A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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It’s odd what I remember: the weather, sunny and brisk, one of those perfect fall days when the light is so bright it’s almost painful; the red-tiled roofs awash with light, shining as if they’d been scrubbed the night before. Around the big, grassy quad the tall oaks swayed and sighed. It was a day when everything, every small detail, seemed significant: the rustling leaves, the slant of light across the path.
Twenty-five years later, I remember the little things, mostly, about that day. I remember the excitement, dark like some forbidden sexual thrill, of breaking the rules, being here on the quad instead of in class. More than seventy percent of us boycotted our classes that day because the college administration had banned a Communist from speaking on campus. We marched. We gave speeches about the hypocrisy, the infuriating paternalism, of banning a speaker at a liberal arts college dedicated to the habits of freedom.
I remember the rumors that grew more ominous as the day went on, like the shadows lengthening across the quad: F.B.I. agents were among us; they were taking down names; they were hiding behind trees, taking pictures. This would go on our record — not just our college record, as if that weren’t worry enough, but the record, kept somewhere in Washington, of the subversives and the Commies, where they put down your name like a brand on cattle, where it would stay forever, and you like an old cow with no power to complain.
I didn’t like that at all. I’d never been in trouble with the police or my teachers or anyone. The closest I’d come to an act of seeming disobedience was in the third grade, when I got separated from my class during a fire drill; I must have been distracted by something, because suddenly I realized they were all gone. I panicked. I started running down the hall, praying I would find them. A fire drill, after all, was a ritual so awesome, so shrouded in silence and high gloom, that we might as well have been in a temple or a church; who knew what wrath I was calling down on my little self?
Maybe, I thought, they’d taken the stairs. I raced down those iron stairs, two at a time, my heart racing, too — and as I wheeled around the second-floor landing, I ran into them, into my amused classmates and my humorless teacher, coming up the same stairs.
I got off with only a reprimand, but it was a profoundly unsettling moment, as if I’d fallen from grace. I’d been taught all my life to be good, to follow the rules — left like markers to guide me through the thickets of myself, to lead me away from the wrong friends and the wrong feelings and the wrong foods. My life was circumscribed by laws as old as Moses and as new as my parents’ latest whim, a tangle of rules and regulations such as I’d need a lawyer to sort out, if they weren’t already written on my brain and known in every cell. So I rarely broke the rules. If I did, I was scolded, in a way that usually made me feel as if I’d been spanked. “This is no democracy,” my father would remind me. Of course, he meant our family, not the whole country. But to children, our family is our country and our world, and the rules my parents laid down stretched as far as I could see.
Not surprisingly, by the time I got to college, I was appallingly conscientious, and studious, and like most of my classmates generally willing to do what I was told; rebellion wasn’t yet the fashion, as the Sixties dawned. Who knew then what a decade of change and heartache lay ahead? In 1961, we were still rubbing from our eyes the long sleep of the Eisenhower years, and the wretched nightmare of McCarthyism; people were being tested for loyalty, not drugs, though perhaps it’s all the same.
As students, the tests we endured were more mundane, tests for freshman literature and history and philosophy — those courses meant to introduce us to the depth and breadth of western culture and to the life of the mind, to broaden us and burden us with more ideas than we knew what to do with. Were we meant to take them seriously? Did our teachers take them seriously? When we asked our teachers and our deans and the president of the college to take seriously a great idea like freedom, we found out.
In banning a Communist from speaking, in refusing to give a forum to an enemy of freedom, the college made itself an enemy of freedom. Ironically, had the talk been permitted, not many students would have gone; except for a small group of campus leftists, more committed to late-night bull sessions than to overthrowing the government, very few of us cared about Marxist politics. But in giving in to pressure from right-wing groups, the college set the stage for a controversy that would drag on for months.
It set the stage, too, for a change in me. Like the breeze that blew through the campus that day, whipping up the leaves and our hair, the student strike had stirred me, as if from sleep. Certainly, in deciding to march despite my fears, I woke up a little: I saw more clearly than I had before that my teachers weren’t my parents and my parents weren’t God and that I could risk a little disapproval without my world falling apart. And if I was wrong — if my world did fall apart? Well, I didn’t know about that; but I did know that unless I made a stand for something important to me, I’d fall into a deeper and more baneful sleep, from which I might never wake up.
I began to consider more keenly the perils of limiting dissent in a democracy, of skimping on freedom as if there were only so much to go around. The real patriots, it seemed to me, weren’t those who insisted that truth, their truth, be defended at any cost — or who suggested, with a wink at history, that our rights would best be protected by stripping us of a few. Democracy asks for a sturdier faith, asks us to trust that in the free discussion of ideas, truth will more often than not win out. What a dangerous notion, to those who prize above all else security and a predictable tomorrow. It is, after all, as risky as love! Yet, miraculously, among people of different backgrounds and temperaments, different races and religions — people as different as you and I — the spirit of truth somehow prevails. Not my truth or your truth, but something shared, an understanding between equals, at once mystical and practical, that allows us to live together. Like a friendship or a marriage, democracy depends on communication and trust; yes, we know the risks. “Virtue,” as John Adams observed, “is not always amiable.” If we’re free to love, we’re free to hate — free to be Communists and Nazis and Democrats and Republicans and every kind of fool. Adams also wisely advised, “There’s a danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with the power to endanger the public liberty.”
I value the lessons I learned that year about freedom and its enemies. As a writer and an editor — for my college paper and later for a daily newspaper and for the past thirteen years for The Sun — I don’t take freedom for granted. To be able to write and speak freely, without fear of censorship or reprisal, is, for me, a gift greater than any fame or fortune the writing may bring. To let the mind roam, to move to my own rhythms instead of those of some committee, to be led to unexpected conclusions by the very act of putting the inexpressible into words — this is precious beyond words.
I’m fascinated by the power of words to move us to action and laughter and tears; I’m fascinated by what gives words their meaning and their glory, what lights them from within. After all, the words themselves, the letters on the page, don’t contain any meaning, but are merely symbols; only if we agree on the symbols, if we share certain beliefs about what is and isn’t real, do the words make sense. Language is a mirror that reflects back to us our deepest assumptions about the world and ourselves.
So, too, are our political institutions mirrors, reflecting back to us our shared beliefs. For two hundred years, we’ve cherished a belief in freedom, notwithstanding the abuses of demagogues and charlatans, propagandists and pornographers, and all who would bind up the soul — the inevitable abuses which human sorrow and greed bring forth. No doubt about it: people free to express themselves generously are free to make mistakes, free to become ensnared and to ensnare others in the most humiliating illusions, and free also to learn and change and grow. Just as our inner journey is a passage out of darkness — a halting and perilous adventure, full of folly, on our way to truth — so, too, as a people do we stumble and fall.
As individuals, and as a people, all our actions have consequences, and as a people, we’ve made some bad mistakes. This is a dark time: Edwin Meese, the attorney general, attacks the Constitution as if it were a document of questionable taste; he calls for startling restrictions on freedom of expression, challenges key rights of the accused, pushes for lifetime censorship of government workers as a way of stifling dissent. The President himself acts as if an informed citizenry is dangerous, as if democracy itself is a threat.
When the President is an enemy of freedom, when the “friends” of freedom are broadcasting and publishing monopolies — for whom the First Amendment is a license to see how much profit they can make — it’s tempting to feel despair. Surely, as individuals and as a people, we’ve become comfortable, sleepy. I was given a pointed reminder recently of just how drowsy and complacent one can get.
I’d received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union, asking for my signature as The Sun’s editor on a petition calling for the removal from office of Attorney General Meese. Since Reagan is Meese’s boss, it was a quixotic effort, but that didn’t matter; the idea was to take a stand.
I was about to sign, but I hesitated. I was afraid; it was the same old fear. I didn’t want to get on anyone’s list. I didn’t want to pay the price for a reckless moment, for a gesture so obviously futile I wondered if my signature was even worth a stamp. Besides, I had a magazine to worry about, which, because it’s non-profit and tax-exempt, isn’t allowed to try to influence any legislation. Might my signing such a petition, on behalf of The Sun, be considered lobbying and thus illegal? I didn’t think so, but I wasn’t sure; what if the attorney general himself decided subtle legal questions such as this?
I set the letter aside, promising myself I’d think about it. When I picked it up again a few days later, the memory of the student strike came back to me, emerging from the mists like a lighthouse beacon, shining a warning across the years.
I needed to be reminded that being free is meaningless if I’m a prisoner of my fears. It’s too easy to get depressed by the compromises others make, to grow melancholy because the language has been stripped of its majesty by the same kind of mentality that strip-mines the land. It’s not so easy to see my own compromises, how I give away freedom for comfort, and approval, and to cultivate an image of myself as sensitive and wise; yes, here on the page so handsome a man. How tempting not to risk this image with some really embarrassing disclosure, or to risk the rhythm of my days, or my magazine’s tax-exempt status, with some controversial stand. My fear tells me to set aside the A.C.L.U. letter, to distort, to pretend. My fear threatens my freedom nearly as much as do Meese and Reagan; the difference is they’re even more afraid, so threatened by their demons that they try to censor others, and not just themselves.
Well, I signed the petition and sent it off; then I realized that with all my memories about the strike — the small details about the light, the weather — I couldn’t remember how it turned out. Did the administration eventually give in? You’d think I’d remember something that important, but I don’t. I remember the hesitation, and the daring; I remember what it felt like to wake up. Maybe, in our ceaseless struggle to be free, winning or losing isn’t that important. Win or lose, I know I have to keep struggling, against the tyranny from without, and from within.