When I taught upper elementary school I had one particular student who stood out. He had an incredible mind. Ezra scored high on analytical tests and had a large vocabulary. He asked pointy questions that revealed his disillusionment of authority. And he also became easily frustrated, called himself stupid, and cut into his skin with his pocketknife as punishment. Sometimes he projected the frustration on to people close by. He got into fights and sent to the office on a regular basis.
Ezra was also curious about my peace sign. I had an obnoxious, oversized peace sign charm woven into the laces of my high top Converse sneakers. My older brother gave it to me as a joke. Carl would roll his eyes every time I left for a protest march or ordered vegetarian or refused to shave my legs. He would shake his head and explain to me once again why I couldn’t save the world all at once – it has always been like this and will always be like this, so stop trying and enjoy it. But at the same time, he would let me borrow his truck to haul street puppets for a demonstration or haul people in the Pride Parade.
Ezra wanted to know why I wore the peace symbol. Even though it came to me tongue in cheek, it had come to be a reminder for me to walk in peace. I gave Ezra writings by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi and Thich Nat Hahn. Ezra read these books as quickly as I could bring them in, but pondered on how their lives would be different if they lived on a reservation with the highest poverty rate in the state and both their parents were drunk and unemployed and most of their classmates suffered from Fetal Alcohol Effects. I didn’t know how to respond.
I came into class on a Monday. The kids were gathered around Ezra. They were admiring his boots. He had gotten blood on them over the weekend. Shot a deer. His father and uncles had taken Ezra out for his first hunt. While gutting it he got blood all over himself. It was a rite of passage. He recounted the details with his classmates with his chest puffed out and his chin held high.
Ezra sat next to me in class. He fiddled with peace sign on my shoes, and I eyed the dark brown splotches on his boots.
“How about we switch for a day?” he asked, still touching the peace sign.
Ezra grinned with a twinkle in his eye, clearly hatching a plan. “You wear my boots for the day and I’ll wear your peace shoes.” Ezra was tall for his age. He had huge feet, which prophesied an even taller future.
“Please. I’ll take very good care of your shoes.” Looking up, eye to eye for the first time.
“Okay. But like you said, these are peace shoes. You can’t hurt yourself or hit other people while you’re wearing them.”
He held up two fingers ‘on my honor.’ He quickly unlaced his boots to make the switch. Our feet were almost the same size.
“Okay, I promise to be a peacenik for the day. But those are hunter shoes you’re wearing. You have to walk like a warrior today.” And then Ezra ran off in my Converse.
Throughout the day I looked down to see the dried blood and wondered what it would be like to shoot a dear. What it would be like to be so intelligent, but have no answers for the poverty, oppression, alcoholism, and slow genocide around? To be so fearful of the anger locked up inside that it started eating away at hope? What would it be like to have a family invested in my coming of age and ritualize it dramatically? What would it be like to depend on the shooting of that deer for the food on my table? What would it be like to be so forgotten as a people that my education didn’t matter on one hand, and then could be the only equalizer that could lift me up from the stranglehold of oppression?
With each step I let these questions sink into my flesh and bones. I didn’t play kickball with the kids that day. I stood quietly and intentionally noticed the wind on my face. I heard a basketball echo on the court and saw Ezra shooting hoops by himself.
At lunch when I was handed a plate without meat I asked for a regular lunch. Doris was surprised. So was I. She shrugged and added a healthy dose of hamburger gravy to my mashed potatoes. I ate it. It was good.
That day Ezra didn’t get into one fight. He didn’t growl or yell in anger. He didn’t hurt himself. As we were waiting for his school bus we each untied our laces and exchanged shoes.
“How did it feel to be a peacenik for the day?”
“Not bad. I passed… How did it feel to be a warrior?”
Our eyes locked on the others. And we were silent for many moments as the other kids ran for their bus with the typical frenzy and excitement of the final bell oblivious to the sacred turn in their midst.
“I walked taller.” I said.
“Me, too.” said Ezra.
That day my understanding of our interconnectedness expanded. There are many ways to talk in peace. There are many ways to be a warrior. And sometimes being a peace warrior is what is required. My education had begun.
Religious Education sometimes requires changing shoes.