I got dragged into meetings a lot while I was in college, because if you are really a threat to the status quo, people will try to change your behavior. Fortunately for me, people took the time to help me develop, so as irritating as these meetings were, occasionally I learned something important from attending them.
I was talking to one of the university administrators that dealt with diversity issues and who was also queer identified. Complaining about my classmates and the enormously awful things they used to say in class This isn’t mild microagression stuff where people were being vague in their bigotry either, this is stuff like, “poor people deserve to go to war more often because they are better at killing. ” And stuff like, “don’t you just hate everyone in your neighborhood because they are like, trash, and you aren’t.”I mean, don’t get me wrong, I got the milder stuff too. Except when people asked me where I was from, they were sometimes black. The world was dark for the most outspoken, strongly self-identified working class activist on campus.
But the administration team had high expectations for me, and so they said, “honestly, Heather, a lot of this has to do with your age. Your classmates are still learning. So are you.”
Boy was that administrator right.
I WAS A FUCKING NIGHTMARE IN COLLEGE.
You know how radical the current crop of college activists is? Yeah, well, add some actual well-read Marxism, some righteous anger about having been poor and abused, and the influence of punk rock. I probably had a conduct disorder, but I was at Stanford anyway. And I drank, like a fish, to cope. So a typical Friday night involved me making my classmates cry about how privileged they were for sport. All the kids coming up after me who think they do this now are just pretenders.
I talked about incest at actual dinner parties. Freshman year, I made one of my male classmates hate me forever when I made a public performance of my personal protest about his having the Latina girls in my dorm do laundry. I made people break down in class, often. Men feared me, and some would go to parties just to see what crazy stuff they could get me to say.
And I was pissed about really valid shit. Don’t get me wrong or mistake what I am trying to say. I was right to be angry about classism, about sexual violence, racism and I was right to hate everything about that culture. But I had no idea how to express that anger in a constructive way, and I was too angry to see anyone else’s pain even when it was obviously there.
This was partially a function of my age. At 19, no matter how smart you are, or how much life experience you have, or even how talented an activist you are, there are certain things you just don’t know that you still need to learn.
One of those things, impulse control which (as evidenced by the professor that just got beaten by her own students) is a challenge that developmentally comes with time. Another thing is how to not follow a crowd, or not act like a complete asshole just because everyone else is doing it. I learned that one much younger than most, but others tell me that ideally children are supposed to learn that sometime before college. Based on the behavior of the college students who keep having struggle sessions against other marginalized people, this is clearly not a skill many of our college students (who to be honest are almost entirely rich and middle class) currently possess. No one who is getting lectures should be giving lectures.
I was part of the founding team of folks who were working on class and first gen issues. My work at 19 can be traced to the existence of first gen offices and the resurgence of class identity on college campuses. I’m damn proud of what I accomplished as a dumb kid, and my resume is far more stacked than most of the kids that are operating now.
BUT EVEN WITH ALL THAT, I can promise you that I am grateful everyday that an administrator or professor at Stanford encouraged me while keeping my voice on campus.
Freedom Summer participants weren’t given the control over their movements either. They operated, with extensive training, under the direction of activists like Bob Moses and Fannie Lou Hamer. And, frankly, I believe that the entire Civil Right’s movement of the 60s, pretty much got off the rails the minute the rich kids got back to their campuses and started treating activism like a popularity contest and rock concert.
That’s who I blame for the failures of the 60s and so does most of the rest of the country.
The elite college grads don’t have a great track record overseas either: the entire Cultural Revolution can be traced to largely the same phenomena.
Don’t get me wrong, we need their voices and we need their work. And they need to be trained during these years, but I think they’ve demonstrated that they can’t be IN CHARGE OF SETTING THE AGENDA and making the final call about tactics anymore. No one gave me that power at 19 and I had very serious problems, like PTSD, to discuss. I’m not sure why we are allowing them to set the agenda now.
What I am even more grateful for, is that I was raised with an ethos that you respect your elders.
These college kids think they know better than the people who have been doing it longer than them. And here’s the thing, those people are just as smart as them but have more experience, which makes them MORE QUALIFIED TO BE IN CHARGE. The fact that the college kids can’t recognize that makes me worry about the future.
Being in charge is a real and painful responsibility. I know because I never had a childhood, and I’ve been appointed a leader in my community for longer than I can remember.
It is hard. And if it is fun, you are doing it wrong. The responsibility and the the enormity of the task should haunt you.
Playtime is over when lives are at stake, and since I saved my brother from a fire when I was four, I’ve been keenly aware of that responsibility. So it worries me whenever someone wants to be in charge, but what worries me even more is when people lack the self reflection to even recognize when they shouldn’t be in charge.
One of the best classroom teachers I’ve ever met once said to me that the difference between a good teacher and a great teacher was the process of self reflection. We have to instill the belief that people should examine themselves.
All day, everyday.
Not scream about how mean people are when they point out that your tactics are likely to backfire during planning discussions where we are supposed to be professionals who care about others and serving the masses.
But I’ve also been loved by elders, and there’s something special about the people who DON’T HAVE to take an interest in you, who don’t have to deal with your incredibly shitty attitude, and who take aside the time to save you. I’ve got tons of those, and I learned from them.
They taught me that I was no smarter than prostitutes, or my grandparents or my teachers. They taught me that even if I was, I still had things to learn. They taught me about when grown folks was talking and in the process taught me how to be a grown folk.
At 19, I would have been a BAD LEADER for a national movement. I would have been mostly because my rage was still uncontrolled, but also because there are a lot of things that come with life experience. I have gained a lot of empathy and ways of speaking in the last few years just from my relationship with my husband. The fact that I fell so in love with someone with such a different background changed everything about how I approach my work. The fact that I’m now married has forced me to accept responsibility and maturity in a way I otherwise wouldn’t have. Pre-married Heather was likely to light some fires and go out like a crazy person when Trump got elected. Married Heather has responsibilities and has to plan better.
I was a much worse activist before I became a teacher, and I wouldn’t be half the teacher I am if not for the mentoring and wisdom of an veritable army of older men and women who guided me through that process. And I know this because I’ve had the time and distance to reflect on my actions and behaviors. 19 year old Heather was not this smart, reflective and mature, and 19 year old Heather was arguably one of the most qualified college students of that time to be leading a movement.
So here is my plea to the adults: Let’s stop pretending we don’t know this is true because we are afraid of discouraging people. Anyone who is unwilling to put the work in, and listen to other people or reflect on their behavior does not have leadership qualities in the first place.
Anyone who resorts to physical violence or emotional bullying hasn’t learned how to behave like a grown up. They’ve demonstrated that they are not developmentally ready for the task.
Real leaders can control their behavior. These should be baseline qualifications for who gets mentored and handed the microphone. Even Malala had her dad, and Malala has yet to see her best work. I can basically guarantee that.
College is a special time and place, and I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to argue, debate, and learn from my classmates. I’m a better speaker, writer, and activist because of every white boy who was willing to engage me and learn from me, and I think most of them would say they are better at what they do because of their friendship with me (unless they were traumatized by what I did to them in which case, I’m sorry, I was young).
The funny thing about those white boys is that they are people too. (Edit note: ACTUALLY IN COLLEGE IT WASN’T JUST THE WHITE FOLKS. AND ALSO IT WAS GIRLS TOO, STOP LETTING THEM OFF THE HOOK, SOME OF THE GIRLS SAID SOME OF THE WORST STUFF, THEY DON’T GET A PASS BECAUSE OF THEIR GENDER. NO ONE GETS A PASS. NOT EVEN ME).
They were people when they were learning in college, and as awkward as it was to be invited to lunch to talk about my childhood like a token, I’m happy about every lunch I went on. Either they learned something or I learned how to talk to people better. If all of our activists behaved this way, it’d be a lot easier to push an anti-racist, pro-working class and feminist agenda.
So here is my plea: stop treating this struggle like it can be run by a bunch of self-contained and disconnected brats who have no life experience.
There are people who are really truly suffering who need our help and these college kids need to be trained before they are useful. No one should be leading on a national level without some frontline service work behind them. They should have some actual success and the demonstrated commitment to the cause of the suffering of all before they are given a national platform to operate. They need to learn how to do research, and care for kids, and show up and take down chairs, and sweep floors before they can make themselves useful to any of the people they claim to serve.
They need to know what it is to serve.
They need to know who the masses are.
They need to not put their issues at the center of the struggles for people more marginalized than them.
They should be able to recognize those people without their professor’s checklist for what the marginalized are (First of all, most of the professors can’t remember either because they haven’t seen the masses in a long time, but secondly, the word oppressed has meaning and they should be able to recognize it independently without help before the training wheels come off).
The fact is, we aren’t even serving them when we give them as much power as we have over the last few years. We should all be ashamed of ourselves. The adults fucked up real bad by abdicating their responsibility in the name of self esteem.
And like adults, we should roll our sleeves up and get to work.
It’s already too late.
Because Trump is President and the left lost so badly, they still are trying to develop amnesia about it.
But the conservatives may be in power a long time, so the time to be forgetful is over.
Now is only the time to plan and to sweep and to teach.
Some of you must remember what that’s like?
You sure remembered it in my case.
And for that, I am grateful.