One of my students showed up at office hours to talk about the protests.
She wanted to tell me about the general assembly. She wanted to know: Why did thousands of people turn out at Cal, and only hundreds in Irvine? What should she say to her roommates who don’t understand why it’s important? They tell her—why bother protesting? They’re just going to raise the tuition anyway.
Her parents are ethnic Armenians who fled Iran to a safehouse run by a Christian NGO in Vienna. We passed some sort of test, she says. They made it to the States when she was ten years old. Her parents still speak broken English.
On some level, I didn’t know what to tell her, but we talked for an hour and a half.
She wanted to know how to talk to the people who screamed at her during the rally. I told her to stay away from rage, I want her to be safe. I told her to try and communicate her passion to the people who feel powerless. Tell them: We are not helpless. We live in a democracy. We have the Constitution. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. They tell me it won’t work, she said. What can I say? Has protesting ever worked before?
So we talked about the sixties, the Free Speech Movement, civil rights, the labor movement… How does change come about? I told her about growing up in Berkeley, inside Clark Kerr’s Master Plan—how for me, the promise of the University is in some way inextricable from the promise of our democracy.
I asked her not to judge her fellow students. People often disparage the students at Irvine, to me. They’re grade grubbing, they say. They act entitled. The insinuation is: They’re spoiled, they’re Asian. This has not been my experience. Irvine is an incredibly diverse campus, I’ve probably had more Hmong and Farsi-speaking students than ethnically white kids. But entitled, upper class? Maybe they just don’t take my class.
My students come to me with questions about their world, their faith, their gender orientation, their families’ expectations. I’ve had a student miss class to go to court against a man who violently assaulted and raped her. I had a student miss class because his friend got killed in a gangland shooting. I’ve had students drop out of school to support their younger siblings. I have been asked: Should I go back to community college so I can spend more time with my infant daughter? Should I wear the hijab, the head scarf that is a sign of my faith, and if I do, will it make it impossible for me to work as a reporter? Should I work at the lumber yard this summer? Can I support my aunt and uncle who raised me on the salary of a public interest lawyer? Should I switch majors if I want to write, and how do I tell my father?
I tried to explain to the young woman in front of me: It might not be apathy. Some of your friends have parents who remember life under regimes where political speech was dangerous. Some of them commute long distances to school. They work hard, they are bright and loyal. Maybe they feel that being loyal means keeping getting A’s and keeping their heads down. Maybe their parents sacrificed to get them here. But that just makes it more important to fight for this, our great, public, university…
I found myself telling her about my family. I’m the interracial granddaughter of immigrants. My Japanese grandfather came here with an eighth grade education and worked on the railroad. My Jewish grandparents fled the pogroms. They all sent their kids to college—most of them went to graduate school, too. One face of America is that of a violent and decadent empire, yes. But I haven’t given up on its other side—however naïve my redemptive exceptionalism may be. We are the great democratic experiment. I still believe the promise is worth fighting for. I published an essay along these lines right after 9/11. Tough Love, I called my patriotism, and then I felt naïve for saying it all out loud.
But with my student in front me telling me: I want an education so that I can help people who grew up like I did… It was simple. I wanted her to see the idealistic version of this country where she has landed because I want her to stay engaged, and sometimes the fight takes a little faith. She’s going to intern in Washington this summer. Over break she is going to volunteer with homeless youth. She wanted to know how I saw her options, her struggle.
“Your grandparents were immigrants?” she asked me. “And your parents went to college and became professors?” Yes, I told her. She wanted to be sure. “So their parents were immigrants, who came to this country poor? They were like me?”
Yes, I tell her, yes. You can follow this path, and you can fight not to pull the drawbridge up behind you. This university is lucky to have you. You’re lucky to have this university. America is lucky to have you. You’re lucky to have America.
And then the next day I brought sandwiches and water down to City Hall and H. and I talked to the “people in tents,” because I figured I had better put my money where my mouth is.