Teri Orr: “Teach your children well…”
The Vietnam war was my era, and Civil Rights and civil disobedience. I was such a good girl for such a long time. Raised by wolves — actually just Republicans — I was polite and eager to please. Until I wasn’t. In my senior year in high school, my all-white school was integrated. It happened by busing black students from 10 miles away into our school. I was a member of a service club that “built spirit.”
I remember the day I was asked to help a new student learn our campus. He was a black football player, and my boyfriend (later my husband) was the captain of the football team. It was the first day of integration for our school.
I met Franklin at the bus. Led him to his first period class and was waiting outside the door when the bell rang to show him the lunchroom. At some point — news people appeared to record all this in my San Francisco suburban town.
At the end of football practice no one had considered Franklin would have no bus to take home — it had left hours before. I offered him a ride. I had my black Ford Falcon with no restrictions on where I could drive. He kept saying “Are you sure you wanna do that?” And it just seemed like my hospitality should extend to getting him home. I had never driven to his high school — Ravenswood — before. We made small talk about his first day and when he guided me to his neighborhood he suggested corners where I could drop him. I just kept driving until we reached his home. He got out of the car, thanked me and told me to lock all my doors and drive straight out of there.
The next night the local weekly paper came out and my mother was furious — I was on the front page — with Franklin — showing him the campus. She used all of those words I taught my own children years later were words we NEVER used. And she told me how embarrassed she was — what a disappointment I was to her. I didn’t tell her the fact she was involved in her fourth divorce and was sleeping with the married mayor embarrassed me.
I left for college months later to Colorado — where I was involved with other polite white girls in a civil rights march on campus. I transferred from that school after only one semester. I was engaged now so I headed to the University of Nevada to be with my fiancé. Protests about the war in Vietnam were growing. I was planning my wedding. And I was taking a graduate level poetry class. It was a mistake — everyone else was older and smarter. A hiccup in the schedule had put me there. I asked if I could stay. The professor was a cerebral, long-haired guy, at the end of his tenure — he didn’t care as long as I did the work.
And I did because everything happening in that class was relevant. Those folks — and now me — were writing mostly very bad poems but about issues of the day. Kent State happened at the end of the semester — students in Ohio were shot and killed on a campus in the middle of the day for protesting the war in Vietnam. They had in no way threatened the National Guardsmen who showed up and fired into the crowd.
Days later I was getting ready to join my poetry teacher lead a march on the football field to protest the shootings. We had been told any teacher participating would be fired and students ran the risk of having their grades for the semester erased. I decided not to tell my fiancé I was marching. As I got ready to leave my dorm room the phone rang. There was no caller ID then. Or recording machine. I picked up the call. It was my estranged mother, wanting to talk about the wedding I was paying for. I told her we could talk later — I was leaving for an event. She said she thought classes had been canceled. I said I was attending a rally in support of the students who had been killed at Kent State. What she said next changed everything. “Those kids deserved to die. And If you weren’t in class where you belonged, I would hope the same thing would have happened to you.” I hung up.
I walked down to the football field and joined my long-haired professor. The school took pictures of us so they could accurately erase our grades. My fiancé was on the field for spring practice. He looked away when he saw me.
They released our grades eventually and I got an A in that class. Honestly, I think all of us who marched got A’s. The professor was fired — he didn’t care. My fiancé told me to never do anything that dumb again. And for years I didn’t. But I also didn’t forget. When I got divorced with two small children — six and half years later — after six years of being abused, I started writing again.
So I have been watching the news this week with much heartbreak and much pride. I don’t know if this actually is the Age of Aquarius (in astrological terms) if these are Indigo children (in psycho babble terms) or if these are a tribe of superhumans emerged. Their origin doesn’t matter. They are fearless — frank speaking — no crap taking — fluid of gender — missing predictable bias and wanting a world of fierce equality — young humans.
As former President Obama said, “We have been waiting for you. And we’ve got your backs.” Hearing those words I hope inspires them even more. Because the haters are always there — sometimes in your own family. Sometimes all it takes is a long-haired professor who believes in you or a former president of a once-great country to praise you — to have those words inspire you for a lifetime. Let’s make certain all the young people hear from us how proud we are of their bravery to speak truth to power. Tell them any day — even Sunday in the Park.
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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