Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee

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When an icon passes, it forces us to review what we think and it brings back memories. The recent passing of Muhammed Ali forced me to revisit my past and to think about the future. I came of age during the time Ali burst into our collective consciousness. Like most white Americans I found him to be crude and rude and I thought he was a loudmouth windbag.

When he refused induction into the army I started to view him differently. I was opposed to the war yet I failed to take a principled stand against it as he did. Ali laid his whole career on the line at the moment he was at his professional peak. I gained a grudging respect for him and after that I followed his life and comments more closely.

It was when I went to graduate school and met the man who would become my best friend, Richard Green, that I finally saw Ali for what he was-one of the most iconic and influential people of the 20th century. Richard was pretty iconic himself. He had started out life in a housing project in Minneapolis, overcame a multitude of obstacles and rose to become the first African American superintendent in Minnesota when he took over the Minneapolis schools and ultimately the first African American Chancellor of the New York City Schools.

But when I met Richard he was a young, brash Assistant Principal in Minneapolis who had courageously uprooted his wife and four children to study for his doctorate at Harvard. He was charismatic, clever and some would say crude, rude and a loudmouth windbag. But that was only those who didn’t take the time to know him and to realize that he was a brilliant, incisive, courageous, passionate champion of children.

Richard and I became inseparable. We were a strange pair in those days-a militant Black man from the inner city, and a vanilla Hillbilly from West Virginia. They called us Salt and Pepper and we were the lighter and darker brothers. We built a bond from our differences and shared a perspective on what should be done for children.

Richard loved Ali and I remember listening to the first Ali/Frasier fight with Richard and mourning with Richard when Ali lost. We agreed it was the rust of not fighting for three years during his suspension from boxing over his refused induction to the military that had caused the loss. When Ali beat George Foreman and then Frasier in the “Thrilla in Manila” rematch we felt vindicated.

It was my relationship with Richard that had allowed me to see Ali in a new light. I knew that Richard wasn’t what some thought and I realized neither was Ali. In America we tend to look at the outside of what people show and to judge their insides. Our long struggle with racism is exhibit number one for this. This is a battle we still fight today.

My friendship with Richard allowed me to see that it wasn’t the ribbon or the bow that mattered-it was what was inside the box. I saw Ali with new eyes and I started to see my fellow man with those same eyes. I wish that everyone could have a Richard in their life to allow them to escape the “mind-forged manacles” (as the poet William Blake put it) that hem in our world view caused by racism. When we make decisions based upon external judgements, we limit our own lives.

Ali was known, not just for his grace in the ring and his courage outside the ring-his ability to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee– he was also known for his wit and way with words. One of his better observations is that “service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” He lived a life of service and in helping open people’s hearts. So did Richard. His whole life was about serving others. Ali also said that that “he who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” His life was a testament of courage from his refusal to take part in a war he felt was immoral to his long struggle with Parkinson’s disease.  Richard risked his family by uprooting them and his health by working through his periodic bouts with asthma. Perhaps my favorite Ali quote is the one where he observed that “a man with no imagination has no wings.” Ali could float like a butterfly, not because he was simply graceful, but because he had imagination. He also reminded us that “hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.”

Part of Ali’s legacy to us is to look past the impossible. He said, “Impossible is not a fact, it is an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration, it is a dare. Impossible is potential…Impossible is nothing.” This brings me back to Richard. Ali was able to live a full life of success and service. My friend Richard died suddenly at the age of 53 from an asthma attack just as he was turning the schools of New York City around. Longevity wasn’t among his many gifts. But he changed all those he touched. And he never let the impossible limit him.

On Richard’s gravestone are the words, “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” This was his operating philosophy of life. He was surrounded by poverty but it didn’t define him. He saw racism everyday but wasn’t bound by it. He was a Black man who was happy in his skin and sorry his white brothers couldn’t feel the joy in that that he felt. He saw life as a responsibility to be addressed and that responsibility was personal.

Educators have a moral obligation to help our children see past the externals to what lies in people’s hearts. We have to give children wings to fly, and the courage to follow their convictions. We have to help them understand that if it is to be, it is up to each of us.  And we have to, as Ali reminded us to “live everyday as if it is your last because someday you are going to be right.” RIP Ali. RIP Richard.