I was a sophomore in high school in 1967-68. My academic credentials were good, not great. My girlfriend and sports were my top priorities. I disrupted classes (too often) with attempts at humor. Some of my teachers were good and some average. The good teachers struggled to inspire 15 year old students like me to think about more than our social lives, hobbies and those taboo things that our parents fretted about.
There was one teacher who, for me, stood out that year. She was less than eight years older than us which made her perhaps the youngest teacher in school. Her name was Mary and she taught World Cultures. Mary cared deeply about social issues and she would often weave current events into her lectures trying to awaken our complacent minds to the reality of the turmoil in our country and the world at that time.
The summer before, July 1967, Newark, NJ erupted in a massive riot after the news spread that a black man had been beaten to death by police. Twenty-six people died and over 700 were injured. Detroit was next to explode. That school year the Vietnam War was escalating and the death toll was mounting. In response the protest movement was growing. The civil rights movement, having won legal protections a few years earlier, was still fighting for acceptance in many parts of America. There was a groundswell movement of college students pushing hard for change in social policies and laws. Clashes between students and police turned deadly. In Mary’s class we heard a message that upended the conservative, middle-class perspective in our school. Throughout that school year I grew more interested each time she challenged us with the turmoil of current events.
At our school, where history lessons never reached the Twentieth Century, our World Cultures class was hearing a young teacher’s liberal perspective of current events. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. On June 4, Robert Kennedy, who had won the hearts of idealistic people looking for change, won the Democratic Presidential primary in California. In the early morning of June 5, he was murdered.
The day of Kennedy’s assassination, Mary stood before our class and in a broken voice said they keep killing our best leaders. She then walked out of the room and I think I saw tears in her eyes. I had never seen such passion from a teacher before. The civil rights, anti-war and anti-poverty movements that King and Kennedy led did not die with them. A sense of purpose began to grow in me that year. Beneath my carefree exterior were questions about how activism, politics and law impacted lives.
Later in June my girlfriend, Sharon, and I talked about the future. I told her that I wanted to pursue a law degree and maybe run for political office someday. The world around us had become a volatile and uncertain place and I think we were both a little frightened about the future. She told me she would support whatever I wanted to do.
We remained together for the next 6 years and then married. She supported us while I went to law school. It is now 49 years after that June night that we talked and she has supported and nurtured me so I could pursue my dreams and goals ever since. A teacher sparked my yearning to know the law. My wife and best friend has tended the flame for a lifetime. As for me, I still have more questions than answers.