As Jose` was thoughtfully explaining how an effective thesis statement works, the fire alarm pierced his words, shutting him up, and as we hurriedly packed our bags to rush out of the room, shutting down the lesson and the class for the day.
Our class rushed into a river of students from other classes, from Literature, Philosophy, and Art History, a mass flooding through the corridors of the Humanities Building, emptying into a standing lake of students and professors from the Business Building and Language Arts, hundreds and hundreds of us, floating stagnantly in a mixture of excited or agitated confusion.
On this Day of Action against the egregious assault on public education, an institution I have devoted my life to enriching, Diablo Valley College, a large community college situated half an hour from San Francisco, walked out. We walked out in mid-lesson, in mid-sentence, just as many rightly outraged students and teachers chose to do across California, in protest.
Jose`, however, did not choose to walk out. Neither did his classmates. Nor I, as the professor.
We were forced to walk out, coerced into a façade of protest by a small group who strayed from the well-organized rally sponsored by the Students for a Democratic Society, an organization whose very mission statement claims that they want to “maintain a vision of a democratic society where people at all levels have control of the decisions that affect them.”
And I fervently share in their just cause, in this noble desire to make education accessible to all, and in their honorable hope to build a more democratic nation, which is why I teach, which is why I spend countless hours planning lessons, reading essays, meeting with students, writing letters of recommendation, and advocating for my students at meetings and through my writing (See the links at the end of the essay).
Yet, whoever pulled the alarm, those who disrupted my class, took away my choice, took away our choice, and in doing so, betrayed these democratic values.
I share these angry students’ dreams, and I share their anger at how these cuts will destroy the dreams of so many, dreams I’ve devoted my life to encouraging. I’ve felt the dramatic effects of the budget cuts: I’ve been torn by the crying faces of students I’ve had to turn away from already full classes, desperate to learn – 25 students trying to add a class with a cap of 25, and nowhere for them to go. And for those students who are lucky enough to get into my classes, I’ve seen services students need cut: our tutoring for learning disabled students was slashed entirely, and tutoring in general has also been uncomfortably downsized. I worry about what other necessary supports will disappear, and in doing so, what will happen to the quality of my students’ education, and thus, their opportunities.
And while I share this rage, I do not share their choice of protest. Students and teachers have every right to walk out to make their stand, to express their anger. I, however, chose to protest not by walking out, but by staying in – by providing my students the highest quality education I can give them. I choose to protest by serving my students, because the budget cuts serve to threaten them, to threaten the quality of their education.
I chose to protest the cuts by NOT cutting my class.
I wanted to be at the rally, to demonstrate my solidarity with our cause, but a student needed me in my Office Hours, a student with a serious personal situation that threatened to derail his semester, and possibly, his health. As students and teachers rallied by the Student Union, I was there in spirit, but in body I was in my office with this student as he cried and I listened, and then provided him a pamphlet for counseling services we still have.
This was my protest, to fulfill my responsibilities as an educator, as a compassionate human being, to help this student in his time of need.
And as the students marched outside, I decided I needed to be in class, to help prepare students for a mid-term essay due next week. Many were struggling with crafting an effective thesis statement, which Jose` was helping to explain.
This was my protest, to teach in the face of this attack against teaching. To refuse to let the budget stop me from doing my job, to move forward with determination.
And when fire alarm cut off Jose`, when I was no longer allowed to protest through helping my students, my protest was stifled, just as if the cops had come and shut down the rally without cause. My decision had been taken from me, by those claiming to support democracy.
DVC Professor Mickey Huff, the SDS faculty advisor who was actively involved in planning the widely-supported rally, an activist who has committed his career to creating a more democratic nation in his teaching, writing, and research as Director of Project Censored, and a friend who I’ve spent many a day talking politics with in our offices, was also saddened by this turn of events, which he told me was not at all part of their plan, and which in fact, was counterproductive. Huff saw a strategic problem with “going rogue” – now, the student body will not remember the success of the rally, nor the peaceful march, but the disruption, the fire alarm, the annoying, endless siren. Huff believes that these students should have “respected my right to teach,” and for the right of the students to learn – which is what the entire protest was about in the first place.
And in not respecting our rights, how many students were recruited? How many more alienated?
Perhaps some of you will find my position too moderate for this dire situation; perhaps you find it gutless and ineffective, a cop-out during an educational emergency. Maybe it is. Perhaps some of you believe the students who don’t walk out themselves are zombies, stumbling about unaware of the guillotine looming over their necks, and thus they must be awoken, even if it’s against their misguided, narcoleptic wills. Maybe you’re right.
But rather than force us through coercion, which will not work, persuade us with logic, with passionate, thoughtful, and democratic appeals - which just might.
Then, please consider: How can you hope to build a grassroots democratic movement by undemocratic force?
My previous articles on education advocacy and philosophy:
The Oakland School Borg