A couple of years ago now, I heard a quote that stuck with me as few do. It could be that I heard it at a particularly stressful time, or that the colleague who shared it seemed to be in real distress as she spoke it. Either way, it sunk in and stayed like an invisible tattoo. The quote is from Leonard Cohen. In his song, Anthem, Mr. Cohen reminds us that in the worst of times, we should “ring the bells that still can ring.” On the day that I heard those words, the world was loud with grief.
For fifteen years now, I have lived in a city of many churches. All one has to do is to take a walk around noon and it will sound like the world is a bell for twelve long, echoing chimes. That’s how it once sounded to me. Sadly though, I almost don’t hear the bells anymore. Even when I’m walking alone, I’m too lost in my own thoughts and worry to hear them. I might even actively filter them out. That thought is painful to me, but life is a great silencer when we slip beneath our worries and simply let it be.
It’s funny to think of worry as loud, although it most certainly is. Attach that worry to a child, to your own child, and it becomes almost deafening. Only one sound pierces worry at that level: the sound of your child struggling, failing, grieving. Of course, other children are struggling, failing, and grieving, too, but they are not your children. Someone else’s ears are tuned to hear them. You actively filter them out if you must. You almost have to.
Every day, I see children who are struggling, some failing, some grieving. And every day, I see parents and teachers holding bells for these children and all of them are ringing. I see school administrators with hundreds of bells, always running and changing bells, always ringing, ringing, ringing. The hallways are almost symphonies because if you are listening, every child will always be a bell that still can ring.
Are you listening? Probably not. If you are a parent, you are probably deafened by the sounds that you are making on behalf of your own child. You have filtered out the sounds of those other parents and all of those teachers and administrators. You almost had to, at the beginning. But you are here now; you are maybe years in. You need to listen now. You really have to.
There are sadly too many reasons that children fall behind in reading. There is dyslexia, which is maddening and frustrating and treatable, along with numerous other learning difficulties and differences. There is also poverty, which is frightening and devastating and hard to look at. And there is trauma, with its heartbreak and neurological impact and hope stealing. And yet, even these bells are determined to ring.
If you have interacted with me as a parent, or teacher, or administrator, I’ve heard you. I swear that I have. I’ve made it my job to. I’ve heard you yell, cry, and plead. I’ve heard the exhaustion in your voice as you rail against some other bell getting more attention than yours, about someone serving some other bell’s need. Whether it’s happened in the form of funding, or staffing, or accommodations, or you-name-it, your bell went unheard. I am so sorry. I really am. Sometimes my days are loud with grief.
Listen though, please. Just listen. If you make yourself hear even some of the other bells that other parents and teachers and administrators are ringing, you’ll notice that they sound a lot like your bell. You’ll note the same reverberations of grief and triumph, of hope and loss. If you really open up to those other bells, you’ll also hear the steely determination that you hear when you ring your own bell, the same constancy and beauty, the same love.
Finding a way to address the reading crisis in our schools is not as difficult as it often feels. It’s simple, really. We need to listen to each other. We need to recognize that as long as we each have the goal of being heard first and loudest, then we will only distract from the issues and drown each other out. Instead, let’s all agree that dyslexia should be said and treated, that poverty should be addressed and abolished, and that trauma should be recognized and healing given time. Let’s fight for these things together and celebrate every victory, whether it’s won across the state or in one small classroom.
We can absolutely do this. We have to. Because when we do, then we will turn the current cacophony into a symphony that will grab the ear of every advocate and demand the attention of every legislator. When we do this, we will lift up every child and finally hear every bell that still can ring.