Friday, April 10, 2015

Arriving at the Revolution Forty-Five Years Late

My wife and I live two blocks from a high school.  The principal believes in being a good neighbor, so hosts occasional meetings where nearby residents can express concerns about the school, such as noisy bells, weekend construction, or student littering.

The most recent meeting was a few days ago.  I couldn’t attend but participated in an on-line discussion about the topics the neighbors wished addressed.

The exchange began with complaints about students speeding through the adjoining neighborhood.  Living on one of the primary streets serving the school, I understood the reasons for the unease.  A range of solutions from speed bumps to enforcement were offered.

It was a discussion that could have happened in thousands of American communities.  Some of the ideas put forth were fine, other were flawed.  I’ll provide my take on the discussion, but not until my next post.

Today, I want to explore the direction taken by the conversation after the traffic issue was mostly exhausted.  Several neighbors suggested that the campus be closed so students couldn’t leave at lunchtime.  Others pushed for a stricter dress code.  Still others encouraged a crackdown on public displays of affection.  The latter two were apparently offered in the hope that stricter boundaries in some aspects of school life would carry over into improved behavior in other aspects such as driving.

I don’t have strong opinions on closed campuses, dress codes, or public displays of affection.  I suspect they wouldn’t provide the benefits for which the neighbors are hoping, but am otherwise content to rely on the professional judgment of the school administrators.  But I was astonished that my neighbors, many of whom are my contemporaries, would express strong opinions in favor of reducing the freedoms of students.

My high school years spanned the transition from the 60s to the 70s.  It was the high school students of that generation who, taking their lead from the Vietnam War protests and a broad discontent with the status quo on college campuses, argued, often successfully, for open campuses, relaxed dress codes, and other softened rules.

At my high school, many of those battles were won during my junior and senior years.

My senior year was the first year of an open campus, with students allowed to drive to the nearby McDonalds for lunch rather than partaking of cafeteria fare.

During my junior year, the rule on skirt length was that the hem could be no more than two inches from the floor when the girl was kneeling on the floor.  I remember an aging Spanish teacher looming over a kneeling student, lecturing the class on the need for modest attire as she waved the yardstick with which she intended to check for the two inches.  By my senior year, that disturbing picture was in the past.

During my junior year, I remember the vice principal roaming the halls, looking for hand holding which he could break up.  By my senior year, hand holding was rampant, along with perhaps a bit more in the quiet corners away from the ebb and flow of school hallways.

It was a time of change, change that still affects our world.

None of this is intended to imply that I was a ringleader for social change.  Instead, I was more of a bewildered observer.  I was surprised when a girl who I considered quiet and generally unremarkable unexpectedly treated me with disdain for not agreeing that school be cancelled because of Janis Joplin’s death.

I assumed another student, who I found a meek wallflower and only knew because we had adjoining seats in a Health and Safety class, had disappeared from my life forever when her family moved away after our freshman year.  But she resurfaced a half-dozen years during my time at Cal.  She was the leader of the Young Spartacus League on campus, disrupting the classes of professors she found insufficiently supportive of communist doctrine.

My only use of the open campus rule was to drive to the nearby junior college to take an Introductory Calculus class.

Perhaps the only social change in which I had any role was the opening of the central lawn at the high school.  Throughout the history of the school, the grass had been Senior Lawn, with only seniors allowed to loll on the grass during lunch or to cut through on their way to class.

It was my class of seniors who voluntarily dropped the barrier, allowing all classes to use the lawn.  It was a change that I supported, although only from the back row.  And even then, my motives weren’t entirely altruistic.  I was a member of a social group with a number of attractive sophomore and junior girls.  It seemed appealing to spend my senior year hanging out on the grass with some of those young ladies.  (Acknowledgment: I’m now married to one of the sophomores.)

Even though I wasn’t much of a participant, I recognize the value of those times.  Not every effected social change was necessary or meaningful, but some were.  And we have greater freedoms today because of those times.

Having experienced that era of student activism, it was strange to see the calls for rolling back some of those freedoms coming from folks who are of my generation.  I would have expected that being young in the 60s and 70s would have imparted a lifelong bias in favor of hard-won freedoms.  But I seem have been wrong.  (A cousin, to whom I had described my wonderment, said that having children, which I don’t, changes perspectives in a hurry.  He’s probably right, but I still find the changes sad.)

Looking back, I can also see that my urbanism may be a distant reflection of the 60s and 70s.  With its tweaking of the nose of authority by challenging the shibboleths of suburbia, by pushing for an independent plan of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds, by advocating for block parties, and by many more acts questioning the status quo, urbanism is my way of finally arriving at the barricades, forty-five years late.

I’m okay with my tardiness.  With all due respect to those who argued for open campuses or for honoring Janis Joplin forty-years ago, I think urbanism, with its focus on climate change, water conservation, and fiscal sustainability, is the more important issue.  I may have been late, but it was only because I was awaiting the right cause.

Although if someone knows of another Senior Lawn that should be opened to all, I could be coerced into taking part.

 Next time, I’ll tackle the traffic safety issues raised by my neighbors.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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