Q: You have authored 10 books. What does the writing process mean to you?
A: I think of writing as a deeper level of thinking. I talk to myself through my writing. I love the chance for quiet, playful reflections, the solitude and the musing, and the eventual commitment to a set of ideas, analyses, and arguments. I also enjoy the actual process of writing, the struggle and the challenge of making something clear and engaging. I have a great study, the place where I hide out to write. It is on the fourth floor and looks out over the rooftops of the brownstones in the South End, a view that makes me feel like I am in a loft in Paris. It is my asylum. So much of my life is so public, active, and extraverted; as a steady diet, it exhausts me. When my children were growing up they used to call my study “Mama’s treehouse” and they learned very early on not to invade my privacy unless it was really important; they knew to knock before entering. So it is a place of retreat, even though the writing and sense-making I seek there are often hard and elusive.
Q: Was there any piece of advice that your mother gave you that you have kept with you?
A: My mother is 99 years old. Her mind is fading. Her body is aching and arthritic. She’s no longer able to walk. She can hardly hear. At her adamant request, she continues to live in the house where we grew up. She has wonderful caretakers around the clock with whom she has developed deep and loving relationships. Despite her physical and mental struggles, she always looks gorgeous and radiant. There is not a line in her face.
On a recent visit, my mother found a place to settle next to me on the couch. She looked directly into my eyes, and said earnestly, “Sara, sweetheart, tell me what is the most meaningful thing happening in your life now?” There was my mother as I have always known her —asking probing questions, wanting to know what her child was thinking and feeling and doing with her life. That curiosity and commitment to knowing is one of the big lessons she has taught me. She has a huge investment in connecting with her children and grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren, in a deep way, recognizing that we are always changing even as we remain the same. And she is willing to listen to the painful and incoherent parts, not just the parts that might make her feel good and proud. I think I probably talked for 45 minutes straight — speaking loudly and slowly so I would be heard — glowing in her respectful attention.
Another powerful lesson my mother has taught me comes from watching the way she has always lived in the existential present. Whenever she arrives, she is completely in the room, fully attentive and engaged. I remember when we were children, she would come from her office, or arrive home from the hospital, and as soon as she crossed the threshold, she was with us. And so my mother taught me about boundary crossing. In my child’s-eye view, she always seemed to move with alacrity across work-family borders, and when she arrived at home, she was ours. It was only much later, when I became a mother myself, that I recognized that her grace crossing borders was laced with exhaustion, and that it required uncommon discipline to manage it in a way that was comforting and convincing to her children.
Q: Can you point to any mistakes you have made along the way or any missteps in your career, things you might have done differently?
A: It seems pretty hard to identify the mistakes; to make a discrete accounting of things gone wrong. Mostly I have felt over the years the kind of exhaustion that comes with the fight to be heard and taken seriously, with the work of figuring out my professional identity in this environment, with trying to carve out work that had my signature and was fueled by my special gifts and commitments, with resisting the often critical appraisals of my colleagues whose way of working and knowing was so different from mine. And of course, there was the weariness that went with the subtle and not-so-subtle expressions of racism and sexism, and with having to always decide what deserved and needed a response from me. These were all minefields for me, and in hindsight some of my protective responses lacked both honesty and grace. And of course when I began teaching at Harvard I was 26, a kid without much of a sense of my own worthiness or authority, and I struggled mightily to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of my students. So I certainly remember moments of feeling extremely discouraged, often outraged and angry, occasionally deeply sad and wounded. But having watched my parents pave a path before me that was far more treacherous, I was usually able to regain my perspective and re-enter the fray. Both of my parents had taught me that the way wouldn’t be easy and that failure and setbacks were a part of the journey. And I have always been temperamentally wired to carry on; to dust myself off, pick myself up, and move forward.
I have always seen myself on the periphery of Harvard, on the edge, which turns out to be a wonderful perch actually. A part of me has always been facing out to the world. I have cared deeply about the institution, about my students and colleagues, and I have devoted a great deal of energy trying to teach well, be a good adviser, and a responsible citizen here. But I have never felt that Harvard was my whole life. In fact, I have always believed that if I didn’t make it here, I’d make it someplace else, and that wouldn’t be such a terrible tragedy. That must sound strange for me to say, given that I have been at Harvard for my entire professional career. But the irony is that if you don’t take this place too seriously, if you do not let it define your worth or identity, if you remain a bit detached from the institution, then you can stay here in peace; you can resist the immodesties and pridefulness of the place.
Q: Is there any book or work or art that has been a constant source of inspiration for you, a piece of music perhaps?
A: Music is always a powerful touchstone for me. I end my most recent book, “Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free,” for example, by talking about the emotional and spiritual impact of listening to Bach’s Mass in B Minor at Symphony Hall, and the ways it brought me home to myself and filled me with memories and resonances from my childhood. I love the clarity and complexity of baroque music, as well as so much else in the classical repertoire — Beethoven, Chopin, Stravinsky. But Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Ray Charles can be just as nourishing to my soul; so can the jazz riffs of Joshua Redman or Sonny Rollins. Equally compelling for me are the visual arts. My 32-year-old daughter Tolani is a painter and sculptor, and her work has graced our home since she began to produce it at 3. So I have the pleasure of being surrounded by her beautiful and evocative work. Home is a wonderful place to be inspired by her creativity.
Q: What do you envision your exit from Harvard will look like?
A: I hope to compose a good exit that will feel like a satisfying — and hopefully beautiful — way to mark my completed time at Harvard; a conclusion filled with ritual and ceremony, perhaps music and dance and balloons! I will not be one to slink away in the night or retreat into the shadows. Whenever we make significant exits — retirement being a major one — we experience the twin sensations of loss and liberation. When I leave Harvard, I will leave with a sense of gratitude for a place that has molded my professional identity and given me the space, resources, and platform to create and produce work that is meaningful and sustaining for me. But I suspect that in leaving here, I will also feel a new kind of freedom and independence. All of us who exit have to struggle with these paradoxical feelings and make a path through the thicket of contradictions.
Q: What piece of scholarship do you think made the biggest impact on education? How?
A: Clearly the books I have written that focus directly on schools and classrooms have had the most impact in terms of the audience of practitioners and educators who have read them and taken some of the insights and ideas into their work. I continue, for example, to get mail from principals, teachers, and parents who have read “The Good High School,” published 30 years ago, who speak about how they have used the book to provoke reflection and discussion about ways to improve and transform their own school cultures. The text is seen as paradoxically anachronistic and contemporary. Likewise, parents and teachers, educators in training, and academic scholars speak about the ways in which my book “The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other” has uncovered for them the tender, often adversarial and defensive, relationships that parents and teachers typically forge; the treacherous territory and boundary marking that they must navigate; and the ways in which the book helps them re-envision and develop better partnerships. It is a book that is experienced as both a conceptual advance and a practical guide.
But even those books I have written that are not explicitly focused on education often find their way into schools. “Respect,” for example, has become part of many high school curricula, provoking classroom conversations between teachers and their students. And in several high schools across the country, students have created performance pieces, plays, and poetry raps based on the dimensions of respect identified in the book. For several years, George Faison, a renowned choreographer, took a troupe of black and brown adolescent dancers from New York City into prisons across the country to perform a theater-dance piece composed and staged by them based on the book.
Q: Is there a work that you are most proud of?
A: My sense of connection to, and pleasure in, the work changes all the time. Usually, I feel most proud of whatever my latest book happens to be. As I take the book out into the world hoping to inspire a public conversation, I am eager to see how audiences respond. I learn from the questions and critiques that get provoked. But I also love it when earlier books from long ago make a surprising re-entry into my life. That happened recently when I was visiting my 99-year-old mother on her wedding anniversary. My father died 30 years ago, but his large spirit hovers over her home, and she has frequent conversations with him in her day and night dreams. On her anniversary 60 years later, she longs to remember her wedding day. So this past June 5th, I pulled “Balm in Gilead” down from the shelf and read Margaret the part about the beautiful wedding in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when her father, an Episcopal priest, both officiated the ceremony and gave her away to Charles. My mother wept as she welcomed back the story that had gotten lost. Thirty years after publishing her biography, we were both presented with a huge gift, the chance for me to give my mother back to herself. That moved me and made me proud.
Interview was edited for clarity and length.