My Bill Ayers Moment

I must be a terrorist — or at least have terrorist leanings. See, I have four books written or edited by Bill Ayers on my book shelf and I actually met the man at an education conference at Teachers College in Columbia University in 1994. If the FBI were ever to search my computer for past emails from suspect characters with terrorist leanings they would even find several email communications between Mr. Ayers and myself.

In truth, I didn’t like him that much personally when I met him. He was a bit smug and full of himself and he seemed to condescend to me ( a mere classroom teacher in the company of stellar scholars and professors. ) But I did like his work and I admired the other people with whom he was associated at the time: Michelle Fine and Maxine Greene – two of the people in education who have had a profound influence on my life. And I also felt that we were engaged in the same worthy struggle – urban school reform that would address and rectify the social, economic and political inequities that curtailed the opportunities and life chances of the children in our cities’ poorest and most neglected and maligned public schools.

It was lunch break on a Saturday and I had just presented at a conference sponsored by Maxine Greene and her Center for Social Imagination. It was the most amazing, inspiring and eclectic conference I had ever attended. There were artists, musicians, classroom teachers, professors, writers and students of all ages and backgrounds together in this space. The day included a wide variety of presentation formats — performances, panel discussions, lectures, interactive workshops. My invitation to present there came through Michelle Fine who was familiar with my work with student playwrights and the Philadelphia Young Playwrights Festival.

My students and I presented during a plenary session before lunch in a beautiful, old auditorium. The presentation began with my current students ( Tika Clemonts, Ardelia Norwood, and Burnell Knox) performing scenes from Allison Birch’s play Believing and Terrance Jenkin’s play Taking Control. Both Allison ( in 1990) and Terrance ( in 1992) had won the National Young Playwrights Contest sponsored by Young Playwrights Inc. and had had their plays performed professionally off-Broadway. After the scenes, each spoke about the impact of the playwriting program on their lives. I spoke about the impact on the teacher and then the audience viewed the video “I Used to Teach English” on a huge screen. After the video ended, there was rousing applause in the audience. It was very moving and overwhelming. It was one of those defining moments in your life when it all comes together — your work, your values, meaning, action, relationships… All of us – Terrance, Allison, Burnell, Tika, Ardelia and I felt like we were part of something bigger than ourselves.

It was immediately following that presentation that I was approached by Bill Ayers. He told me that he was planning a book about Maxine Greene – that the book would include essays by people who had known her and had been influenced by her work. He asked if I would consider submitting mine, Terrance’s and Allison’s speeches for the book. We communicated by email in the following months – I sent the speeches to Ayers — and he finally wrote back to me telling me that he just didn’t think that our speeches fit with the format of the book and he was sorry but he wouldn’t be able to publish them.

I hadn’t thought much about Bill Ayers in the past 14 years. I bought his book about Maxine Greene A Light in Dark Times when it was published, and somewhere along the line, I have purchased and read three of his other books as well.

The current ridiculous attack on Barack Obama, linking him to domestic terrorism because he once served on a board of a foundation with Bill Ayers prompted me to revisit Ayers’ books. Looking at Ayers’ books right now have allowed me to reconnect to the time in my life and career where I was actively engaged on the local and even national scene in positive urban school reform. Reviewing the essays and chapters in these books rekindled my passion and commitment to opening up possibilities for new ways of “doing school” in urban classrooms.

Barack Obama’s association with Bill Ayers and Obama’s participation in school reform in Chicago point to what could be the possibility of a person in the White House who understands the complex issues involved in school reform – a person who will not look to standardized tests as a true measure of a school’s growth — a person who will see the light in dark times and the potential of urban youth that can be mined by smart, dedicated, inspired and inspiring educators working with communities to both create for themselves and demand the resources they deserve from the government — a person influenced by the life work of Bill Ayers.

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