By Charles deGravelles
This is the fourth installment in a series called “The Quest for Peace in a World of Violence.” Charles deGravelles is an Episcopal deacon, chaplain and teacher at Episcopal High School of Baton Rouge where he teaches a course in peace and conflict studies. In the first installment, deGravelles wrote about his inspiration for the class and its inception. In the second installment, he wrote about class trips he took with his students to show them how the “pieces” of violence interconnect. In the third installment, he wrote about the lessons his students learned during a trip to Angola.
At our final meeting of this semester-long course, my seventeen students and I shared beignets and coffee and reflected on what we’d experienced and on our four major accomplishments, which the next set of students—starting January 6—would have to build on.
From the beginning, I knew the course wouldn’t have a neat finish; that in one important respect, it wouldn’t have a finish at all. Conflict and violence are a stubborn part of life, so even as I was determined we would accomplish something definable and significant (albeit incremental), I’d also have to prepare my students for lots of loose ends and the uneasy feeling that our work was far from done.
The subject—peace and conflict studies—and the approach I wanted to take, were going to make for a messy ending. Last year about this time, inspired by the Sandy Hook School shootings, the escalating war in Syria, the genocides in Sudan, and the many murders in my home town of Baton Rouge, I had a vision for a course that would ask two simple questions—why do people hurt one another, and how can we make that stop? The simplest questions, as we know, can be the hardest. I might just as well have been asking, “What is a human being and why?”
I spent the summer designing a high school course to address the two simple questions and the myriad of others that inevitably follow. We began in August and had finally come to the end of the semester. What did we have to show for it?
One – A Program in Conflict Resolution
After scanning the very broad landscape of violence—from suicide to war—the class decided one sensible place to make a difference in our own city was to work with children at the highest risk of suffering violence and for becoming people of violence themselves. Our readings and our interviews with psychiatrists, counselors, educators, law enforcement, and criminologists, had taught us the deep connections between violent crime, poverty and poor education. And so one group within the class researched and designed an hour-long presentation for elementary school children on conflict resolution, complete with teachings, activities, skits, and inspirational talks about their own aspirations and strategies for achieving their dreams.
In early November, we debuted our presentation at The Children’s Charter Academy, Baton Rouge’s oldest charter school, located in the city’s highest crime district. As we set up in the gym, about one hundred thirty students, grades 3 to 5, filed in and took their seats on the floor. They were neatly dressed in school uniforms, and teachers kept them lined up with their shirts tucked in. But the principal, Cheryl Ollmann, had confirmed about her students what we’d learned about children growing up in poor families, that many of them have a severely limited vocabulary, including too few words some of us take for granted to get us through a day without serious conflict. Many of these young ones regularly witness violence in one form or another, inside their homes as well as in the streets, and our small presentation would hopefully reinforce what teachers and administrators were struggling to teach: words, attitudes and methods of peace.
I watched my students interact with the youngsters. One activity was to work in groups to build a “dream house” with small marshmallows and toothpicks. As we’d explained, communicating, compromising, and working together would be needed to succeed. My students circulated among the many groups, pausing to give advice, answer questions, and encourage. The youngsters were totally engaged, stopping their work only to turn smiling faces towards my camera as I snapped photographs of their crazy and wonderful dream houses.
The elementary students obviously enjoyed the experience, the principal and teachers gave us high marks, and my own students excitedly traded experiences with one another as we rode back on the bus.
They glowed with the rich sense of satisfaction that comes from taking a risk, reaching a goal, and doing something for someone else. One senior, a football player who had discussed with the youngsters his goal to become a pediatric cardiologist, asked if he could continue to participate when next semester’s class takes the program to other schools.
Two – Free Kerry Myers
A field trip to the Angola prison had inspired a second project, led by another group of students. They’d met and interviewed an inmate who’d received a unanimous recommendation by the Pardon Board for clemency, and after much study and discussion, they decided to support an effort to get Governor Bobby Jindal to sign his pardon. The inmate is Kerry Myers, in his twenty-third year of a life sentence for murder. Students researched Myers’ case and exemplary record –including a distinguished tenure as editor of Angola’s award-winning magazine, The Angolite. My class made a presentation at an assembly of the high school, explaining Myers’ complex case, and garnering from willing classmates postcards to the Governor. Not satisfied to put these postcards in the mail, the class boarded a bus and hand-delivered them to the Governor’s office on the twentieth floor of the Capitol. They were greeted by Christina Grantham of the Governor’s staff, who accepted the postcards, and heard the students explain their reasons for supporting Myers. My students had worked hard, but what had surprised and delighted me most was their genuine indignation at injustice and a passion to right a wrong.
Three – An Interactive Website
A contribution that promises to have a lasting impact on violence in Baton Rouge is a website, a third project, the brainchild of some of the more tech-savvy students. As they envisioned it, it will be a “one-stop” site, with different pages explaining the many facets of violence within the community and the resources currently available to address them. Live links from the webpage will take users to an associated YouTube site of interviews that students conducted with community leaders from these different agencies and organizations. Another idea was a page featuring outstanding students from different schools who are working to better the community. They chose a free, flexible platform and began to design and build pages that would attract people their own age from other schools and parts of towns, student clubs, organizations and church youth groups, all in an effort to educate, communicate and inspire. The site is a long way from finished, but stay tuned.
Four – A Documentary Video
Throughout the semester, a designated group within the class documented our field trips and guest speakers with I-Pads, taking stills and videos. Among those interviewed were Dr. Aniedi E. Udofa, a psychiatrist with the Capital Area Human Services District; East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux; and Dick Stonich of Hope Ministries, who taught us the many connections between poverty, poor education and crime. These interviews and photos are “raw,” needing much work before they can begin to take shape, but they are a rich stockpile from which future students can draw to tell the story of this class.
All of this constitutes a satisfying, if not so neat, finish. Each of our four major “deliverables” is a work in progress. Our conflict-resolution program for elementary students, for instance, can be improved in many ways, including by putting the marshmallow-and-toothpick exercise on paper plates so the marshmallows won’t mush into the carpet. As of this date, Kerry Myers’s pardon recommendation sits unsigned on the Governor’s desk, and there remain many avenues energetic students can take to move this effort along. The website too is under construction, and many more interviews and much editing remain before we can begin to put a real documentary together. In spite of the not so neat finish, I believe the students in the first semester of “The Quest for Peace In a World of Violence” class made impressive steps in understanding a deep and complex issue, and in making positive practical contributions toward solutions in their own community. My hope, of course, is that each student left this class better equipped as a person of peace and that their work will serve as a foundation for the students to follow.