Jacob Riis (on perseverance and “pounding the rock”)

“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

I had never heard of Jacob Riis (1849-1914) before my attention to all things San Antonio Spurs reached new heights during their NBA Finals series with the Miami Heat. (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, tired of the “typical, trite silly crap you see in locker rooms at all levels”, has long had Riis’s stonecutter quote displayed in the Spurs’ dressing room. I was puzzled when a microphone picked up “Coach Pop” imploring his team during a timeout to “keep pounding the rock!” This could have been basketball jargon for “keep dribbling the ball”, which was a strange thing for such a team-oriented coach to say. Now, suddenly millions of NBA fans know of Jacob Riis and his love for basketball  tireless dedication to social justice.)

Riis was a journalist, a muck-raker, an activist and a noted practitioner of the brand-new art of photography. Born in Denmark, he was a relentless advocate for immigrant rights and decent living conditions in New York. It was in the context of his activism on behalf of the “poor, huddled masses” that he made the above statement. The Spurs use it because they believe in the process of team-building, slowly and steadily. I think of it when trying to teach English, build community, educate for justice, find my mislaid abdominals and write and write. (What’s your rock?)