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TEACHING AND REBELLION AT UNION SPRINGS

A Youth Liberation Pamphlet

Second Edition First Printing Jan. 1974

Single copies of this pamphlet are available for 25¢ (plus an 8¢ stamp) from: Youth Liberation, 2007

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What is Youth Liberation?

Young people in our society are constantly oppressed. From childhood we are forced through an educational system which does nothing to meet our real needs, but rather imprisons us··While it tries to mold us to fit into society without causing trouble.
Politicians, who are not elected by us and do not represent us, pass laws regulating the hours we can be on the streets, the films we can watch and the books we can read, and force us
to spend much of our time in schools.
If arrested, we are legally entitled to only
some of the rights that adults have, and we are not
even certain of getting the rights we are supposed to have.
The family, as it now exists, allows adults to cont’rol the lives of young people, and robs us of the right to self-determination.
To struggle against these problems Youth
Liberation was formed. If you want to know more
about Youth Liberation, look at the inside back
cover of this pamphlet. Some of the material
we p oduce Write
us and we’ll send you a copy of the 15 point
Youth Liberation Program and the complete
Youth Liberation Materials list.

2

Teaching and Rebellion at Union Springs

In 1967, I got a job teaching high school in a small industrial community in upstate New York. I didn’t think the job would have political sig nificance to me. I had been involved in civil rights demonstrations and anti-Vietnam marches and in general I identified with the movement.

I had also taught in an urban ghetto school. No

liberal or left activity existed in Union Springs,

so I saw my job there as a retreat from politics

and as an opportunity to teach without the pres­

sures of the ghetto. But in fact teaching in

Union Springs turned out to be a profoundly po­ litical experience. I learned there that decent human relations, meaningful work and education are impossible in this country even in those little red school houses that seemed impervious to the crisis affecting the rest of society,

One of my first discoveries was that most of my students, who looked like Wonder Bread children, were

non-c0llege bound and hostile to school. I asked them why thy

were sixteen. Most replied, like a chorus, “Because to

get a good job you have to go to school.” They understood

3

that the boredom and discipline were preparation
for the future. One boy parrotted an administrator
on the subject of keeping his shirttails in: “When
you work in a factory you’re going to have to follow rules you don’t like, so you’d better get
used to them now.”
After a few weeks of teaching, I began to discover that the school was designed to teach the major­ ity of students to adjust to the lives already
laid out for them after high school, It rein­ forced what they had learned at home and in grade school: to blunt feelings; distrust feelings
you do have; accept boredom and meaningless dis­ cipline as the very nature of things. The faculty and the administration saw themselves as sociali­ zers in this process. This point was brought
home to me at one faculty meeting following an
assembly. In an effort to bring culture to Union Springs, the school sponsored a cello concert, one of several longhair events. The students, tired
of having their “horizons broadened,” hooted and
howled throughout the concert. The cellist was almost as indignant as the
teachers and administrators. The teachers expressed the sentiment that somehow they had failed to do their job: to train kids to accept things they didn’t like. Teacher after teacher admit­ ted that while the assembly

4

may have been boring, so were many thi gs

They had made it, so could the kids. Culture

isn’t supposed to be fun,” said the principal,

“But if you get something out of it, that’s all that counts. For most of our kids this is the only time they’ll ever get to hear a cellist and

their lives will be richer for it·”

WE PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE TO AN’iTHING

YOU SAY ‘

$(H00l

The school was also designed to promote a definition of work that excluded emotional satisfaction, To the degree that the kids accepted this definition, they distrusted the very classes they enjoyed, Students would often tell me, “This isn’t English, it•s too much fun,” or “School is where you learn-­

not have a good time.” Enjoyment was drinking,

speeding cars, minor lawbreaking activities that

involved little creativity or effort, Having de­

fined school (i,e., work)as joyless, joy, they

thou8ht, must be effortless,

5

They didn’t connect their feelings of depression

and anger with the socialization they were under­

going, While putting themselves down as failures,

they would tell me everything that was wrong

with the school. The petty vandalism, the scream­

ing in the halls, the “cutting up” in class were

their means of psychological survival. They did

not see this behavior as an attack on the school

system. They were certain too, that if they didn’·t

shape up, they would pay a terrible price.

Their response to the first novel we read in claos, Warren Miller’s The Cool World, reflected their sense of futility, They admired Duke, the gang leader hero, and thought he was “cool” because he said what he felt and did what he wanted. At the same time, he was “stupid” because his actions

could only lead to poverty, violence and death, They were infuriated at the ending of the novel when Duke 11gel:s rehabilitated.” In the endings that they wrote as an exercise, they had Duke killed or imprisoned. As one boy wrote, “This was the only honest ending because the price you pay for doing what you want is defeat in one form or another,”

Resigned to the “realities” of life, they had difficulty accepting praise. They had been taught they were unworthy and to distrust any­ one who thought they were not. Praise · challenged their self-image. John B., for exam­ ple, was a senior who planned to pump gas after he got out of the army. He also wrote poetry.

He alternated between being proud of his work

and telling me that it was “bullshit”. He

was threatened by his creativity. The school

had “tracked” him into a “low achiever” class

since grade one and after eighteen years he wasn’t about to challenge that authoritative definition. The only other job he considered was as a state policeman. “At least you’d have some power,” he told me.

6

The student body was split between the working class “greasers” and the middle class “scholars” or honors students. The students from working class homes saw the honors kids as sellouts, phonies and undeservedly privileged. The honors kids, for example, had a lounge. The rest of

the student body congregated in the bathrooms.

The honor students were more ambivalent in their attitudes towards the greasers. Their own s.chool experience was a grind, and they both resented

and envied the relative casualness of the other students.

A few college-bound kids protested against my leniency in grades and the lack of discipline in my classes. They demanded that I lower the

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grades of the “less gifted” and enforce school rules. Some honors students admitted that be­ hind their demands was a conception of learn­ ing as drudgery. Success, in turn, meant the failure of others. But this, they added, was the way things are. Society, they were con­ vinced, owed them nothing. Reality was the status quo and people should be judged by how well they coped with that reality, The “scholars” game in school consisted of con­ ning the teachers. Establish your reputation and slide through. At times, they acknow­ ledged the hypocrisy of the game, but rarely acted on. it. While the “scholars” had nothing

but contempt for the administration and most

of the faculty, they couldn’t get close to the

other kids because of their unwillingness to

give up their privileges that came with being

honor students.

*****************

The student body was also divided along sexual lines. Men at Union Springs were more indi­ vidually rebellious: they expressed their hatred of the school in ways that were consi­ dered “manly”: hap-hazard disobedience, drink­ ing before school, vandalism. The women, however, were passive about school on a daily basis, since the major concern was the prestige that came from having a boyfriend, and their status among the men.

One day, I assigned my senior class an article about a girl who had been thrown out of college for living with her boyfriend. The boys in the class acknowledged that while they wouldn’t marry a girl who did “that”, they didn’t think it was the school’s right to punish her. The girls said nothing. In their compositions they expressed anger at the injustice of punishing the girl and not the boy. One girl wrote:

“It’s always the girl who suffers in this sit­

uation, nothing ever happens to the boy.”

8

The following·day I spoke with the girls (the boys were out of the room)and asked why they hadn’t said in class what they had written on their papers. They said that they were afraid. One girl told me that the only time she would talk freely in class was if no boys whom she ­ liked romantically were present.

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On another occasion a boy criticized my assign­ ing a novel that contained obscene language, because, he s•td, it embarrassed him to read those words in front of girls. At the end of the class, a few girls told me- that while peo-‘ ple should be free to read and write wh•t they

wanted, they were glad at least one boy respect­

ed them enough to watch his language.

In spite of these divisions among the students, the oppressiveness of the school sometimes brought them together in action. Smoking in

the bathrooms was the most controversial issue in the school. Breaking the smoking· rules en­ raged the teachers. Several of them spent their fre

them to the office and getting them suspended

for three days. The administration, in an act

of desperation (20 cigarette butts had been

found on the floor in one day)removed the

entre After unsuc cessfully petitioning the principal, twenty-five

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students lined up in front of the men’s room and refused to proceed to their first period class. The principal threatened to call the police if they wouldn’t obey his order to move.

Inside the faculty room, some teachers said they wanted to bust heads and hoped the administration would allow it. Others joked about how our stu­ dents were trying to imitate the college kids.

10

In an assembly later that afternoon, the prin­ cipal announced that he was replacing the bath­ room doors, but only because of the responsive behavior of the majority of students. “All

over the cotmtry,11 he said, “bearded rebels are

tearing up the schools and causing trouble and

now we have their younger versions at Union Springs. We know,” he added, “that while troublemakers demonstrate, the cream of the crop is dying in Vietnam. These are the true heroes. The boys who stood in front of the men’s room this morning are the riff-raff.”

The students had not thought of the demonstrators as riff-raff. They were among the most popular kids in school. But neither had they seen them

as part of a national movement. By making that association, the principal had helped break down some of the students’ antagonisms toward the left. Later, when SDS people tried to link up with students at Union Springs, some of the ground \\fork had already been lald by the prin­ cipal.

11

***********************

By my second year at Union Springs, I was in­ tensely sensitive to the repressiveness of the school system and my own role in it. My way

of dealing with that was to make my classes more

relevant to students’ lives. I told them to write about what they felt in the language with which they were most comfortable. The first papers I received were f lled

and I criticized them on stylistic rather than moral grounds. In the second papers, the students’ efforts to shock me changed into honest attempts at good writing. I told one class of seniors who were working on short sto­ ries that I would mimeograph and distribute

some of their work. The most popular story was a satire concerning soldiers in Vietnam; it was sprinkled with obscenity. I said that I would reprint the story as promised, but I wanted the class to be aware of the risk. They all agreed that the author had written what he felt and that there was nothing objectionable about the piece.

A few weeks later the principal told me that I

would have to “cease and desist” from

students work that made use of

‘PHASE Jm:

RE,lODUCTIOtJ

I) r.EGYGLf

, TO STAAT •

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freedom in your classes.” He told me that while

these methods were all right for ”Negro kids,”

since “that’s the kind of life they’re used to”

or for very responsible college-bound students;

they were not all right for youngsters whose

future success in the Army or on their jobs de­

pended on their following rules.

As a result of my classes, he said, students were becoming defiant and teachers and parents were complaining. He said that I was doing a dis­ service to students in allowing them a freedom that they were not going to have later on.

Up to that point I had not thought of my work as political. In fact, I had berated myself be­ cause I hadn’t spent more time talking about the war, Blacks, tracking, and so on. Movement friends I had spoken with warned me that far

from “radicalizing” my students, I was providing them with a “groovy classroom,” making school more palatable, and adjustment to a corrupt sys­ tem easier for them. After speaking with the principal however, I concluded that my classroom

methods were political. In order for the students to fit into the society, they had to believe certain things about themselves, about their teachers, and about their work. By permitting

my students to use their own language in the classroom and to wander the halls without passes, by helping them to discover that school work , could be creative, I was challenging the values

of the school and, therefore, those of society.

That was the beginning for the students of un­ derstanding the relation between their lives and the movement.

I told the principal that I could not comply with his order but would discuss the issue with my class. He warned me that I was close to losing

my job and that he couldn’t figure out why I

wanted to be a martyr for the students.

*************************

The next day I told my class what had happened.

They agreed that we should continue to do what

we were doing, though a few students argued that I was teaching revolution and disrespect for authority. One boy told me that his father said that if I were teaching in Russia I would have

been jailed long ago. Other students defended our classroom activities, saying that this was the first time they’d been able to express them­ selves in school. “Everybody in town is calling

Mrs. Michaels a Connnunist,” one girl said. “Every­ thing they don’t like around here, they call Communist. We’ve done nothing wrong and neither

has she. Those who don’t like it here should transfer to another class and not ruin it for the rest of us.”

16

Although the students expressed concern about my losing my job, they knew that the issue was them, as well as myself. It wasn’t my class that was

on the line, but our class. Crucial to their

understanding of the issue as it deepened was my continuing to inform them of developments. By breaking down the traditional teacher-student relationship, I could speak with them not only about their own oppression but mine as well. In that process, the students had begun to listen

to me when I raised questions about the war, the draft, and the tracking system, though they weren’t ready yet to ask those questions for themselves.

In January of my second year, a local SDS chapter sponsored a festival and several workshops for high school students. I announced-the event to

my students and urged them to go. In spite of warnings from administrators, teachers, and parents, a number o·f students attended. Several teachers showed up to “learn about SDS,” but

the students knew that they were spies.

The SDS organizer asked the students if they . wanted the teachers to stay. “They are part of the reason we’re here,” one boy said. “We can never talk honestly in their presence and we can’t now. They have to leave.” When the teachers refused to go, the students walked out of the room and set up another workshop: a lib­ erating experience; defiance without punishment; a taste of collective power.

The festival changed the students’ attitude toward the left. Their disdain for the “peace freaks” was based on a stereotype of the cowardly college student. Their brothers were fighting in

17

Vietnam and if the leftists took their beliefs

seriously, they “would be fighting too.”.. One

boy told be that the only time he took ollege

demonstrators seriously was when he say them on

TV at the Chicago convention. The students at

Union Springs disliked the college protestors be­

cause they saw them as a privileged group and

they couldn’t figure out why they were rebelling.

Students at Union Springs felt ambivalent’about leftist culture. Although they talked about

”filthy hippies,” they listened to the Doors and the Rolling Stones. Roek music was vital to their lives. To hate hippies was difficult for them because Mick Jagger was one too. The long­ haired radicals who spoke to them at the SDS

festival acted tough, brave, and “tuned” into the kids’ experiences. That the principal and teachers defined these people as outlaws only

made them more attractive.

The Festival and the presence of high school students at an SDS function frightened the community. The newspapers were filled with let­ ters for the next few weeks condemning SDS and

the students who attended. Kids brought the news­

P,apers into school and we discussed reasons for

the community’s and administration.s!

terror at

SDS’presence. Gradually the kids began to con­ nect the local issue with the anti-Communist, pro­ war rhetoric they had heard all their lives.

They had begun to identi!ytheir own rebellion

with the rebellion of the people they had earlier called “rioters”, “peace creeps”, and “commies”.

Earlier that year I had talked with some students about Cuba. They had insisted that Castro was

18

a dictator who filled the prisons with anyone

who disagreed with him, and that the United States

ought to invade the island. When I questioned

the reliability of media reporting, they didn’t

respond. Only after they read the distortions

about themselves in the local newspaper·stories,

did my argument have some meaning for them.

When they were not involved in their own struggle,

they accepted what the TV and the newspapers

told them. They had even resented my raising

questions about Cuba, Vietnam, or Blacks. As one

student told me after I talked with him about the

war, “Our government couldn’t be doing all of

those terrible things,” What made those “terrible

things” believable to him was his new found con

sciousness of what the school had been doing to

him every day and how the principal and teachers

responded when he began to act.

In the months that followed the SDS co ference, I talked with students in class, during free periods, and in my home, where many of them be­ came frequent visitors, about everything from Vietnam to dating problems. In April of that year, some of them joined an SDS demonstration against Westmoreland.

As the opportunity to rebel began to develop at Union Springs High, many of the women held back. They didn’t see the relevance of the rebellion

to their own lives and some even discouraged the boys from participating since it disrupted the normal social life of the school. The girls

who did participate, however, were the mostnmil­ itant and committed to the rebels. Some were girls whose dating unpopularity had made high school hell for them and who identified with me because in my classroom they could assert them­ selves in ways that won them respect. Others

were girls who were more assured of their popu­ 19 larity and because they were not hung up in the individualism of the boys, could act together

more easily.

The male students, on the other hand, were beginning to challenge the traditional values of indiviualism and competitiveness that had made

it difficult for them to rebel together. Pre­ viously much of their prestige had depended upon individual defiance. As one boy told me earlier that year: “I talk back to teachers, but when everybody sta ts

thing anymore.”

About two weeks after the Westmoreland demonstra­ tion, seven students decided that they were going to boycott an honors assembly and asked if they could use my room. The assembly was an annual ritual to humiliate the majority of students and

..i

to honor the “handful” who had 11achieved.” The

students felt that their refusal to participate

was justified, but were uncomfortable about the

action. One boy said: ‘ isten,

this. ‘Cutting up’ in class is fun, but this is

different. It’s too serious. I’m not scared or

anything, but everybody’s acting like it’s such

a big deal.” The boy may have expected punishment

for his action but he.felt threatened because he had involved himself with six others in a col­ lective decision to defy the school system. If they escaped without punishment, he would be only one among seven heroes, If they got into trouble, his act couldnt

Another boy replied, “This is different from setting off a cherry bomb in the halls and run­ ning away. We’re identifying ourselves and we’re trying to figure out why we’re doing it. If you don’t see that, you’d better leave.”

20

21

In early May, I was fired. Many students pre­

pared to sit in. They made signs, held meetings

and argued with their parents, who urged them not to get involved. The administration responded with threats of police, suspensions, and warnings to seniors who “might not graduate” if they par­ ticipated. Administrators phoned the parents of the students leaders and urged them to keep their kids at home. Police watched the entrance of my house, On the morning of the sit-in, teachers in the halls urged the students to hurry to class. Many students did stay home. Others were con­ fused and stood around in the halls. About 50

sat in. Six students were suspended for five

days and one boy was beaten by the vice-principal

when he refused to move on to class.

The next morning the principal met with students and tried to calm them. There wasn’t anything they or he could do to get me back in school, he said. But he would listen to their grievances about the school. After a few days of rest­ lessness and more meetings with students, Union Springs High had ostensibly returned to normal.

But many students had changed during my two years there. When I first met them, they had been resigned to the limited world that the school had defined for them. They didn’t be­ lieve that they were capable of creating any­ thing larger. Experiences in my classes and their struggle opened the possibility of new

definitions of work, of teachers and themselves. When they had to defenp those discoveries to parents, contemporaries and school personnel the students learned how to work together.

22

I did not come to Union Springs to be a political organizer. I came to teach. But I refused to

be the teacher that both the administration and students expected me to be. I had rejected the role of cop and socializer not out of any revo­ lutionary commitment, but out of my need to relate to my students. My refusal to play the tradition­ al teacher role was linked to my refusals to

accept them as inferior because they had been

treated as such. By breaking down their stereo­

types of themselves and of me, I also helped

them break down their self-confining images of

the world around them.

One letter I received from a female student in­ dicated the achievement as well as the limitations of my work at Union Springs: “Up until you came

to us, I’m sure no student knew where he or she

stood in school, They didn’t know the powers

they had. Now we know them and are trying to use

them as best we can. It’s going to take time to

get organized, but the way things are going now,

I’m sure the time will come. I remember the time

I was accused of smoking. The principal told me that I had no alternative but to admit I was smoking. I told him that I wasn’t and that he could get the Supreme.Court on it if he wanted to, but he couldn’t prove it. That was the firs.t

time I really used the power I had and I won.

23

It doesn’t seem like much power when it was all over, but I can still remember looking at his face and noticing that his smirk was gone and

that he really looked afraid of me. I dontt know

if you realize it or not, but that small power

has affected almost every kid in school and I

think that’s why you were fired,”

Energy had been released at Union Springs, but where will students go with that energy, what will they do with it in that same school this year, in the army, in the factories, and their marriages?. The students were ready to join a movement. Right now there is no movement for them to join. Those who are still in school write me that Union Springs is quiet again.

Those who are out say pretty much the same thing. The movement that speaks to the needs they ex perienced and acted on at Union Springs is yet

to be created,

I “THINK “THERE’S HING

IJRON6 WITH”THE%rEM.

8tJT I OOH’T KNOW WHAT WE

CAN DO ABOIIT IT…

24

This pamphlet is taken from an article by Patricia Michaels that appeared in

No More Teachers Dirty Looks, a publication of the Bay Area Radical Teachers’

Organizing Committee (BARTOC).

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