America was going wild. Everywhere was protest and upheaval, boundaries being pushed past their limits in heady growth spurts of positive energy and negative energy, a tug of war for the future of the American culture. It was a rush, and many of us seemed swept along with a current of change that was exhilarating or crushing, depending on the issue and your previously held beliefs.
Guilt was bubbling over the fire of America. End the war, end American “apartheid”, end the raping of the earth, and stop pigging out on the earth’s finite resources.
No more women as “second class citizens”, we were freed by the birth control pill to take charge of our destiny. Once our bodies were free we could free our minds and our spirits. We could become cultural warriors, along with our men, like our Amazonian forbears. We could go out and conquer the canyons of our great cities.
But danger was also afoot. While heroes were being made, our greatest leaders were being assassinated, right here in America. When Kennedy was shot, I was downtown in our little northern college town shopping with my roommates. We were just about to enter the jewelry store, which was broadcasting a radio station in the entryway near the display windows. When we heard the so shocking news we left downtown immediately, in tears, and arrived back at the dorm to sit with all our friends in the lounge and see the fifties end in 1963 on national television. The pink and navy suit that Jacqueline wore – the funeral cortege – John Jr., manly little toddler, holding his mother’s hand and saluting his dad. Our president murdered.
Yin and yang – who knew that we Westerners would suddenly need the comfort of Eastern religion to understand events in the “land of the free”, the “home of the brave”. Black panthers, right fists knuckled and raised proudly, “Black Power”, sent shivers down the spine of white America, both of fear and of pride.
Buses were loaded to go to Washington to protest the war, more buses to protest segregated schools or school bussing, more buses to fight for the rights of women, and even more buses to protest the protesters. The buses rolled out with the brave radical or reactionary souls to fight the good fight or protect the status quo. There was fear in this. Something could go wrong, you could end up in jail or dead. There was camaraderie in this, solidarity with a community of like-minded contemporaries. Usually Martin Luther King’s example of peaceful civil disobedience held sway, perhaps diverting serious bloody rage-outs. We owe him.
The SDS, college campus heroes staged sit-in, be-ins. Our fathers and mothers who were in charge of our institutions were stunned, uncomprehending, angry. They fought back, and when slammed by massive outrage, reluctantly agreed to change.
Music was also gone mad, Bob Dylan, who could have said it better? It was all happening to a beat,: from Motown, “Baby Love, Oh Baby Love’, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”, from space, “Light My Fire”, from Liverpool, “Eleanor Rigby”, “Norwegian Wood”, from the west coast, “I Get Around”, and from another planet, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The beat was the bass that underlined each day and pounded the whole glorious adventure into our “collective unconscious.”
In the midst of this I had to move into my new apartment and start my first year of teaching. But I had smelled marijuana, I had seen our president shot, I had seen Tyler off to war in Vietnam, and all my 50’s security was toppling.
Two weeks into my first semester of teaching I knew I was in deep shit. It wasn’t going well. I had two classes of ninth grade English and two of tenth. These were not the goal-oriented, studious young people I had invented. They drew the battle lines. Last year they got rid of two teacher, they said, this year they were shooting for four. I planted my high heels. I wasn’t going anywhere. It was war. But I didn’t have a discipline gene.
We did study English, but I took such an academic approach that I lost them, or maybe they were just too intent on sabotage. We did some good stuff, we did anti-utopias, Animal Farm and an offshoot writing assignment. We did “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson and “The Sniper” by Liam O’Flaherty. We did poetry, haiku, Shakespeare and grammar. We did a unit on Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau and Gandhi, but my classroom was unusually chaotic. We had a whirl-I-gigs siege which involved the construction of dozens of notebook paper whirl-i-gigs which somehow appeared mysteriously on the ground under my windows in the courtyard.
I often had to shut my classroom door because other people complained about the noise. Once my tenth graders planned a B-B attack. Ten minutes into the class I was bombarded with copper B-B’s. I was rolling around on them. They were pinging against the blackboard. I did, at least, stand in front of the classroom door just before the bell rang and tell my darlings they couldn’t leave until the B-B’s were all picked up. I had to write a lot of passes, which I refused to do. I eventually had to relent because students without late passes had nothing to do but roam the halls. I should have reported them all, called their parents. No one had given us an arsenal of techniques for dealing with classroom war. I was embarrassed. If I gave detention, then I had to manage the perpetrators in the after school detention room. There was obviously more to this teaching stuff than knowing your subject matter.
My department chair, Mitchell Gerard, was a distinguished gentleman and a beloved teacher. He called me into his office several times. He summarized for me what was going on in my classroom , which I already knew quite enough about, but he gave me no ideas about where to go from there. Teacher’s classrooms are their domains. Perhaps he didn’t want to interfere. There was also a social studies teacher, Mr. Boyd. He tried to convince me to relax and not take it all so seriously. He spirited me away to a local cider mill during my first period each day, which was a planning period, for coffee and donuts. We weren’t supposed to leave the building, but no one really cared. He sort of bucked me up to face each new day. My mom sometimes shared her Librium with me, when I totally lost courage. I had never failed before at academics.
Part of the problem, I reasoned, was that my students were way ahead of me emotionally. Their parents were young and had way too much money. They worked a lot and they went out a lot. The kids would meet at a home where parents were absent and they were free to drink, smoke, party, and experiment with sex every night.
The girl’s classroom attire was outrageous. They wore short, short skirts with garters which showed below their hemlines and which were fastened to their stocking. I had never encountered this style of dress before, and have not since. The school did not disallow it. They were not at all ladylike about the way they sat. I tried to talk to them about the pitfall of living their lives to please men, but they weren’t buying it.
The boys were flirtatious and pretended to be in love with me. I finally did several lessons on courtly and unrequited love. I received several illuminated medieval love scrolls. I complimented the artists and this trend died out.
I had one young student who, although bright, would not hand in any assignments. He would only hand me, each time, a sheet of paper that read “I’m Jimmy Carl Black, I’m the Indian of the group.” This, I eventually learned could be credited to the Mothers of Invention of “Boobs-a-lot” fame. He said he did this to get his father’s attention. It wasn’t working with his father. He certainly had my attention though. Although we talked to his parents, threatened to drop him from the football team and eventually did drop him from the football team, he stubbornly remained “Jimmie Carl Black” for the entire school year. Except for his refusal to complete a single school assignment he had a delightful personality and was very popular.
I made it through the year and then resigned. I though that perhaps my lack of “life experience” made it difficult to manage a classroom with the perfect blend of compassion and sternness. I was relieved, but also deflated. Perhaps if I wasn’t still a virgin when the year began, perhaps if I had learned to inhale sooner?