book review : Start Where You Are, But Don't Stay There (Milner, 2012)

When I received my copy of Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There, (H. Richard Milner IV, 2012), something about the title told me that it wouldn’t be like any other book I’d had for required reading. The same week that I began reading Start Where You Are, a dear friend gifted me another book, Between the World and Me (Coates, 2015). Although the focus of this book report is the former, I find it difficult to not draw a comparison between these two books for: the shared themes of race in America, complex ideas well articulated by African-American men, and the openness and honesty with which issues are tackled within the pages of both books.
It is the honesty that pulled me into the pages of the assigned reading, as Milner shared truths with deliberation and grace. I lost count of how many times I smiled, nodded, raised an eyebrow, or re-read a passage with pleasant surprise. I was pleased that he was saying so well, what is said too seldom, if ever said at all. With example after example Milner drives home the point, that the work of the effective educator is always in progress, starting in earnest where the students are.

Looking honestly at the world that students are surrounded by and eventually expected to face on their own, the writer argues that issues of race, ethnicity, gender and class cannot be ignored. To go a step further he admonishes the reader/educator to use these status markers as learning opportunities. Then pushing us several steps beyond information provider, we are given the model of the educator as an advocate for social justice.
We are told early in the book, in the first chapter, “Even while students are told explicitly about the culture of power and are learning to survive and thrive within it, they should be empowered to challenge and question oppressive structures, rather than to conform…” Consistent with that theme via anecdotes, we are reminded all the way through to the final chapter, “teachers in this book remain, as do I, critical of current social, historic, economic, and political ills and concurrently optimistic and hopeful about the change that can emerge when we refuse to be defeated in education.”

My critical view of this book is wrapped in the needs it is designed to meet and measures necessary to meet those needs. I found myself thinking that the amount of time and ink dedicated to review and restate previously shared concepts, bordered on redundant. Examples of this are half pages of 80 and 108 that are used to review previous chapters and draw connections for the reader. The care and insistence with which the points are made, bring to mind the image of Mr. Milner as an attorney eloquently pleading his case, making his point for the souls of our youth, teachers, and society. If I were the judge listening to his arguments I’d be likely to say, ‘council you’ve made that point, the court follows you, it would please the court for you to count it intelligent enough to keep up.’ As a jury member in that court I’d say at the first opportunity, ‘your honor, the people have reached a verdict.’

After a discussion with a small diverse group of adults on a different, but related topic I felt our writer’s intentions were clear, and approach justified. The discussion was about an artist that happened to be an African-American woman, Tiffany Massey. The gallery host was introducing us to the work and explaining the determination of the artist to share specific angles of the African-American narrative. In response a male, non-African-American diplomatically protested. He put forth the idea that it is unnecessary, even impossible for Black artists, writers, or others with platforms to represent or give voice to the Black community. When he finished making his statement, I attempted to point out to him the many people and perspectives that are unrepresented or under-represented. He was missing the point that, one of the key reasons, – beyond her excellence as an artist – that the gallery we were standing in had chosen to share this artist’s work is the continued opportunity gaps for women and people of color in the art world. Understanding that she has an opportunity, the artist is taking the responsibility upon herself to give voice to those who share her background that as of yet, have no voices with her audience. Even after I made my point, as clearly as possible I’m not sure that my well-meaning friend got it. Then I realized that not every reader would receive the jewels within the pages of Start Where You Are, as readily or willing as I had. Milner had to make the point with as many examples as possible and reiterate the connected points of those examples as each opportunity presented itself.

The relativity and relevance of the work of Tiffany Massey, Ta-Nehisi Coates and H. Richard Milner IV goes deeper. There is an urgency that these artists share in their chosen aesthetics – visual, written, narrative and conceptual. When you know you have ‘the floor’, you recognize the unique opportunity. Coates speaks of this as a journalist questioned him in a television interview about his writings on race, violence and it’s American history, in his open letter to his son, Between the World and Me. Massey has not spent years developing and studying her craft to just become a part of the classist network that shuts her out twice, based to her membership in two different unflavored demographics. She will tell her story. Dr. Johnson, Milner writes about in his third chapter, takes her stand and holds fast despite the lack of support shown her by the administration of the school she serves. Her cause, like that of Mr. Hall, and the other teachers Milner exposed us to is an urgent one. She’s quoted saying, “It’s like Black teachers have to know more – we have to know about what’s accepted and expected from a European perspective, and we are expected to be the expert on everything Black too. It’s hard work.” (pg. 94). This quote stands as a metaphor in my mind, for the way Milner executed this book. Of course, he knows that there are strong indictments in his text. He is aware that teachers and administrators of all backgrounds need to ingest the wisdom, hard to swallow though it may be. He knows also that his point is not made to his entire reading audience until it’s made clear in irrefutable, masterfully articulate, academic (even at the risk of being redundant) terms. I could imagine if I met him he might say ‘I’m glad you got it right away, I said again for those who missed it in the first 5 chapters.’

To be clear, saying that I got it is not to suggest that I knew already. The book was a blessing to read in that it is an example, call and re-call to the duty of excellence in all its forms. The three areas I feel most inspired to mine within myself are vision, perseverance and grace. When I think of the kind of vision this book inspires in me, it’s a reflection of the way Mr. Jackson presented himself to himself, thus to the students, and the world as the teacher the will be the principal. Dressing for where was heading, not for where was at that time. The perseverance is that of both Mr. Hall and Dr. Johnson, to stay on task, despite opposition and accusations. The writer and teachers throughout the book, but in particular Ms. Shaw exhibited grace, as she tossed aside the perspective of some teachers who were there ‘just to teach’. When there are gaps the system will not step in and tend to children slipping through them. This requires someone to care enough to say, as Ms. Shaw, “it becomes your job because somebody’s got to take on that role for students” (pg. 139). This attribute can shine forth if I want the best for the students, so like Mr. Hall I am able to tolerate disruption a bit longer, because the student taken away from the learning environment for bad behavior has a decreased opportunity to learn.

In conclusion, it is both the technique and the spirit of teacher that empowers effective educators. The technique is what we have to continually sharpen. We assess the state of students and our society in order to make adjustments and meet them where they are, joining them in the journey. The spirit of the educator is transformative. It is the motivation to revolutionize one’s self, to become at once, self-aware and selfless enough to empower students to revolutionize themselves and the world that awaits them. The spirit of the educator is what gets us started. Consistent professional development from all forms of texts will guide us forward.

Milner, H. (2012) Start where you are, but don’t stay there. (2nd Edition) Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, MA

Coates, T. (2015) Between the world and me. Spiegel & Grau, New York, NY


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