Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Getting On The Bus

Last year, I sat in English class discussing Henry David Thoreau when a classmate brought up the quotation, “unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded or shall we transgress them at once?” The teacher paused for a moment, as she always did before she said something important but only vaguely related to English and said, “that’s true today too. Tell me, what would you go to jail for? What do you feel so strongly about that you would go to jail for it?”
The first thoughts that ran through my mind were the implications of going to jail. I couldn’t think of anything I believed in so strongly that I would give away my future – college admissions, internships, jobs, success – for that cause.
The room was silent, ringing of a question unanswered, and I realized I wasn’t alone. We all wanted different things for our future. The dreams of my classmates varied from going to community college and becoming a mom to being an off-Broadway star to being the CEO of Sony, but to each of us going to jail was synonymous with crushing our future.
Our teacher responded to our silence by repeating her question time and time again, “what would you go to jail for?” Each time she was met with only silence.
She was frustrated by our silence and demanded, “come on guys. There has to be something. When I was in high school we protested Apartheid. It was all about fighting “the man”. Getting arrested was the highest sign of respect. You’re history teacher was at Woodstock. Your teachers fight for change, today. Why is it that your generation refuses to take a stand?”
At the time, I was upset with her for being critical of my generation. I kept telling myself, “it’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we are acutely aware of consequences. We know more about the issues than her generation did. They blindly fought whatever they were told needed fighting. We study the issues and know that we can make a greater difference as the president of an organization fighting poverty than as a teenager in jail.”
 I knew some of what I was telling myself was correct, but I also knew that I was lying to myself. If we weren’t willing to sacrifice now, when would we be ready? All of our “involvement” now was passive – not eating meat, not shopping at Banana Republic – when would we be ready to actively fight the wrongs in the world? 
I think part of it was that, at sixteen, we didn't believe in anything absolutely. In Travels with Charley in Search of America, Steinbeck describes a conversation he had with a man in Deerfield Massachusetts. Steinbeck tells this man that he’s found all over the country there are “no arguments, no discussion”. The man responds insightfully, “my grandfather knew the number of whiskers in the Almighty’s beard. I don’t even know what happened yesterday, let alone tomorrow… We’ve got nothing to go on – got no way to think about things.” I felt like that; like I wasn't sure enough of anything to risk everything; nothing felt like absolute truth.

Nevertheless, my teacher’s question has haunted me for an entire year.

Last week, we studied the Freedom Riders and The Children's March in my Civil Rights history class. We were discussing how the protesters were our age and how they had taken a stand - though for many it meant jail and getting kicked out of school when they were the first in their family to go to college - and because of that they changed the world.
This time, my history teacher posed the question "what would you get on the bus for?"
I blurted "I would risk anything for abortion or contraception rights... or really any women's rights in general" I went on a small rant about GOP's personhood amendment and radical pro-life craziness. And I might have called Mitt Romney Satan.
That was a really big moment for me - realizing that I have a cause that I really believe in, that I would definitely take a stand, that I want to take a stand, that I want to make a difference. I know that women deserve better. Women's position, worldwide and in America, is wrong. It's wrong and unjust that one out of three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime, that 13% of the parliament seats world wide are held by women, that 15% of Corporate Americas top jobs are held by women, and that 24% of full-time professors in the US are women. I know that women deserve better and I would risk my future - Swarthmore and all - to further the movement.
I will get on the bus.

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