Updated: Feb 11
In June, filmmaker Ken Burns delivered a powerful commencement address at Stanford University. Among other words of advice, he urged graduates to serve their country, to “insist that we support science and the arts,” and to be active in solving challenges facing our nation. After the presidential election, one Stanford graduate wrote Burns to confess regret about her initial negative reaction to his speech, and to ask his advice on moving forward post-election.
Burns told the Washington Post that it took “a while to write her back.” After the election, he said, he felt like “Frodo in Mordor.” (For those not familiar with The Lord of the Rings, in the last half of the trilogy, Frodo and his companion, Sam, struggle through enemy territory on a near-hopeless mission to save Middle Earth.)
In your role in education, have you ever felt like Frodo in Mordor?
Perhaps you are the only educator or parent trying to follow best practices for a specific student, or the only person advocating to save, start, or improve a district program. You may be a teacher, a parent, a school administrator, a lawmaker, or an advocate for public education. You may feel hopeless in your struggle for adequate funding. You may feel terrified as you fight against proposals and budget cuts that could strip away any real chance of a decent education for students in low-income neighborhoods, or for students with certain special needs and learning differences.
How do you cope with seemingly impossible challenges in the field of education?
Burns responded with advice that can help in many situations, regardless of political beliefs or affiliation, whenever we feel overwhelmed and hopeless. He encouraged the writer to seek engagement and to start with “awareness and commitment.” He said: “go forward. Engage. Don’t despair. Find likeminded people — not from your social circle, but everywhere.”
In other words: look for others who feel like Frodo in Mordor, and become Sam.
In Tolkien’s trilogy, Sam is not always treated with respect, including by Frodo. Being Sam is not a glamorous job, and Sam is not praised in any minstrel’s song. Readers don’t often see Sam as the hero of the story – yet more than once, the fate of all Middle Earth rests in his hands.
Sam never seeks glory or recognition, and throughout the tale, he follows his convictions. It is Sam who chooses to trust and befriend Tom Bombadil and Faramir, saving the quest. In their most difficult moments, Frodo and Sam face impossible challenges alone – yet they go forward, and they find unexpected allies. They support one another, and ultimately, they prevail. Sam does what is needed to further the mission. He always helps, he works harder than anyone, he keeps going, and he creates the companionship he and Frodo need to survive. At times, Frodo despairs, but Sam does not give up – and in his loyalty, honesty, creativity, bravery, and determination, Sam discovers that he is stronger than anyone realized.
Not all of us have the resources or connections to be the warrior-king Aragorn – at least, not in every situation, or not yet – but all of us can be Sam, at any time.
At first, you may not see like-minded educators or parents in your neighborhood, in your class, or even in your school district. They exist. Keep looking until you find them. You can collaborate with those who face different challenges but who share your values and ultimate goals. If you search, you may find that reputable organizations are already working to overcome the obstacles you now face. (Please note that if you are unable to move past despair even with support, professionals and organizations such as NAMI are eager to help – and please feel no shame in being one of the 1 in 5 adults who needs mental health support in any given year.)
Children, too, can face isolation, heartbreaking challenges, and anxiety about the future – and as adults, we struggle to help them cope. While professional help or therapy is sometimes needed, some adult coping strategies also work for children. To help existential depression at any age, Psychologist James Webb recommends: “getting involved in causes they believe in is the best remedy to combat feelings of hopelessness and helplessness and questions of life meaning” (Webb, 2013).
Do you know a student who feels alone in her struggles, her worries about the world, her commitment to honesty and truth, or her search for support? Sam Gamgee might be the literary hero he or she needs to meet.
It is not an easy time to be an educator or a parent. In our current post-truth reality, as we fight for science, struggle to find reliable news, and weather new attacks on the public education we desperately need for global survival, we need one another.
Whatever role you play in education, small or large, please continue to engage. Follow the advice of Burns, Webb, and countless others, and do not give up. For the sake of our children, do not become resigned.
When you need help, reach out. You are not alone. We may be in Mordor, but hope is not lost.
We can all be Sam.
Webb, James T. (2013). Searching for meaning: idealism, bright minds, disillusionment and hope. Tucson, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Stanford University News (2016). Prepared text of the 2016 Stanford Commencement address by Ken Burns. http://news.stanford.edu/2016/06/12/prepared-text-2016-stanford-commencement-address-ken-burns/
“Post-truth.” The Oxford English Dictionary, OED Online. Oxford University Press, Dec. 16, 2016. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/post-truth
Rosenberg, Alyssa (2016). A student asked Ken Burns what to do in Trump’s America. He gave her this advice. The Washington Post, Dec. 15, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2016/12/15/a-student-asked-ken-burns-what-to-do-in-trumps-america-he-gave-her-this-advice/
For an excellent post about discussing climate change with children, please see the EcoScienceGirl blog.
Thank you to Laurie Stein for bringing NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) to the attention of parents and professionals in the DFW area.