Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Building Bridges Beats Building Walls

Walt Whitman Bridge
From Bridges
By Bill Staines

There are bridges, bridges in the sky,
They are shining in the sun,
They are stone and steel and wood and wire,
They can change two things to one.
They are languages and letters,
They are poetry and awe,
They are love and understanding,
And they're better than a wall.

This song came on my Pandora channel yesterday (yes, my Pandora channel is the old fogey folkie station) and I couldn’t get it out of my head. As I sit here on the eve of the inauguration of a president who promises to be a “wall builder” one of my favorite singer/songwriters is singing of bridges, both physical and metaphorical. I cannot help to think back to a presidential inauguration of 56 years ago – the first one I can really remember and one I remember vividly. It was, of course, the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. One of the speakers at Kennedy’s inauguration was the great American poet Robert Frost, gray haired, and looking chilled and frail in the January cold. Frost, I am reminded, also had his opinions about walls.

From The Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends a frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

We teachers are bridge builders. At our best we build bridges to transport students from the known to the new, from ignorance to understanding, from illiteracy to literacy, from fear to comfort, from anxiety to calm. At our best we are among Frost’s “something’s” that do not love a wall. We break down walls of prejudice, of resistance, of self-doubt, of anger, of turmoil and replace them with bridges of tolerance, caring, encouragement, calm, and routine.

Great leaders, too, are bridge builders. Great leaders appeal to our better, not our baser, selves. On that long ago inauguration day, John F. Kennedy appealed to us to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” One-hundred years earlier, Abraham Lincoln warned that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” And 30 years ago, Ronald Reagan went to the Brandenburg Gate in Germany and demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Great leaders (and great poets) understand that the history of the world favors the bridge builders and opposes the wall builders.

Walls divide. Bridges unite. Demagogues divide. Leaders unite.

The in-coming president has called for the building of a literal wall between our country and Mexico. No matter how you feel about that piece of political policy, the metaphorical walls the president-elect is building between us are much more concerning. Political analysts say that the Trump candidacy has given voice to people who feel that they have not been heard. Fair enough. But if that unheard voice is the voice of ignorance, prejudice, violence, and base self-interest, then it is the true leader’s responsibility to guide these voices toward a better understanding of what America truly stands for. The new president will swear to “preserve, protect and defend The Constitution of the United States.” That Constitution says that its purpose is “to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty.” We can disagree about how to accomplish these ideals, but we cannot disagree that these ideals apply to all Americans and that building bridges to make sure that all Americans (and especially the poor and powerless) receive these benefits is the chief job of any president.

I will be waiting anxiously to hear how President Trump plans to be a bridge builder. I am not really interested in any walls (or hotels) he wishes to build. Is Mr. Trump a leader or a demagogue?

The Bridge Builder
by Will Allen Dromgoole

An old man going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening cold and gray,
To a chasm vast and deep and wide.
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim,
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned when safe on the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide.

“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You are wasting your strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day.
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build this bridge at evening tide?”


The builder lifted his old gray head;
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”