I didn’t go to Montclair State University (in N.J.) last night to hear Bill Ayers speak. I went there to protest this cop-hating radical’s presence on the campus, designed to inculcate future educators to urge their young students on to disobedience, civil and uncivil. My understanding of his lecture was that it was by invitation only and that we “protesters” would have to stand outside.
The university police had the barricades sent up for all those violent tea partiers. Our organizers encouraged us to bring home-made signs. I had piece of signboard handy and magic markers. I designed a sign with an American flag that read: “Americans for a Federated Republic.”
But when I arrived in front of Montclair’s University Hall, where the lecture was to take place, I found myself asking that age-old question: “What if they held a protest and nobody came?” Finally, I asked one of the officers where everyone was?
“They’re all inside,” he said. “You can go in, too.”
So in I went. The Tea Partiers were all waiting in line to go into the lecture. I spoke with a few of my fellow Tea Partiers whom I hadn’t seen in awhile as they meet the same night the band rehearses. Some of them took a picture of me in my hat with my sign. Even the school newspaper, the Mont Clarion, took my name and photo. No one else had brought a sign. I was very disappointed. We were told we wouldn’t be allowed to say anything even in the hallway and if you can’t hold up a sign or say anything than what’s the point? I preferred to go back outside in the cold with my sign, than sit warm and safe – and silent.
Back out I went. I was the lone protester; I had the barricaded area all to myself. Everyone who went by (and it was quite the busy spot) could clearly read my sign; I had no competition. For awhile I stood in place and spoke with the cops who were on duty, four or five of them. I also took to marching around the enclosure like a real protester, although I didn’t chant anything. I have a soft voice that doesn’t project well so no one would have heard me anyway.
As I stood there and spoke with the cops, I noticed one walking around with a bomb-sniffing German shepherd.
“It’s kind of funny, isn’t it,” I remarked, “taking a bomb-sniffing dog around a building to guard a guy who used to blow up police stations?”
“Oh, we’re not happy that he’s here at all,” they said. “Our chief protested his appearance right up to the last minute.”
“The dog isn’t sniffing to protect him, ma’am,” another said. “It’s to keep the other people safe.”
The poor cops were freezing out there, and all just to protect me. I decided I’d give them a break and leave around 8:30. One officer asked me if I wasn’t cold?
“No,” I said, “I’m used to it. I’m a marching band musician. But if you’re cold, I’ll lend you my hat (the tricorn hat).”
Well, they just got the biggest kick out of that. They were laughing about it all night and telling the story to the new cops who came on duty. But it was getting too cold and I just getting ready to leave when the campus police chief approached me.
He said he thought everyone would be better served if I went inside to the lecture, especially wearing my hat. He assured me that the Tea Partiers were being allowed in and that I could go inside, too, although I would have to leave my sign with them.
Never one to argue with the law, I consented. “Well, I’ll go in, although I was just going to go home. But I’m not sure I really want to be in the same room with this guy.”
They laughed and said, “Neither do we!” The chief thanked me and escorted me inside. Once in the lecture room, I discovered they hadn’t even started yet. The officers had said there weren’t any students there, that the school paper had done a survey and found that the majority of the students didn’t even know who Ayers was. They said that there were faculty members in attendance.
However, there was a small group of education students seated on one side of the room. I expected as much since Ayers billed this as discussion about education reform. On the other side were the “adults”, my friends. I took a seat up at the top.
Ayers finally got around to talking. He told the audience that he was ready to go at 8 p.m. and that he didn’t know what the hold-up was or why a police presence was necessary. The cops told me they were there at the request of the college and the campus SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). It was now 8:45. I had an uneasy feeling that I was the unintentional hold-up. Yikes.
Ayers appeared in his best red star tee shirt. Conservatives immediately criticized it and Ayers went on a harangue about judging whether he was a big or little “c” communist simply by the shirt he was wearing. If it wasn’t a symbol of communism then what was he advertising? Macy’s? The Red Star Line (a now-defunct shipping company in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of their ships was featured in The Godfather 2)?
He dismissed his objectors as know-nothings who had drunk too much Kool-Aid and certainly were not educational experts, he added with a sniff. The considerable number of experienced teachers in the room soon put him wise to that error. Strike one for Ayers.
Informing the audience that the lecture was primarily to pontificate on educational reformed, he announced he would address himself mainly to the education majors in the room, and he promptly turned to face them. He spoke about poverty being a major factor in causing the current educational decline. Then he enumerated the talking points from America’s Promise Alliance, without actually mentioning that umbrella organization’s name: caring adults, safe places, and effective education. He didn’t bother much with the other two promises: a healthy start and opportunities to help others.
The adult portion of the audience asked him what role he felt parents should play in their children’s education. None, judging by his answer. Parents, apparently in his view, are simply bad luck cards kids get stuck with; it’s up to the teachers to “save” the children.
If he was hoping that his adult audience was ignorant about America’s Promise, he had judged at least one adult member wrong. My company is a featured partner of America’s Promise and I’ve been to, photographed, and written about many of the organization’s affiliate events, the latest of which are 26 seconds and Grad Nation (I just did a story about it last week).
Teach for America was another America’s Promise volunteer group, I believe. College students volunteer to mentor kids in reading and corporations donate books so I’m sure these university students were aware of it. I personally donated eight books to the drive at the New York Public Library’s Mid-Town branch. Though Ayers wasn’t aware of it, it was Strike Two for him. At that point, I wanted to ask him if we could discuss the importance of white matter and myelin in early cognitive development. But I couldn’t get his attention and I didn’t know how I would explain such a concept to someone who’s admitted he doesn’t believe in homework. I wondered if he even subscribed to Scientific American. You’d think educators would want to keep up with the latest scientific advances and discoveries regarding the human brain.
He bashed standardized testing, criticizing the constant drilling necessary to get information into kids’ heads. In fact, he didn’t believe in filling students’ heads with facts at all. Creativity and self-expression are the Ayers’ key to opening young minds, all the while deploring the fact that children can’t draw a map Bahrain or Tunisia. Notice the distinction. But if you gave them a map of the world, without the names, they probably could. I could. Then, too, I had the advantage of having worked for an oil company. We used coffee drippings to make a coffee map of the Gulf States.
Discipline was another quality he found wanting in classrooms. Then he went on to cite the example of a colleague named “Joe” who advocated allowing students to chew gum and wear caps in class, so long as they “respected” the teacher. Sounded like buying the kids off to me. I immediately thought of Charles the band director and what he would say to a thing like that. He told us once that the cacophony of simply chattering drove him crazy. I mused on how Charles, who teaches in a middle school, would react to 30 gum chomping children all chewing gum in concert.
So I decided to ask Ayers how he would deliver a lecture to such a classroom. He couldn’t hear me because I have a useless voice, so one of my Tea Party friends relayed the question to him. The Tea Partiers laughed and I heard titters from the teachers of America.
“Oh it wouldn’t be a problem,” he said dismissively, shaking his head. “No problem at all.” But I had a mental picture in my head of Charles, a real teacher, chomping on his baton and grasping his hair, as we adult musicians have known him to do when we all start talking at once. As I eyed Ayers skeptically, I must have telegraphed that message because he took a hesitant step back. I’m sure no one noticed it but me. Strike Three for Ayers.
There was a lot of back and forth arguing between the experienced teachers and the student teachers, who were, let’s face it, still students. The kids didn’t like being told they didn’t know it all yet. The adults didn’t like being laughed at for some gaffe on their part that I didn’t catch.
Ayers asked them the classic question, “How many of you entered teaching for the money?” On cue, they laughed and giggled at the notion. Had I been in control of the microphone, I would not have asked them if they’d entered the teaching field for money, but rather, for job security. I think I would have gotten embarrassed silence rather than laughter.
Our guest speaker deplored the poor pay and benefits that teachers get. Pity I don’t pay the violin. I hadn’t even brought my bells. This, more than anything, riled up the Tea Partiers, including those who are teachers. This is where the exchange was at its hottest. Ayers did his best to rile them up with other controversial topics like paying teachers instead of shooting missiles at Iraq. Nothing. His ploy about the inequality between the suburbs and the cities fell flat. Our Tea Party spokesteacher told him nobody wanted to see urban school standards raised more than we did.
Charter schools hit the mark though, which he also discounted as failures. He said it wasn’t fair that only some kids would get into those urban schools; that the standards of all the schools needed to be raised. Boy, I hated to agree with the building-bombing, cop-bashing son of a gun, but I thought he was right about that. However, that’s up to those school districts.
That argument gets into a whole societal, capitalism versus socialism issue. Had businesses not been driven out of the state, had unions not priced the workers out of their jobs, and if somebody had just taught the first set of urban students, later to become parents, how to read, and encourage them to do so, the neighborhoods and the schools would be a lot better off. Ayers was certainly careful not to mention a particular scourge central to this educational evil across all social spectrums – drugs.
At any rate, one young female student with a head full of steam and a sheaf of papers was prepared with her data damning the failure of charter schools. I wish I could have told him about New Heights Academy in New York City’s Washington Heights. Those kids looked to me like they were on their way to success. The hallways are painted with the names and school shields of top colleges.
New Heights has the rules Ayers so petulantly eschewed – lots of them. No running, no shouting. No gun-chewing. No hats. No bling. The kids had school uniforms. We spoke with some of the kids and the teachers. The kids were grateful and relieved to be there, free from the chaos of the New York City public schools. If you want to know what those schools are really like, maybe you should ask some of the kids. Apparently, the biggest problem is – the other kids, the troublemakers, the kids who don’t care about learning.
Ayers said he didn’t believe in rules. But apparently he believed in raising hands. He may advocate chaos – but he doesn’t condone while he’s speaking. When the entire flank of Tea Partiers objected to some statement he made, he complained about all the noise they were making, trying to speak at once. He became annoyed with our Tea Party Teacher when she spoke beyond what he considered her allotted time. When I cocked my eye at him in amusement, he backed off and let her speak. Authority defiance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when you’re the one in the position of authority.
After the gun-chewing comment, the Tea Partiers realized what a true hypocrite he was. Tea Party Teacher was taking him on at that moment when he wanted her to stop speaking. She called him a hypocrite to his face.
“You’re a hypocrite,” she charged. “You’re telling these students that they should maintain discipline in the classroom, that they should control their students, but then you tell them you believe children shouldn’t follow the rules, that they shouldn’t respect authority figures like their teachers. What do you think you’re doing to these students? The amazing thing is they’re listening to you.”
They were indeed, soaking it all up. Hopefully, TPT’s remarks gave them pause. Ayers knew and so he diverted the conversation to unionization, a sure-fire divider between novices and experts. The young students, finding the adults were not bowing obsequiously to the students’ obviously superior arguments, stormed out in a mass, leaving the adults to resume the discussion more evenly.
I looked at my watch; it was 10 o’clock and I had an early morning photo appointment. If I expected to get up anywhere near on time, I would have to leave the party. I’d heard enough, anyway. I put on my coat and walked down, thanking TPT teacher for her help in relaying my question to the speaker. I got the feeling he was staring at me, but I couldn’t tell because I just shrugged it off and left. I had no voice for asking any further questions. I’d heard enough.
Outside the building, I encountered the party of students blowing off steam with some particularly uneducated language. Oh to be 19 again. One of them was vowing to storm back in there and tell those Tea Partiers, especially the Tea Party Teacher, off. Out of the corner of her eye, one of the students noticed me coming up casually from behind to pass them, and they all fell into a hush. Still, one girl was determined barge back into the building and her classmates had to physically stop her.
Finally, they must have decided the better part of valor was to return to their dorms. They stalked off sullenly ahead of me, though they never said anything. Class was definitely over. Meanwhile, I had retrieved my sign from the police officers, who were now sitting warmed up in their police SUV. I kept the sign to the inside as the student group passed by. There was no need to provoke them any further.
Judging by their silent seething, they’d learned some lesson that night that they didn’t like. Which meant we’d done some good in there. As for Bill Ayers, we’ll see in the future how inclined he’ll be to underestimate his adversaries as know-nothings.