I just spent a few days in Chicago and was lucky enough to meet Arne Duncan, former US Secretary of Education, for the second time. I’m not usually one to race over to to people and ask them to take a picture with me but I really wanted one with Arne this time around since I dropped the ball last time.
And I got it. And I posted it on my Facebook page because, duh, it’s Arne!
A friend of mine back home saw it and joked with my husband at the baseball field, “Erika is so excited to see that guy, it’s like he’s Elvis or something.”
The truth is that in our celebrity obsessed culture, Arne is my Elvis. I don’t get excited over musicians and actors and athletes the way I do over courageous people who speak up and work on behalf of other people’s kids.
And I’m lucky enough to have more than one Elvis. The people who make me weak in the knees are the men and women like Howard Fuller, Hannah Skandera, Sharif El-Mekki, and Sydney Chaffee (and the late Polly Williams and Rita Pierson) who have devoted their lives to public service with the aspiration of leveling the playing field so that kids that have been failed in this life still have a chance. Men and women who choose to spend time with the victims of trauma and violence and work tirelessly to help them gain access to the tools they will need to avoid dropping out of school and becoming yet another statistic on that school to prison pipeline. Men and women who embrace, respect, and work to empower families who only want the best for their children but who are struggling to access the same opportunities that others with more education, more influence, and more money seem to always enjoy.
Arne may not have shaken his hips or sung Blue Suede Shoes (which would have been crazy cool!) but he did something better and more important than that. He encouraged and inspired a group of people from all over the country and from all kinds of backgrounds and cultures to keep leaning in with urgency and courage on behalf of children. He reminded us that neither Democrats nor Republicans have a monopoly on being right. He advised us to try and ignore the noise on the far left and right and instead work to mobilize the middle. He told us that we don’t have 50 years to get this right for kids. He spoke of the importance of rolling up our sleeves and getting in the trenches as much as we can to push for a system in which teachers can be treated (and paid) like true professionals, a system that honors parents by providing them with choices about where their kids go to school, a system that protects children when local control falls short. He reminded us of, perhaps, the greatest challenge of all: getting people to care about other people’s kids.
And he talked about what happens to those for whom no one ever got it right, sharing with us the heartbreak of the work he’s doing now with men from Chicago who came up through a broken system and turned to violence, men who are now trying to get on a new and better track but for whom opportunities and skills are minimal.
So yes, I got to hang out a bit with my Elvis. And be inspired with other people who also inspire me. And I’m so grateful for that.
MUST WATCH: See what makes one of my other Elvises, Sharif El-Mekki, so inspiring and such a game changer in education and in his community. I’m lucky to call this guy my friend.