tools to speak out productively?)

6.             Is there anything I can do right now to help the people sitting around this table with me? (because really…it’s not all about us)

7.             Share something you overheard that made you laugh. (encourages us not to be glued to a phone or music when we’re out in the world… and reminds everyone to chuckle once in while.)

Create your own list, borrow from this one, just talk with one another. Harken back to the days at dusk when moms would holler out at us that dinner was ready. Mealtime is such a great opportunity to be reflective and engaged. Be present. Turn off the distractions and really listen and enjoy one another.

Yes, there is homework, studying, and preparation for tomorrow to be done. And there always will be. But the people we gather with us as the sun sets, will not always be there. Just as we will not always be here either.  So let’s pause with each fall day, even if just for a moment, and ask ourselves and one another, what did today mean for us and the people we love? what did it mean for the world? and how are they connected?

How well have I taken care of the world today?

How well have I taken care of myself?

Looking back on today alone, have I lived well?

Pass the carrots, please.

Send us a blurb about how you spend mealtime. What meaningful activities do you bring into your world with the coming of fall?

(BTW, if you REALLY don’t know what BHIMBGO means in text-speak, I hope you’ll enjoy the irony. BHIMBGO= Bloody hell, I must be getting old!)