[Abandoned-Hotel Trash, Sharon Springs, N.Y. 2016]
The more I read Robert Rossner’s The Year Without an Autumn: Portrait of a School in Crisis, the more I realize I’ve forgotten way more than I remember about the 1968 crisis Rossner chronicles. Which is startling! For not only was I was an elementary school teacher at P.S. 120 when the Ocean Hill/Brownsville strike happened, I was a scab. Yes. Until our school’s custodians locked us out, P.S.120’s teachers of color crossed the United Federation of Teachers’ picket line (i.e. an irate group of P.S. 120’s white teachers) for a couple of weeks in the fall of 1968. Two white teachers chose to join those black teachers. I was one of them. You’d think I’d remember more!
So I’m struck by how much trauma and time (and, okay, maybe the druggy haze of the sixties) wreak havoc on remembrance.*
Here’s probably the worst thing I got dead-wrong: I’d remembered that less than ten NYC public-school teachers had been fired by the decentralized, parent-and-community-based (read People of Color) Ocean Hill/Brownsville board. Or so I’ve always thought. But, no, nineteen teachers had been fired by the “local control” folks. A significant number. (So: Forty-nine years later, I almost get why the UFT got so high and mighty about so many of its teachers getting canned. Almost.)
I knew one of those nineteen. He was a total incompetent at P.S. 120 and had been let go. His incompetence made my decision to support the Ocean Hill/Brownsville board’s right to fire him pretty straight-forward: Would I strike to protest his being fired? Hell, no. And so I crossed a picket line.
But here’s what I must say: All these years later, while I am glad (relieved?) I’d made the right decision, I am humbled by how next-to-nothing I really understood about systemic racism in 1968! I now know how blindly I made that decision! So when I say trauma is a factor to my swiss-cheese memory of this experience, I mean both the scary, nasty bits I have sublimated, paved over but also my present-day realization/horror that, actually, I’d stumbled into doing the right thing!
And, finally, to honor Shakespeare’s injunction to love and to remember: an incongruously-lovely memory; a (self) love story: Somehow, in the midst of being called horrible names as I crossed the picket line or, once inside, tried to teach a few scared children while fire alarms keep going off or, on the subway, getting punched by a young man of color because, why not? Racial tensions were tearing the whole city apart. Yet somehow, in the midst of all of that—and all that I have forgotten—I suddenly stopped smoking. Just like that. I’d learned that the minute you quit smoking your lungs begin to heal. What I had been doing to myself since I was fifteen could be fixed. Hope, possibility, redemption were possible. So I quit.
*There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.” Shakespeare.