What's love got to do with it? Everything.

"Because love is in the details, we can operationalize it to rebuild schools into centers of joy, creativity, curiosity, collaboration, and cultivation of the unlimited potential of young people." 

heart When it was announced that NYC public schools would be reopened this past fall, it meant that we, my colleagues and myself, would be returning to work. Work that required leaving the house, which meant saying goodbye to virtual wardrobes and wearing clothes that didn’t pull triple work-chill-sleep on repeat duty.

And it meant trying to reclaim a semblance of a pre-pandemic routine. I intentionally did not use the word “NORMAL” because poet/activist/writer Sonya Renee Taylor admonishes us to acknowledge that “normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack.”

What we didn’t normalize was making room for joy, taking time to process grief and loss, leaning into uncertainty, valuing lived experience, and operationalizing love. Not the westernized, commercialized version of love that only exists in Hallmark movies and pop songs. That kind of love is fictional, fickle, thin. In Toni Morrison’s seminal work Beloved, “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.”

Too much of what passes for love is thin. Whenever LOVE is mentioned as foundational to building highly supportive relationships with young people, the pushback is swift and strong. In workshops I’ve facilitated and in teacher Twitter feeds, I’ve heard educators reject love as a requisite. “I’m not paid to love, I’m paid to teach” is the commonly used retort. And it is many of these same teachers who are posting about exhaustion and depletion and indifferent and uncaring administrators and district leaders. The exhaustion, depletion, and indifference  are exactly the point. The “near-collapse” (arguable) of school systems across the country bear this out: Normal never was because thin love ain’t love at all.

Like many, I’ve long struggled with the positioning of love offered by philosophical scholars from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  to one of my “mentors,” bell hooks, whose recent transition into ancestorhood is still incomprehensible to me. They promote the act of love as an occurrence that happens with your whole self. It doesn’t require arbitration or agreement, necessarily.

Admittedly, I’m still grappling with this concept because it is difficult to imagine loving people who are not family, intimate partners, or friends because love requires vulnerability, and this society doesn’t do vulnerability well. At all. It is extremely selective around who gets to be vulnerable and who doesn’t.

But one late night listen to DJ Alan King, a legend from Chicago (Google is your friend!), gave me a new perspective. He was playing Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream “ speech over a deep house music cut and I glommed onto the idea of love contained within the text. Loving oneself fully, completely, utterly, and irrevocably IS the ultimate weapon. It is both an offense and a defense. You love because it serves as an antidote, an elixir, a balm for the spirit. It soothes, it heals, it takes the ash off of elbows and knees (Google!) – it is potent.

You love that which doesnt love you back because you can, and they cant. It would be impossible to live in this country, in this world, and not be infected and affected (shouts out to my warrior colleague Javier Diaz!) by the poisoned fumes of dominant culture, capitalism, and patriarchy. But love, as the supreme alchemist, has allowed us to survive, thrive, and flourish. It transforms and transmutes the poison. It doesn’t mean we remain unscathed, but we can be unwavering in our determination to end the isms and disrupt systems of inequity and harm.

Because love is in the details, we can operationalize it to rebuild schools into centers of joy, creativity, curiosity, collaboration, and deep cultivation of the unlimited potential of young people, who deserve love merely because they exist. When love is at the center of planning, policy-making, goal-setting and initiative implementation, students, staff, and faculty will be the recipients of shared commitments, transparent communication, high expectations, truly inclusive data, and sustained focus on learning that is meaningful and affirming.

This kind of love ain’t thin and it ain’t for the fickle. This kind of love requires the holders to engage in practices that support healing, reflection, and accountability. It means deep, active listening and having the courage to be wrong. It ain’t about being a good person with good intentions. It’s about knowing where intentions end and ego-challenging work begins. It means detoxing from binary thinking, language, and ways of being that are not centered in the healthy development of young people and respect for the communities from which they come.

When love lives as a practice, with supporting actions and mindset shifts, our school communities will experience kindness, acceptance, and reciprocity as both inputs and outcomes. And there’s nothing secondhand about that.