Public and private anniversaries

Today is the 38th anniversary of the National Guard student killings at Kent State. For whatever reason–geographical proximity alone I don’t think is the case–that day redefined my attitude toward the state and has continued to do so. Without a television in childhood and youth, I wasn’t exposed to the Vietnam news footage my peers took in with their dinners. I was aware of the war, read about it, discussed it, but it hadn’t had the visceral effect on me that Kent State did and with which Kent imbued it, belatedly, for me.

That was the year that my English teacher was rather most amazingly named Miss Judge. She was thought to be a tyrant by many. In my eyes, however, she was a challenge of a positive sort: she cared deeply about critical thinking and composition, had years of experience with young teen students because she’d chosen to do so, and was neither jaded nor tired. In March of that school year, she assigned what amounted to my first true research paper. We were given free reign to select any topic, but we were to produce work that reflected the use of a variety of published sources, and offer our own analysis of the subject.

That paper was the occasion on which I discovered the attraction of research and, already having long ago fallen to the Siren song of writing, spent a spring in unusual (for me) academic bliss. The public library in my town was well stocked and well staffed. I learned how to use indexes, microfilm, which journals suited my search. (This experience did not put me on the road to becoming a reference librarian, however, because that particular career, frankly, never occurred to me until I was already in it–and even then it did not seem a likely specialization of which to make a career until my friend Carole, for whom I by then was working on Weekend Library Line, suggested that perhaps I was a good reference librarian. A rather backasswards way of going into a particular line of work.)

The papers were due Wednesday, May 6. Mine was typed (no mean feat given my dyslexic fingers and the availability of a manual typewriter from 1940 as my only mechanical option) and in my book bag a week ahead of schedule.

I was actually in English class on Monday when we heard the news from 40 miles away. We were dismissed 20 minutes later, before noon, warned that the university students in our own town were rioting–but not warned against joining them. In fact, it seemed as though the school authorities were scared of us, or had, albeit momentarily, given up their usually intent pretense of ruling with an iron fist (It was generally a bad school, where girls and boys were both paddled regularly, Latin class cancelled because the teacher decided his students had no prospect beyond lives attached to the steel mills, a dress code that banned long skirts as well as short ones, and frequent knife fights in one particular second floor hallway).

We returned to class on Wednesday, and Miss Judge announced that we could have a grace day before the research papers were due, which would now be Thursday. On Thursday, we passed them all forward. On Friday, she read out the topics that these long assigned papers covered. Of the 35 or so students in the class, three or four of us had broached something other than Monday’s killings. I wonder what Miss Judge actually felt about that turn of participation. She had, for once, received papers from everyone. The majority had performed an assignment to do research in which they selected a topic too fresh for research to be possible. She seemed to be sympathetic to the students at Kent, enough so that she did not, as she had done in other circumstances where the majority of the class failed to effect the assignment as she believed it could be done, say a single negative word about what she received.

It left me feeling over-full intellectually as well as emotionally. During the two days we’d been away, I had become radicalized unexpectedly. Running on a parallel track, however, was the personal sweat and joy I’d worked into my own paper, which experience in production predated Kent, but which could not reach its denouement of submission until after Kent. And the experience of researching had taught me something solid about the nature of reflection and change in the availability of facts at different points in history so I knew that what we knew that week about Kent State (which for me included the fact that friends of my mother had lost their daughter to National Guard bullets) was not what we would know in a month, a year, or longer.

There was the emotional knowing as well. How the event affected people, that early on, had much to do with so many other aspects of their personal lives: whom they knew, what they already thought of Nixon, how they perceived or had had a part in the radical student movements developing worldwide in the previous decade, their own prospects for higher education and/or the draft. Like any political event, this was the case, but for me it was my first experience of this set of considerations.

Miss Judge and I talked about this about a year later. By then I had changed schools but we ran into each other downtown and drank coffee in a department store restaurant. She was retiring at the end of that school year and I tried to thank her enough for the research assignment. It was a time when I was quite ungracious with most adults, but Miss Judge was not most adults. For me, she’s become a part of my memories of this anniversary, the contrasting light that makes the dark a challenge rather than a closure.

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