I had two encounters with Bill Ayers before he became Obama’s so-called terrorist friend in the run up to the 2008 election. The first came at my first school in Chicago, some 20 or so years ago. I don’t remember much of what he said, but I do remember asking him, as the new teacher, I was about classroom discipline. He said he only had two rules: 1) You can wear your hat. 2) You can’t interfere with someone else’s learning. I still refer to the second one even today. Later, at an NCTE conference in Chicago, scheduled opposite Al Pacino hosting a screening of Looking for Richard, Ayers told us about being part of a committee that was reviewing essays teachers had written as part of an application for a teaching award. There was one question he found telling. It asked something like, “What is the biggest obstacle you face as a teacher?” He said he was expecting answers about money or bureaucracy, but a large percentage of the answers were about students. He then issued a challenge. He said we should try to go one day without complaining about students. Then a week. We would, he was sure, notice how much time was spent on complaining about the children we were meant to serve. I accepted his challenge and try to honor it to this day.
I read several of his education books and his memoir, Fugitive Days. I had no idea until reading this book that it was scheduled to be released around September 11, 2001. In Public Enemy, he recounts the challenges of living life above ground again as his past gets dredged up again and again, and he, now a father of three, has to figure out how, if at all, to respond as he tries to continue his work as an educator. This account is a remarkable story of a man in the middle of a mess, surrounded by family and friends, trying to make sense of his past and his present. “Don’t,” a teacher once told him, “let your life be a mockery of your values.” And Ayers seeks not to and acknowledges that his efforts will always be imperfect, incomplete.
Ayers is a strong writer, his voice leaps off the page, both in his narratives and when he’s on his soapbox. He’s retired now, an event not without controversy itself. But his words, both spoken and written, remain with me as I try, in both my personal and professional life, not to allow my life to become a mockery of my values.
Ayers was and remains a true hero. A true American hero.