I like to imagine Ms. Wilkersonâ€”turtleneck, cardigan, unremarkable haircutâ€”writing the Pythagorean Theorem on the chalkboard as her students text message, fall asleep, and take notes. They probably think Ms. Wilkerson is â€œcoolâ€? or â€œokay,â€? but assume she has no life outside of the four walls of their underfunded classroom. Little do they know she was once a violent, anti-establishment radical who survived an explosion in her own familyâ€™s Manhattan town house.
Cathy Wilkerson, the author of the exhaustively detailed and fascinating memoir, Flying Close to the Sun, has been a math teacher for the last 20 years in New York City schools, but prior to that she was a member of the Weathermen, SDS, and a civil rights and anti-war protester.
The memoir is amazing if youâ€™re the kind of person who is obsessed with the nitty gritty of social change and the ins and outs of shifting consciousness. Wilkerson takes the reader through her childhood, marking the moments when she first became aware of injustice and reflected on violence, into her college experience at Swarthmore during the increasingly radical mid 60s, and into her really intense days of career protest and SDS leadership. The most interesting questions for me, as I was plodding through, were: (1) How did a girl from a conservative Quaker background become convinced that violence was the only answer? (2) How did the activists of the 60s logistically build a movement? And (3) How did they handle the intersection between all the different hot issues of the time: race, gender, war, poverty etc.?
Ultimately, Wilkerson sees that she resorted to violence because she started thinking about political impact instead of individual human lives. She writes:
Presented with both national and world events that were emotionally overwhelming, and ill-prepared to make the choices that lay in front of me, I made a series of decisions, from a standpoint of rage, hopelessness, and fear, in which I accepted the same desanctification of human life practice by Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and William Westmoreland. I accepted their supposition that, in the end, violence is the only effective strategy for social change; that might makes right, despite the fact that treasuring humanityâ€”and each life within itâ€”was one of the values that I had fought for. I abandon myself to the sanctimoniousness of hating my enemies.
Wilkerson has so much to teach those of us still struggling for changeâ€¦way, way beyond the Pythagorean Theorem.
Next week: Singled Out by Bella DePaulo and then, for V-day, a review of a bunch of crazy sex books.
And some bonus reading on this subject…an interview with Weatherman Mark Rudd at Campus Progress.