“I wonder if this is what it felt like in the sixties, just having these moments of, Wow, it can happen! ”
Kathleen is an Associate Professor of Education at Saint Xavier University. She also has worked with Grow Your Own Teachers Illinois in the Logan Square community. She helped to found and sustains a progressive primary school in Cuenca, Ecuador.
At the time of the interview, Morgan was the Academic Coordinator for the Maestros sin Fronteras and Nueva Generacion cohorts through the community-based organization Logan Square Neighborhood Association, part of the Grow Your Own program. She recently finished her PhD in Education at University of Illinois, Chicago, and is teaching at a local community college. She is Kathleen’s daughter.
I talk with them in the home Morgan and her husband, Paul, a high school teacher, had recently purchased. It is their first house. Throughout the conversation, the third generation of the family, Mathilde, age 3 months, is wordlessly passed between mother, grandmother and father as if it was a choreographed routine. When it comes time, Morgan breast-feeds her and then the child sleeps.
Kathleen: I’m going to start by saying I was a high school dropout twice, because I think that’s important. Where I went to high school was very suburban. It was in Hamburg, New York, suburb of Buffalo. One of the highest achieving districts and that kind of thing, but it was a turbulent –to use a cliché — a turbulent time. I got expelled for organizing a moratorium during the Attica days. That was my first entry into activism: Saying we should suspend classes, and we should be studying what’s happening at Attica today. Hundreds of us were in the cafeteria and trying to do this on our own. I don’t remember now what happened to other people, but I was asked to leave for a while, then I quit. I went to an alternative high school.
Later, I decided to go back to high school, finish and go to college. The reason for going to college was to get a teaching degree so I could homeschool my future children so they wouldn’t be drafted. It was a stance of, When I have children, they will not be registered with the Army. They will go underground with me, somehow. Probably sounds so archaic to Morgan, not remembering how things were then.
Have you always worked with people who are struggling?
Yeah. The strugglers, the outsiders. The working class kids, too, would sort of find me. The more marginalized people clicked with me, and I don’t know if that’s because I grew up working class and always felt like an outsider, too.My dad was a steelworker. My mom, she was a licensed practical nurse. They wanted me to go to secretarial school, not college. I refused by failing typing class in high school.
Morgan: You still don’t type right. [Laughs]
Kathleen: It was on purpose. If they find out you type, they make you a secretary.
Morgan: I don’t have much of a memory of what I learned in actual school, but I have a lot of memory of what I learned at home. I’m thinking about a moment when I came home from … I went to Catholic school. I think mostly because the public grade schools were pretty awful.
Kathleen: No, because of the social justice mission…
Morgan: There you go. I came home with a little kid article about how Cortez was a hero. My parents both read it and said, “Okay.” Then sat me down and explained what he really did and how he was a perpetrator of massacres and colonization.
I asked Martin Haberman, in his eighties and a proud pragmatist, what he thought in the beginning was possible to accomplish. He said, “Everything.”
Kathleen: Me too.
Morgan: You guys got to grow up in a different time, though.
Kathleen: It was more hopeful.
Morgan: It’s interesting to hear you say that. I don’t think I ever grew up thinking everything was possible.
Kathleen: Yeah. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: “We can change the world.” I believed everything that we subscribed to and the way we behaved and how we organized and the point of view we had and the passion that we had. Yeah, we’re going to erase racism and sexism and homophobia. All those things. It will happen.
Do you still believe it?
Morgan: The only night I ever believed that was the night Obama was elected . I remember thinking, I wonder if this is what it felt like in the sixties, just having these moments of, Wow, it can happen!
Are both of you about making big change or the impact you can have on what’s around you?
Morgan: I think we both — I don’t want to speak for you — but secretly I think we want to be about making big change.
Kathleen: Oh yeah. If Arnie Duncan wants to have a meeting…
Morgan: We’ll go.
Kathleeen: I don’t have a forum to make change in the way that lots of people are doing. But that’s okay. I’m in the world that I’m in, I love the world that I’m in, I love what I’m doing.
Morgan: One of the things that I worry about all the time is, where the hell am I going to send Mathilde to school, Mark? I asked Diane Ravitch to sign her book, once, and I said to her, “I want to read this book because I don’t know where this baby is going to go to school. Where am I supposed to send her to school?” Our local school is, I don’t even know what their test scores are, but I know it’s not good and it’s apparently really scary. The local high school is Orr [where Paul teaches]. I love you, Paul, but I’m not sending her to Orr. That’s what I think about, God help me –I hope for a city, let alone a country, where I can live in an urban area that I love and send my child to school.
Kathleen: Paulo Freire would say you send her to Orr. If I’m truly the empathetic person I say I am. Education is activism.
Can you do that?
Morgan: That’s where I’m sort of caught. My first instinct is to say, hell no.
Do you hold onto a dream of a society for Mathilde that you think is within our grasp?
Sure. It doesn’t feel like it right now, but I can’t say never. Right now, I do not see that dream world in Chicago, but I think that dream world kind of exists in like Sweden and Denmark already, but in the United States? I do think it’s possible that Mathilde can be going to a neighborhood school that embraces the neighborhood, where teachers believe not only in the children they’re teaching and wherever they came from, but in the community in which they teach.
It doesn’t seem like a really complicated dream world, but that’s really it, what I imagine. That there’s a neighborhood school where the teachers and the principals and the community all believe that kids are important and what they think is important and how we love them is important. It’s not a complicated dream, it really isn’t.