Friday, December 10, 2010


"If You're Not Part of the Solution, You're Part of the Problem"
-VISTA recruitment poster

Welcome to Above This Wall: The Life and Times of a VISTA Volunteer 1969-70 a memoir by Bruce Greene. The Preface, 12 chapters, and Afterword were posted between October and December of 2010. To read the complete work, you will need to refer to the postings by month. Look at the Archive to the right of the page.
The Preface and early chapters are found under October. You can read the memoir chapter by chapter or skip around if you like. Please feel free to comment on anything in the space provided. If you have any problems or questions, please send me an email at

Monday, December 6, 2010

One for the Ages

One Sunday afternoon we all gathered on the steps of 1506 Rosewood Ave. for a group shot. In this photo are Fellow VISTAs David, Larry, Kim, Deidre, and Bo. David's friend Jeff was visiting from Wisconsin and a few high school kids from the "Free University" who often hung out at our house on weekends complete the lineup. Everybody tells me that this should be the cover of the book. What do you think?


A Letter to Myself at Twenty-Two

Dear Bruce,
Your Vista housemate David Soffa dug up this photo from November of 1969. Six months out of college and you seem so serious. Looks like you are standing in front of a brick wall. I know you felt more like you were up against it. Let me tell you now, from where I sit, you’ve moved above this wall.
Though I haven’t seen you in quite a while, you have always been in my thoughts. Over the years, your passion, intuition, and experience have served me well. This year in Texas will turn out to be more meaningful than you realize. That doesn’t matter now. What matters is what I need to tell you, so listen carefully; there will be no question/answer session to follow.
I know you are disturbed by the poverty you have seen. The black and white photos and TV images can’t begin to address the sensory overload that comes with life on the edge. Continue to absorb everything. Open up your senses. Let the food you eat, the streets you walk, and the faces you see become seared in your brain. Look deeply at the red color of the beans, the gray-spotted Masa Harina, the five shades of green in the watermelon rind. Taste more of that government cheese, powered milk and peanut butter from the can. Capture forever the dry, bleached, cracked wood of your house, the flashy turquoise exterior of the barbeque place down the street; look again at their juke box near the counter with only B.B. King, Little Milton and Bobby “Blue” Bland records. Take in Carl Adam’s smile, the swollen veins in his arms, his children’s sepia skin. File away Juke Boy Bonner’s well-worn guitar, Lightin’ Hopkins gold teeth, and someone’s midnight wail around the corner. Keep looking for the culture of the underclass, it’s sometimes hidden by the refuse of cheap and cheaper highs, Apple Wine, MD 20/20, Robitussin, and Thunderbird. Let the imprint become permanent. Breathe in the steaming sopa at Las Casuelas, hear the conjunto sound of Flaco Jimenez. The neighborhoods, issues, living conditions you encounter daily will surely change; sadly, others just as bad will take their place. The inequity and injustice that chips away at your spirit can silence you. Don’t let it. Change will come. Not as you might imagine, and even more slowly. But it will happen. Nothing ever gets in the way of an idea whose time has come. There will be joy.
I’m proud of you for treating the people you lived with as family. Remember that quality and use it well throughout your teaching career. Keep a critical eye. Your ability to empathize with those you serve is deeply embedded. It’s an important part of who you are. In all you do, don’t ever forget that. “Treat your students as if they were your own children” will become a popular catch phrase. They are your own children. There will come a time when you take severe criticism for siding with poor people. Americans don’t want to see poverty; it smells, it’s inconvenient, it’s ugly, it exudes guilt, and it especially gets in the way of having a good time. Yes, I’m afraid it’s a constant. People will tell you it’s always been around and always will and they are right. But deal with the folks you encounter as individuals, try not to blame them for their conditions, and continue to help them see the big picture. Encourage that elderly couple you met at the welfare rights meetings to keep voting, despite the budget cuts they must endure. Whenever you encounter an all too threatening alcoholic, remember Solomon Scott. His caustic wit and fierce intelligence will help you separate the disease from the person. Like other social ills, poverty takes many forms. The bankrupt exist in all levels of income. True, there is no reason to romanticize life on the bottom, but like a riverbed, it can be rich in nutrients. Feed from this stream; emerge like it’s aquatic insects and watch where your wings take you. Like most self-perpetuating systems, poverty can be overcome. It’s simply a matter of will.
Your fear, while inhibiting, is powerful. Keep it separate from your anger and it too will serve you well. Who wouldn’t fear the KKK, oversized roaches, untrustworthy cops or the most violent urban areas in the country? Laugh with your fear. (Give it a try, at least) That will help you keep perspective and remind you of all things human. Try not to let your fear interfere with your judgment. You have an innate ability to see all sides of an issue. Develop that quality. Hone it thoughtfully and see if it doesn’t dispel unnecessary anxiety. Act with caution, but never fear to act. Go to Washington D.C. and march with your generation. Remind your elected officials that dissent is patriotic. Befriend the most intense fear you feel; you’ll need to, for your survival is at stake.
You’ve learned a good deal about gender and race in the last few years, but not enough, and certainly not enough about class. This year will address that in subtle ways. Pay attention. The “Father Knows Best" world of your childhood existed only on television. “Happily ever after” has been stricken from the record. Norman Rockwell land is a nice place to visit, but no one ever lives there. Keep in mind the advantages that you’ve had. (I forgive you that chuckle.) I know our family was always hovering on or below the poverty line itself, but other givens in your life have placed you ahead in the game from the outset. Your skin color grants you privilege immediately. Your education has been better than most. I know you paid for all of it, but you could work. Be ever mindful of these things.
Let me close by telling you something you may already know. This year has tested your moral compass. Your direction is set. Walk on. Your intuition won’t always save you, but on the most crucial issues it will remain solid. In the years to follow what appears set in concrete: technology, political economies, physical geography, energy resources, will erode. Turn your collar to the wind, Bruce, and like a boxing referee always says, “protect yourself at all times.” Teach others to separate their love of country from the fear of their own government. That love will keep you fighting and learning, and uncovering what matters most. That fear will continue to expose the lies and the liars. Read everything, keep singing, signing petitions and suggesting. Take risks; find the humor whenever possible, and interrupt when you must. (You do have something to say) Remember bread and roses: art lives in human need. Welcome the mystery.

Be well,

The man you became.

Postscript: Reunion


The voice is identical. One sentence and 35 years melt away. Kim wants to know what kind of beer I think she should bring. No Lone Star here. We amuse ourselves with the possibility of finding a bottle of Boone’s Farm Apple Wine just for fun, but quickly abandon that notion in favor of a nice syrah, a cabernet, or a known microbrew. An hour later Kim meets me at a coffee shop in Berkeley. I’ve walked down the hill from my mother-in-law’s home. She’s driving a dusty, faded blue sedan.
“Can you believe it,” she says, “this old Toyota used to be Joan Baez’s car. It belongs to one of the guys at the home in Woodside where I’m staying. He let me have it for the day.”
“Far out,” I say, just to make her smile.
Settling into the drivers seat, I’m struck with the notion that because Kim asks me to drive, my journey back to the late 60s this day begins in Joan Baez’s car. What other strange trips lie ahead.
By 1:00, it all comes together. Almost 39 years to the day we first met in Austin, Texas, David, Kim, Terry and I marvel at being in the same room together. In David’s funky Victorian house, on an overcast Berkeley afternoon, typical for June, the hugs are unusually tight. We sneak long looks at one another. Smiles turn into laughs. Hours trickle by. Many old stories need re-telling, many new stories emerge. Before the day ends, we bring two other former VISTAs into the conversation through speakerphone. Michele, still in Texas and Arnie, now in Chicago, both take time from their 21st century lives to consider who we were in 1969 and who we have become today. Not surprisingly, their thoughts often coincide with many of ours. With few exceptions, we come to realize that going in, we all assumed that VISTA was only about those we would serve. In time we have come to believe that the experience was equally about our own growth, our own change, and our own needs. We could never have known that at the time. The selfless act of working for those less fortunate always says more about the giver than the receiver.

David at home June,2008

While some felt that the war on poverty was a game played with a stacked deck, others weren’t so sure. What is certain, however, is that our ideals and designs were massive, our resources almost non-existent. Both Terry and Michelle, who worked in semi-rural organizing efforts felt inadequate to the tasks left for them. Those of us who worked in the inner city could at least rattle off a number of projects we either originated or aided. The VISTA Communications Center on Rosewood St. impacted various community groups; we’re certain about that. Had we been able to use even a fraction of today’s technology, certainly we would have reached more people. VISTAs today regularly benefit from computers, email, cell phones and digital photography. They are no longer required to live in the communities they serve.

Terry and Kim June, 2008

Kim leans across the kitchen table in David’s comfortable home and says, “You never really know how many people you affect do you? People don’t always let you know, surely you know that, Bruce, as a teacher. I think there are probably people we met or worked with that do remember many of the things we tried to do.” I am quick to agree. “There may be no way of knowing or measuring our impact, but sometimes just being there, seeing and talking to people on their turf has far reaching consequences,” I say. “I’m certain for many of the folks we tried to help, the presence of a white kid from 2000 miles away, who volunteered to come to their communities, warts and all, was important. It may have been a rare opportunity to share a meal, a story, or, in my case with little Randolf, a bed with someone from another social reality.
“They may have only allowed us in their lives for the $2.00 a night we paid to stay in their places, but by the end we both understood our backgrounds a little better, “ says Terry.
“Hey do you remember the woman we lived with till the end of training in Houston,” Kim adds. “Perry, at the housing project, Perry that was her name.” “Yeah Perry, Terry says, how could I ever forget Perry.”
“This was a woman who’d survived a lot but in the end she had a simple explanation. In her bedroom, right on the nightstand she kept a bottle of bourbon and a Bible. That was it, those two things. That’s all you’ll ever need in this world Perry said, and she meant it.”
If Saul Alinsky’s ideas are any yardstick for success then we can look at what came after VISTA service. He stressed, “starting from where the world is now, not as we would like it to be.” Being a VISTA meant going to that world, surviving there and leaving it somehow different than it had been. To Alinsky, organizing meant working within the system. Ultimately, most of us did. Former VISTAs occupy every level of the health care, legal, and educational systems. They not only are teachers, doctors, attorneys, and journalists, they continue to be artists, musicians, and writers.
There is a very real danger to romanticize the ‘60s while looking back. Media creations like the term “hippie” don’t help. Anyone who was there knows the complexities of that decade and the shifting consciousness that embraced young people was filled with blessings and curses. As writer Leonard Pitts Jr. suggests:
Whatever you think of the ‘60s, though, one thing is undeniable: They
tore us apart, ripped American society to pieces and threw those pieces
in the air so they rained down like confetti, falling into new configurations,
nothing where it used to be. It was an angry time, those who found stability-
“identity”—in the old configurations fighting those intoxicated by the poss-
ibilities of the new.

I’m not sure the pieces that rained down were like confetti. Some of them landed more like bricks in my neck of the woods. Many folks I know are still angry, their cynicism honed into daggers. But the bulk of us remained intact. We may be a bit more judgmental or critical than we used to be, but we continue picking up the pieces of this culture that continue to fall.
The best explanation of what it meant to be a VISTA Volunteer came during our training. One of the trainers, assuming the stance and tone of a Southern preacher told us a version of a story that has many incarnations. He stared silently over his eager flock and began, “If you want to know what VISTA will be like, and if you are ready for this job, let me tell you the story of the chicken and the pig.” He proceeded to relate the tale of a chicken and pig who were walking by a church where a gala charity event was taking place. Caught up in the spirit of giving back the pig suggested to the chicken that they each make a contribution. “Great idea,” the chicken says, “Let’s offer ham and eggs.”
“Not so fast,” said the pig testily. “For you, it’s a contribution. For me, it’s a total commitment.”
After the nervous laughter subsided he finished his presentation with one line:
“We’re asking you for a total commitment.”

Where Are They Now?

By the mid 1980s, I lost contact with most of my VISTA family. A community of innovative educators replaced my troupe of poverty warriors. Over the decades, I had exchanged phone calls with Kim and Arnie a few times, bumped into David around Berkeley occasionally, and spoke to Terry every year between April 4 and 7, our birthdays. When I began this project, I had the power of the Internet in my corner. The ease with which I managed to track down most of the people mentioned in this book never ceases to amaze.
It has always been my opinion that most, if not all of us never drifted far from our values. That translates to working in either helping professions, or some sort of field that promotes social justice. You be the judge.

Of the original 30 or so on the VISTA Houston, Texas list, excluding the one’s who were attorneys, here is what I know:

Jose Arcaya –Forensic psychologist, New York, New York.
Albert Boo Bronson- attorney and photographer
Hugh Grady-College professor, Shakespeare expert, Pennsylvania
Sue (Grady)Wells-College professor, English, college writing, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pa.
Kim Greene-MSW Director Health agency Miami, Fla.
Arnie Reichler- Director Career change program, Chicago Ill.
Larry Schaaf –Professor, History of Photography, Baltimore, Md.
David Soffa- Raconteur, architect, stringed instrument repair, Berkeley, Ca
Terry Toombs- Masseuse, Petaluma, Ca.
Mike Gilfix, attorney and elder care advocate, Mountain View, Ca

Two ex-library books sit on top of the books jammed in the top shelf of a small bookcase in my office. I’ve purchased them online from small bookstores that advertise through the large online powerhouses that dominate the trade. According to my research, they are among the only books ever written about VISTA. Both hardcover, they once sold for top dollar. Now they barely bring one dollar. Aside from an Americorps/VISTA web site featuring vignettes from various volunteers, a fine article written by San Diego Union journalist Lee Grant about his experiences in Houston the year before mine, and a recruitment pamphlet offered as a collectible by Go Antiques .com, they are what remains from the VISTA I knew. The two books, entitled, VISTA and Warriors For The Poor remind me of those old black and white films we used to see in high school. Both volumes have been stamped discarded.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Chapter 12

Leavin’ Texas

I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
Mmm, blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
And the day keeps on remindin' me, there's a hellhound on my trail
Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail
Robert Johnson
Hellhound on My Trail

I had six months. Enough time to see a bit of the country while working my way back home. Of course, the notification of a draft board appearance would abruptly end my wandering. No matter. Hellhound or not, I was ready to move on. The work I’d begun could continue without me. New VISTAs were on the way. The window of time between the end of my service and reclassification appeared more like a guillotine everyday. My government believed I could better serve in uniform. Ironically, for weeks I’d been plagued by the notion that I might never get out of Texas. What began as a passing thought had turned into a mild obsession. I had dared to think about taking control and responsibility for my own life. My goals were being poked around like unwanted food on a plate. I longed to eat everything, but what if I never got back to California? What if this is where my struggle ends? What if I leave the country? Will I be able to see my friends and family?
Kim was game for this adventure. She was clear in her support. Her style left no doubt. Staring deep into my face, her smile would vanish replaced by sadness then wonder.
“I love you Bruce Greene, “ she would say. “Whatever happens, wherever we have to go, I’ll go with you.” Do you understand that? Do you know we will fight this together?
“I know Kim, I know.” Inside I didn’t know. But how long? This can drag on for years. How will you feel when your future has gone nowhere, are in another country, and living with a felon.
Sometimes, if the mood was right we’d launch into a chorus or two of “Side By Side,” then fall over laughing. The mood was rarely right. Still, some time on the road would give me the opportunity to sort out many questions. I needed to think about myself, my future, my direction. The big university seemed so inauthentic, and costly. I decided to see if I could stretch the small stipend VISTA’s receive at the completion of service from one coast to another. Being a feather in the wind was never in my plans. But I could hear my old world grandfather whispering, “you know, it vouldn’t hoit.”
We needed a vehicle that could economically and safely get us from state to state and serve as mobile hotel room as well. A pick-up truck? A station wagon or a large sedan? No, a VW bus, what else? Everybody I knew could drive a VW. It seemed like we’d all owned a VW bug at one time or another so it was an easy transition. If the Volkswagen Microbus was the largest model available, it was also a statement. Being a 23 year old with a college degree, a few dollars in my pocket, and some time to kill in a VW bus might not be such a bad thing. But finding a bus we could afford in Texas might take time. Forget about safety. I felt like Pa Joad trying to get to the Promised Land in a dicey truck on a tight budget. Aside from the stipend, VISTA also paid gas mileage for those who chose not to fly home. How cool, my leisurely search for America would be paid for by the government.
The ad said Sugarland, Texas. This former company town turned suburb on the outskirts of Houston wasn’t too hard to find. David gave us a lift and provided a third opinion. The vehicle was mechanically sound and within two weeks of our departure date, a suitable, but slightly rusty VW bus sat in our driveway. Its former owner had taken reasonably good car of the van, but since he used it primarily to tote and launch a small boat, the undercarriage and roof had some rust issues. About halfway on the drive back to Houston, we realized we hadn’t tried the radio. Relief! Tinny, but recognizable voice of Harry Nilsson filled the interior.

Everybody’s talkin’ at me,
They don’t know a word they’re sayin,’
Only the echoes of my mind,

People stopping staring, I can’t see their faces,
Only the shadows of their eyes.

We knew instantly we’d found the right vehicle. Three voices sang the last verse as
David passed us with a wave and a bemused expression on his face.

While we waited for the final VISTA check to arrive, I did a bit of sanding and bodywork. I coated the underneath with one of those miracle products sold only in auto parts stores and hoped for the best. Fortunately, the bus came with a wood platform that fit neatly behind the front seat. It was nothing more than a piece of plywood with 4x8 legs nailed on, but it held and fit perfectly. We could store our clothing and few belongings underneath the platform and put a small mattress on top. Our VW had a working radio and functioning windows. The tires had to come off. An assortment of mismatched, well-worn retreads, I started to sweat just looking at them. All we could afford were better retreads. After a final scrubbing, vacuuming, and a coat of wax and we were ready to roll.

When our travel date was set, all that remained were some good-byes. 1506 Rosewood was the perfect site for a going away party. A final round of Sloppy Joes, Lonestar Beer, a sip or two of Mateus and the promise to keep in touch were on the agenda. We all collected phone numbers, especially home phone numbers. Our departure was simply one of many. Service for the class of 1969 ended in June.
“We’ll probably see you in California, if you end up there, “ David said. He and Larry, full of tales and promises from the California VISTAs intended on spending some time with an alum already living in San Francisco.
“Who knows, maybe we’ll all end under the same roof again. I heard the draft counselors in the Bay Area were among the best.”
My trip home from Houston to Los Angeles will go by way of New York. Kim wants to see her family and I want to see the East coast. With gas at 35 cents a gallon, a $5.00 fill-up allows us to leave Houston with a full tank. I think we can make Dallas by nightfall. The late spring weather softens the miles. First night, a turnout right off the highway is the best we can do. I scramble around the “bed” we’ve set up and can’t control my laughter. In all my squirreling, I’m hunched over, butt higher than head. It seems I’m mooning each set of headlights that appears behind my behind. The joke is lost on me when I remember I’m in Texas. Is the door locked?
The weather remains pleasant and the microbus is humming along through Mt. Pleasant, Texas. By Texarkana, I realize we’re actually going to be out of Texas. Driving through I can’t keep Cotton fields Back Home from looping through my brain.
“It was down in Louisiana, just about a mile from Texarkana, in them old cotton fields back home.” I realize we really are close to Louisiana too just as a border stop looms on the horizon. I’ sure we have nothing illegal aboard, at least as far as I know, but as the line to the kiosk slinks forward, I visualize a thorough search. How stupid could we be driving a VW bus through the south in 1970. Did the joy of having our very own microbus impede my thinking? Was I even thinking at all? We were headed through Arkansas, not Sunset Boulevard. The next big city was Little Rock not Malibu. At least we had a Texas license plate. I really believed that might make a difference. Right? A shot of adrenalin later and I knew it meant nothing. When I see the border patrol guard I brace myself. He’s straight out of Easy Rider except he’s two inches shorter and a good hundred pounds heavier than the prototype. I see him leaning into open car windows speaking briefly with each driver then waving them through. He seems to be asking for something. They don’t actually ask people if they are carrying any contraband?
“You do the talking,” Kim encourages.
“No you do the talking, he’s not going to believe anything I say. You’re cute and blonde, just smile and call him officer.”
We put on our calmest faces and brace for the encounter. The guard is outside the booth now and I can see his blue uniform shirt ruffling out from his pants. A leather belt corrals the mass of exploding belly; it’s tag end hanging like a dead snake. I slide open the window and he speaks.
“Y’all carryin’ any hawgs”
“Pardon me,” I choke out
“Hawgs, y’all ain’t transportin’ no hawgs is ya?
“No hogs, I say, trying to keep a straight face.
“Oh no officer,” Kim chimes in, “We ain’t got no hawgs.
We chug a chug out of Texas. The meaning of the moment is lost in a surfeit of nervous laughter. “No hawgs, nary a one. No sir, “ I wear out the phrase as we motor the 25 miles northeast toward Hope, Arkansas and a look at the current world record watermelon. In this town that would become known as the birthplace of Bill Clinton, Mr. and Mrs. Lester Kent pose proudly with their Gargantuan on post cards. I purchase one and seriously discuss what it must have tasted like with one of the employees at a local fruit stand. In 1970, Hope is known for record breaking watermelons and the production of outstanding Hi-Fi and Stereo equipment. As we leave, a roadside sign reminds us to return to Hope, Arkansas, for “A slice of the good life.”

This is really where my story ends. No more Texas means no more VISTA. The journey back into the mainstream took about three months. From Arkansas we drove straight through Memphis and Chattanooga, Tennessee and took a small side trip to the Great Smokey Mountains. When the fog turned too thick to travel, we ducked in to a roadside turnout to wait. These moments of unscripted downtime always took their toll. Even if I dozed off, my dreams were usually full of draft scenarios. Either I’d be about to take a physical or boarding a bus bound for some unknown destination. On this occasion the motif was what came to be called the step. Draft resistance came to fruition the moment an inductee refused to step forward after the swearing in ceremony. This was a long-running feature in the theater of my mind.
Awaking from this catnap, I realized it was time to touch base and call home. Ordinarily, I’d call home by reversing the charges, now, however I had come into possession of a credit card number. Rumored to be the account of Stanford University, the credit card always worked. One had only to dial the operator, state that this was a “credit card call,” recite the number, recite the desired area code and phone number, and wait for the ring. I’ve often wondered how many people used that number. It passed through word of mouth from coast to coast. With the number came the caveat, always use this from a phone booth. We did.
One day right before we reached the East coast, we made a stop in Williamsburg, Virginia. The historical capital of the state, Williamsburg has been completely preserved as a Colonial museum. It’s quite an attractive, charming place. I took mild interest in strolling in and out of the old shops watching the artisans make candles, print from antique presses, and even make wigs for the landed gentry. A blacksmith held my attention for half an hour, but I quickly turned cynical. It would be another decade before Colonial Williamsburg recognized the contribution of African-Americans. No mention of slavery crossed the docent’s lips as she guided tours across the cobblestones of this quaint village. I soon found myself providing commentary…bitter commentary.
“See that bell tower, I’ll bet that’s what called the slaves in at the end of the day,” I’d say. “I wonder when they tore down the slave quarters?” When I asked the tour guides, they immediately converted the word slave to servant. I wanted no part of this. Someday I’d like to return to Williamsburg and indulge my sense of history. I’m confident the museum hides none of our true heritage these days. We drove from Williamsburg to Baltimore that afternoon. By the next morning, I read in the Baltimore Sun of an event that had taken place the previous afternoon. While I was grumbling about a diluted version of American history being doled out in Williamsburg, some of my contemporaries were making a stronger variety in Ohio on the campus of Kent State University.
The massacre at Kent State has a mythology all its own. Yes the crowd was unruly and yes some demonstrators had burned down the ROTC building (really more a shack) the day before. Because president Nixon had recently announced the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, the Peace Movement became outraged anew. We know now that only one of the four students killed that day was shot in the back. We know, too, that the girl in the iconic photo kneeling beside of the victims was a 14-year old runaway. It took years and more than one trial before an out of court settlement was reached over the tragedy that occurred that day. At the time, there was only one message: They will shoot, they will shoot students, and they will shoot you.
By late summer of 1970, we’d made it across the country. Somewhere between Hershey and Harrisburg Pennsylvania I encountered the most blatant racism I’d ever experienced. While filling the gas tank, a chatty young man offered that he was also a local baseball scout. I told him I was a longtime Giants fan, and his eyes widened.
“I do some scouting for the Giants. In fact there’s a young man right now at our local high school that’s got a pretty good chance of becoming a Giant. Personally, I hope he don’t make it. Cause he’s a nigger, and I don’t like niggers.”
His matter of fact tone startled me. As nonchalantly as telling me he doesn’t eat onions or tomatoes, this guy dumps a load of bullshit on me and then smiles and wishes me a safe trip.
I remember the beauty of the Black Hills in South Dakota, the plains of Wyoming and the stunning volcanic colors of Central Oregon. When September came, I landed in the Bay Area and accepted a job working with emotionally disturbed children at a community residential treatment center in Berkeley. There I made my stand. Through excellent draft counseling from The American Friends Service Committee, and experience working in another treatment facility, I lived my values, working non-violently in two extremely violent atmospheres. The theory was simply that if you went before a judge after refusing induction, doing this type of “approved” alternative service might convince that
judge at the last minute that you were, in fact, sincere about your beliefs. By the spring of 1972 the draft law added a new classification, I-H. My counselor told me the H meant “holding.”
“There is a group of guys like you that are between 24 and 26 who have made it known you will not go. It’s easier for draft boards to draft 19-year olds. So they will put you in a holding pattern until you turn 26. At 26 you become too old, unless of course there is a national emergency.”
My counselor’s name was Michael Brown. I could have kissed him on the spot. The long struggle had suddenly evaporated like an evil mirage. I walked out of the Friends’ Meeting House on Walnut Street in Berkeley that day and promptly applied for the Graduate School of Education of the University of California. While I never saw Michael again, I’ve thought of him often after that day. At 26, I completed my student teaching and was fortunate enough to land a job at El Cerrito High School in the East Bay.
Over the next 33 years, my VISTA experience served me well. Teaching in an extremely diverse urban high school, I have always been sensitive to the invisibility of poverty. Often, that sensibility enabled me to suggest to either a colleague or student teacher that other factors might be at work in dealing with a student’s resistance or defeatist attitude. My battles as an educator have always involved equity, social justice, and the challenges of teaching in schools that are vastly under-resourced. My students ranged from the children of successful entrepreneurs and university professors, to undocumented immigrants, incarcerated felons and the struggling middle-class. Many, like myself were first generation college students.
In teaching psychology, history and English, the ability to draw on my experiences to illustrate concepts or anecdotes helped keep my students engaged, curious, empathetic. With the new millennium it became apparent that these students, (born between 1980-1990) knew little of the years I’d lived through. Relying solely on stereotypic notions of the 1960s, they loved the idea that their teachers may have been part of the drug culture, but never considered the anti-war movement. They had a media constructed visual image of a “hippie” but knew nothing of VISTA. By the fall of 2004, with the U.S. firmly entrenched in Iraq, no sign of any “weapons of mass destruction, and my students, like the country becoming increasingly polarized, rumors of another draft surfaced. My younger colleagues and the kids in the Amnesty International student group I sponsored began urging me to speak at an upcoming noon rally. The opportunity to address a group of concerned high school students was attractive, but I knew I must preserve some semblance of neutrality.
Looking over the collection of young faces that October afternoon I saw everything from fear to indifference. In their innocence, these young people, whatever their opinions, had no frame of reference to help them navigate the months ahead. I knew what to tell them. I wanted them to know that the Vietnam War was largely a lie, that many of their number would die defending abstract ideas they could neither spell nor define. I wanted them to know that patriotism means having the courage to question and criticize your government when it is mistaken. Ultimately, I wanted them to know that there would be difficult days ahead; days that would require their voices to be heard, their bodies to march, their minds to remain open.
It is a singular experience to address a crowd of people knowing that you have something crucial to say, something that someone else needs to hear. Knowing that you have seen what they can only imagine. I can’t recall everything that I said. My intention was to suggest that these young people think deeply about the decisions their government was making. I wanted to make sure that when they discussed these issues with their friends and family that they didn’t fall into the tired, useless trap of equating love of country with disagreement with the government. There were other speakers and lunch time was only 35 minutes. But in those few minutes, hearing the wind shake leaves free, looking beyond those faces, and then focusing momentarily on one, then another, until… I swear, I saw my reflection.