157: A Litany for Survival: Audre Lorde

Survival is the topic that my students can completely pour themselves into.

The competitive think about resources–those who like nature build shelters and hunt, while the video game kids imagine the zombie horde not quite overrunning their positions. This is “Hatchet” with them as the star. More contemplative souls look at their friends and problem solve and think about where essential items are squirreled away; they are more concerned about civilization as a whole. They are more of an “Island of the Blue Dolphins” crowd.

We loop our curriculum, both years focused on the 20th century–one year we focus on the world, and the second is focused on America. During the latter, I use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as the blueprint for units. First up: Survival. In this, we look at the promise of the founding documents and then deconstruct the Great Depression and the role of government today. No zombies–how would you survive?

Part of the appeal of survival is that it is their life stripped down. Like with sports, where there is a clear score at the end, my students crave concrete clarity in the classroom. While my students don’t even glance at rubrics (or directions), they respect my grades because they are solid, offer clear feedback (from the rubric they didn’t read) and I give them the chance to get better. Many don’t yet have the maturity to see the steps leading to their future. Combined with their belief of immortality, the slow slog to adulthood is all grey to them.

Survival is now.

Last year I read “The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How” by Danny Coyle, an engaging and very useful book on success. Over half of his examples are sports related, and the overlap with teaching and survival are huge in that “breaking tasks down” and quick feedback loops are huge. I have lent it to students and had them read specific passages to great effect.  Elements of survival can be empowering.

Survival also comes up now because it’s standardized testing time. In Vermont, we take our NCLB tests in the fall. When NCLB first revved up, our administrators told us to be cool, as they are merely testing what we do every day. No prep needed. Administrators and teachers throughout the state were scoffing at “No Child Left Untested” and the lack of seriousness permeated down to the kids. My scores stunk. I shrugged. Until, in our third year, only 28% of my students passed the writing test. When I asked them why they said, “We didn’t like the question.” It wasn’t interesting.

With that, I realized that they thought life was giving them a choice. They believed that, when life was interesting enough, they would be able to turn it on. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work like that. In every sports movie, there is an extensive training montage that preceded the successful rise that leads to being the underdog in the big game. So, now, we treat NCLB like the Superbowl (daily class are practices, with papers and tests the season games). We focus on survival–two minute drills and the like. And I show inspirational speeches like this:


Of course, I cut the prayer (separation clause; huge supporter of).

And, no, we don’t teach to the test except where the test assesses skills students are supposed to be learning.

But Lorde is doing something else. When you watch a sports movie, play a video game, or just think of yourself in a survival situation, you assume victory. At the very least, there is redemption (I’m talking to you, original Bad News Bears!)

But what if you’re Jerry Renault in “The Chocoate War”? What if you fight the good fight, and, in the end, you get the snot beaten out of you and as the ambulance hauls you away the powers that be are stronger than ever? Failure is a possibility, after all. Why bother?

My favorite YA novel

Lorde argues: Because we were never meant to survive. Being here–standing here now–we are a triumph. While we look at those less fortunate, we rarely feel our good fortune–success not by anything we did, but good fortune. On this, we build.

Maybe I’m reading it wrong.

This is a poem of hope. See if your students can find it here, and in their own lives.

A Litany for Survival
Audre Lorde

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours


For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.


And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love with vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid.


So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.


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