Anyone who has known me for some time has probably been shocked by my outspoken commentaries during the most recent election. I was always an exceedingly timid girl who liked the idea of hiding in the shadows during my youth. I was not someone who dared to rock the boat or take risks. Then one day something happened in one of my classes that forever changed me. Most people who were there probably do not even remember the incident but it had an enormous impact on me.
I took German as one of my foreign languages. The teacher was loading us down with an inordinate amount of homework, but as was my habit I got it done each evening even if it meant staying up until two or three in the morning and then subsisting on only a few hours of sleep. On one particular day the teacher asked us to place our completed assignments on our desks so that he might collect them. As he walked down the aisle one student after another admitted that he/she had not done the work. The teacher was growing increasingly angry but I had already realized that I was in the midst of a kind of rebellion against the work overload under which we were being crushed. I looked around and saw that mine was the only paper on the desk just as the teacher noticed the same thing. With a triumphant grin he hurriedly walked to where I was sitting. As he stopped next to me I quietly removed the assignment and hid it inside the desk while saying, “I did not do it either.”
The teacher blew a gasket at this point. He literally went to the front of the classroom and announced that we obviously did not want to learn and so he was leaving. We sat for the whole period in silence waiting for him to return, which he never did. For several days we sat without a word, waiting for the teacher to begin a lesson. Sometimes he simply sat at his desk pretending that we were invisible and sometimes he just did not come. Eventually our lessons resumed without a word about what had happened but I felt a tinge of excitement in knowing that I indeed had the courage to stand up for what I believed to be right. I would resurrect that bravery from time to time but mostly I remained a quiet presence in the world.
In college I participated in peaceful civil rights marches but always blended into the crowd without voicing my feelings. I also protested the war in Vietnam and that seemed to be so senselessly taking the lives of young men that I knew. I was never particularly vocal about my forays into civil disobedience and I always left if there were signs of trouble.
Eventually my focus would be on more personal issues. I literally had to fight for my mother’s sanity over and over again. Our society does not take mental illness seriously and I was often alone in my efforts while my brothers were still in the process of becoming adults. It is difficult to find doctors and to get the support that those with diseases of the mind require. I had to learn to be assertive and to refuse to take no for an answer.
Later I would become an advocate for my students. There was no child unworthy of my efforts no matter how damaged he or she appeared to be. I always believed in my husband’s credo that nobody can be a failure at the age of twenty. I pulled many a young person out of the trash heap of negative assumptions. I searched for the best in people who sometimes appeared to have only minimal merit.
When I became a Dean of Faculty I worked hard to support the teachers. Many times they were unaware of the battles that I fought for them. I continued with my quiet approach to things. I saw no reason to make a public spectacle of my efforts. I did not want to detract from the wonderful work that the teachers were doing by shining a light on myself.
So I grew old with a reputation of being rather meek and mostly willing to go with the flow. People liked me for that characteristic. Our society shies away from aggressive people, especially when they are women. I wrote my blogs mostly sticking to topics that made people feel happy. I tried to stay away from sensitive ideas, but then came the pandemic in the midst of an election year. The Black Lives Matter movement erupted again with the death of George Floyd. Our world seemed to be searching for a voice and I knew that I had to be that for my daughters, my grandchildren, the teachers with whom I had worked and both my former and present students. There were things that needed to be said publicly.
It was not easy. People questioned me and some even abandoned me. I suppose they were dismayed by what they saw as a dramatic change in my personality. They challenged my views and made attempts to convince me that I was wrong. I weathered the debates but stuck with my beliefs because I really felt that I was thinking of my country, preparing for a future which will no doubt be challenging. In the process I gained the respect of some and lost it from others.
Recently my eldest daughter gave me the compliment of a lifetime by telling me that she was proud to call me her Mom. She said that I have stood on the right side of history in her mind. She was happy that I was willing to be vocal and persist in stating my views even when I was attacked, even when I knew that I was not really changing any minds. I am overjoyed in knowing that she understood why I was doing what I have done.
There will be more battles before I one day die. Of that I am certain. I know that I have the grit that I need to be a warrior for what I think is just. While I respect those whose philosophies are different from mine I am happy in knowing that I have the strength to stand for something beyond myself. I have truly come of age.