Interview with Bill Ayers
BROADCAST: Jun. 25, 1997 | DURATION: 00:49:12
Interviewing author and educator Bill Ayers. Ayers is Professor of Education and University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel I'll bet when you turn on TV tonight 6:00 news, 5 gets you 10, you're going to see a black kid, and a black kid committed a crime. And, of course, we're horrified by it. Invariably that is the case. Now who is this black kid? How did he come to be? What's it all about? Is it as it seems to be, hopeless? And I wonder because Bill Ayers happens to be one of the most perceptive and sensitive educators I know. He works with these black kids and other kids, Hispanic, others, whites not too well off. And his new book is called "A Kind and Just Parent". It's a phrase Jane Adams used years ago about the juvenile court when it first came into being. A juvenile court so necessary then at the time, and now to get "A Kind and Just Parent". And so here's Bill Ayers opening his new book called "A Kind and Just Parent". This is connected with what I said a moment ago about that TV, that face we see on TV. And suppose you start the book, the first passage.
Bill Ayers "When I sat in a Chicago courtroom and watched a judge sentence a kid I know to a lifetime locked in prison, I felt suddenly sick. The kid had, in truth, committed a man-sized crime and there was a certain unsparing logic to the adult judgment that fell upon his head that morning. Neither the chaos of his life nor the circumstances of his one murderous moment counted for much once the kid was caught and in the dock."
Bill Ayers Well, the kid's name was Jeff and he got a 47 year sentence for murder. I hadn't known--I had known the kid for about a year tutoring him in the Audy Home, the Cook County temporary juvenile detention center, and I hadn't known anything about the crime he'd committed. The reason is I didn't ever ask the kids. I tried very hard to avoid that question. It's a kind of inevitable question, but I avoided it thinking that it was unfair to say to this kid "what did you do?" So I chose instead to meet the kids just as they were and teach them just as I found them. But about a week before Jeff was sentenced, he asked me if I would come to his sentencing hearing. And at that point I found out he was in for murder.
Studs Terkel So on that whole subject, you don't ask what they've done. In fact, some of the views have been glowing reviews of your book. One, very favorable, said she wished she knew what he did, but she understood why you did it. You didn't want to make him have to defend--you want to know what he is.
Bill Ayers You know, the problem with knowing a kid through his one worst act is that you then get stuck right there and in a way, that's the problem we have as a public. We know these kids to the extent that we know them at all, as one dimensional. We know them by their worst moment rather than their possible best moments.
Bill Ayers I've been involved as a tutor over at the juvenile detention center in the school and I got there because I was, as I often am, I'm interested in teachers and I got kind of drawn into the classrooms of Frank Tobin and Willy Baldwin, two extraordinary teachers over there and--
Bill Ayers In the Audy Home, that's right. And I began to tutor kids there and help them mainly with reading. And I discovered very quickly that the kind of one dimensional portrait I had of these kids was a mistake, was as all one dimensional portraits are, flat, stereotypical, and ultimately untrue. And I began to think, gee, what would it look like if I told the story of these kids? In other words, the missing element, in some ways, in the discussion of juvenile justice is the stories and the voices of the lives of the kids themselves. It's almost like--I began to think of it recently as, you know, we can't tell the history of slavery anymore without the slave narratives. It doesn't make any sense. We can't tell the history of the United States without the voices of women. I wish we would stop talking about juvenile justice without listening to the kids themselves, to the circumstances of their lives.
Studs Terkel I remember a kid named Sam Lopez, he's now a top educator, by the way. He was mindless. He spoke in juvenile court, "I'm just a thing. I'm a ping pong ball." "Don't you have any rights?" "No!"
Bill Ayers She used the phrase to say what we need is--at that time, you know, children were thrown routinely into the adult justice system, into adult jails where they were preyed upon both physically and sexually and emotionally. And what she argued was we need to create a system that would act as a kind and just parent would act for kids in crisis. And that was--I meant the title to be ironic in the sense that here is the system that kind of undermines and destroys that idealistic kind of romantic notion.
Bill Ayers Yeah well, you know, one of the things you point out the heinous crime. I mean, one of the things we're doing in this country is we're driving juvenile justice policy by 1% of the crimes. It's that headline grabbing crime.
Bill Ayers Drug possession or possession of a weapon, possibly a fight. Sometimes it's fighting which is violence, but it's not the kind of violence that makes the headline news. It's things like a kid stealing, you know, that kind of thing. And so it--we've clogged up the court with these kind of minor cases. But our perception of the court is driven by that headline grabbing terrible murder, that awful crime that animates all the rest of the things
Bill Ayers In and out. And you know, it happens so quickly. Cases appear and disappear. Judges in juvenile court have twice the number of cases on their docket as judges in adult court. And there's something backwards about that, as well.
Studs Terkel So the thing that's so funny, you point this out in the book, it's very moving by the way, funny, horrendously funny when the kid has a PD, a public defender appointed by the judge, he doesn't even look at the kid. [laughing]
Bill Ayers Exactly.
Bill Ayers Yeah, it's kind of the train of justice moving onward, but neither looking left nor right. And the real thing that I wanted to do was to--as I got to know these kids, was to follow them a little bit into their lives because as soon as you follow any human being into his or her life, what you find is a complex portrait. And it's--the one dimensionality disappears, the stereotype disappears.
Bill Ayers Right.
Bill Ayers Right.
Bill Ayers They are tried in the juvenile court, although some juveniles are held there, as most of the kids who I portrait here, are held there to go over to adult court because they've been charged with crimes that are deemed so serious that they will be charged, tried as adults even though they are under the age of 16. Now that's what you were referring to earlier when you talked about the direction of juvenile justice in this country. We have the McCollom bill in Congress which offers a billion and a half dollars to the states if they'll try more kids as adults for certain statuses of crimes, and that's a frightening direction in my opinion. It undoes everything Jane Adams--
Bill Ayers That's
Bill Ayers Well, they match in a couple of ways. One is that with welfare reform, or welfare deform as you call it, with the kind of lack of decent funding for schools, what we have is a situation where kids can't get medical care. They can't get a decent education, they can't get mental health care, but what they can get, the last entitlement, is the justice system. The last place where they're really welcome is the justice system.
Studs Terkel So now we've come to the Audy Home and here's where you meet. Now we come to some of the kids you meet. But you mentioned two teachers. Here this guy--one is called Frank Tobin, a white guy, Catholic ex-priest.
Bill Ayers That's right. Both of these teachers, you know, as you know I've written about teaching and teachers for a long time and these are two extraordinary teachers, and what was interesting to me was finding these teachers in such an unlikely place. These are--these teachers are the kind of teachers all of us should aspire to be. They take each kid as he comes. They find a way to embrace each kid, to see each kid as filled with potential rather than just a collection of deficits. They look deeply into the face of each kid and they respect the fact that each kid has a mind and a spirit. And as Frank says to them, he says to every kid he comes into his class he says, "You know, you shouldn't let the world think of you as just a one dimensional person." He says, "You shouldn't be defined by the worst thing you ever did." So even though you did something heavy and you're going to pay a heavy price, you now have to figure out how to live forward to something worthy of a human being. Don't let the world call you a murderer. You did something horrible. You need to account for it, but you're more than that and you can make a contribution if you choose to.
Studs Terkel And--we'll take a first break. We're going to talk more about Frank Tobin and Willy Baldwin, Mr. B, how they work and something's very funny. Especially with Baldwin and his handling of the kids. He's aware of them and the flaws in himself too.
Bill Ayers Absolutely.
Bill Ayers Absolutely.
Studs Terkel So we're talking to Bill Ayers, William Ayers, and his book is called "A Kind and Just Parent" and the subtitle is what it's about, "The Children of Juvenile Court", and a particular place called Audy Home. I'll ask you about that after the break. Beacon, the publishers. Beacon, by the way, is a very marvelous publishing house. They publish books others don't and they have a certain kind of feel for the--what I call the humanism that's around and about, but hardly called upon, after this break. [pause in recording] So we're talking to Bill Ayers and that's his book. This is called Round 2 because this is something of a battle, and it's "A Kind and Just Parent", the juvenile court but also the Audy Home. We talked about these two teachers. Now Tobin, as one of the kids is known Mario, and he became something. He describes Mr. Tobin, doesn't he?
Bill Ayers He became something, yeah, that's right. He--well he has a couple of kids, and Mario was a kid who was--really wanted to get himself out of the situation he was in. He worked hard to--he was a good reader, he worked hard to accomplish things there. He was an artist. I found a lot of these kids could express themselves through art and Frank, in particular, both Frank and Willy had art materials available at all times and they would do things that were kind of special. They would enter their kids' art works in citywide competitions and so on. And so a lot of these kids found a way out through art, through making model airplanes, through reading and writing as well. But--
Studs Terkel When Willy Baldwin, Mr. B, he calls upon--they read plays and stuff and they--he called upon August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson". You know, that remarkable black playwright and a piano lesson, a word about "The Piano Lesson". The story and how were these kids treated and
Bill Ayers Well the extraordinary thing, I mean there were several times when they would use literature in a particularly compelling way and if you would say to Mr. B, gee that was an extraordinary lesson you did, he'd say, "Well I was just doing what comes naturally to a teacher. I was just reading some good literature and letting the kids react to it." "The Piano Lesson" is a story that I think is extraordinary about a family and about a kind of a raucous guy who wants to get, you know, better himself, a black guy who comes to take a piano that's a family heirloom and sell it so that he can buy
Bill Ayers That's right. He carved into the legs the history of the family, and so this family heirloom is terribly important to the sister, but the brother wants to take the thing and sell it so that he can buy a little piece of land and have some access to the means of production, the means of making a living for himself. And so the conflict is between these two. And as the kids read this story out loud, they come upon passage after passage that remind them of their own lives. One is this notion of whether we have ghosts in our background, whether we have to account for our histories. And you get these kids who, you know, from the outside we might call them, you know, school failures, learning disabled. We might have all the labels, but gee you sit there in a classroom where they're discussing the question of whether you have to carry the ghosts of your past with you, whether you have to account for them or whether you should be allowed to leave them behind. And you get the most vivid strong conversation.
Studs Terkel You have--it's very exciting. You have this--Willie Boy is the brother. Willie Boy wants his sister to sell that damn piano. It's in the way, it doesn't mean anything. And he needs that to start of farm, it's a natural thing and she says this is what our lives are all about.
Studs Terkel And so the kids are discussing that, here these kids in for the various misdemeanors and crimes. And having--they're drama critics, but more than that, they're discussing their own lives.
Bill Ayers Absolutely. And they bring their own life situations, their own circumstances to the text and Mr. Baldwin has a great skill, a great kind of natural as well as developed skill, of allowing the kids to bring their autobiographies to bare in the literature and that's a wonderful use of art. I mean, art has the capacity to provoke and he lets it provoke them, but it only can provoke if you can bring your own meanings to it. And he lets the kids do this and then he challenges them. Kid will say, "Now I want to leave all that behind." And Mr. Baldwin would say, "How can you leave it behind? You can't leave it behind. You've got to account for it." And somebody else would say, "Well, I want to account for it, but I don't want it to ruin my life." And they identify first with Boy Willie and then with his
Studs Terkel But then he picks up another one. There's a Southern writer, a story, it's the most amazing--these kids named Ito and Pablo and Alex and Mario and Jesus, these guys, they're in for one. But they're discussing this short story he had, "A Kind of Light that Shines on Texas" by Reginald McKnight.
Studs Terkel No.
Bill Ayers It's a fantastic story. It's a story of a kid, a black kid in the 60s going to a previously segregated all white school and feeling like he wants to be invisible, like he wants to join in and not stand out. There's only two or three black kids in the school. And one of the black kids is a kid who he finds embarrassing because he's, you know, he's big, he's awkward, he's, you know, very much of the country. And so the narrator tries very hard to distinguish himself from the other kid. And once again, these youngsters who are in the Audy Home are reading this aloud and acting it out and feeling, identifying with this notion of wanting to be a part of--wanting to blend in, not wanting to stand out. But at the same time, not wanting to suck up, not wanting to be an Uncle Tom. Very fascinating dialogues.
Studs Terkel So this comes now, they start thinking about their families and themselves and calling upon the intelligence not called upon, and all that's there not called upon. It's so funny. We'll come to the kids working up their own intelligence tests, got to come to that.
Studs Terkel Their own SATs, we'll say that. But on this matter of who are bright kids and who are not bright kids. I remember these two kids. One was a little white girl, private school, very bright, got all A's. And the other was this kid in front of a jukebox, there was a whole bunch of kids, the Jane Adams project. You know, horsing around the jukebox and I was horsing around. They saw this goofy old guy, me, and so they horse around. And so one--I asked this black kid, I mean, he's a talker. He's a smart mouth. You know, the work of these two kids LeAlan Jones and--
Bill Ayers Sure.
Bill Ayers Yeah,
Bill Ayers Right.
Studs Terkel Well one little kid--one of the authors, one of the guys who put this microphone, wields it like a sword to the people. He says to this little 5-year-old kid, "You're pretty smart. What does that mean? Well, you're bright and--" "I've got a smart mouth!" [laughing] As a five year old peanut was--this little kid was like that. Talking to me, I said tell me about--he was in a rough corner. Tell me about your auntie. [Unintelligible] "A" sometimes for aunt, "auntie" is generally grandmother.
Bill Ayers Yes.
Studs Terkel "Oh my grandmother!" And he starts telling a story and it's absolutely hilarious about his grandmother and he--how she invents stories, he knows they're not true. She says the man came carrying his head in his hand like Ann Boleyn. And so at night he hears her laughing and chuckling in her room. And he's laughing. And he makes up the story, it's fantastic, about his grandmother. So I'm here with this very bright kid going to a very private school, very posh thing. "Tell me about your grandmother" "Well, she's in St. Petersburg now at a retirement place. She's very nice. I like her." "Yeah, but what about her? "Well, every Christmas, I mean, wonderful gifts." "Yeah well, what about her?" Now who's the brighter kid? So you have the kid doesn't score too well in class at all.
Bill Ayers Right.
Bill Ayers Right, right. Well, let me give you another example that's not in the book. I was--the day before the elections last year, Mr. Baldwin, Mr. B, was having the kids read round robin on the candidates' positions on a range of issues, and a little kid who I write about named Lamarque decides to read about guns. And it turns out Bill Clinton supports the Brady Bill and has outlawed 19 kinds of assault weapons and Bob Dole opposes the Brady Bill and Ross Perot wants to get tough on kids who bring guns to school. So he reads this in his halting reading and then he says to Mr. B, "Mr. B, that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard." And Mr. B says, "Well, explain yourself." And he says, "Well, see this one guy wants to keep guys like you from getting guns and that would be wrong. You need a gun some time and you might want to buy one. Why should you have guns outlawed?" And he says, "Now us," referring to the entire class. "We can get a gun whenever we want one. So that's pretty stupid." And he says, "But the stupidest thing is if the adults don't want us to have guns, why do they make them?" And I said, "Lamarck, I'm going to vote for you." You know, I mean that's the kind of insight--
Bill Ayers Yeah they--we had a wonderful kind of--we did a lot of fun things, but one of the things we did was to make up an intelligence test because we had had a discussion about how intelligence tests are biased because they're based on information that people already have or been exposed to. So I challenged them to make up a test that they could get a good grade on, but they thought Mr. B and myself would not get a good grade on. And they made a whole bunch
Bill Ayers For me and Mr. B. And we said, you know, it's a test that you guys should be able to pass, but you think Mr. B and I would flunk. And sure enough they made up several over the time I was there. But here's one, a couple of questions like "What does heads up mean?" "What does low key mean?" "What is an onion?" "What is an eight ball?" "What is a sword?" "What does 'don't pour any salt on me' mean?" "What are drapes?" And so on. So there are a lot of questions there and we had a multiple choice kind of answer and they always took one answer from the dictionary. So what is an onion? We had, you know, one of the answers was a pure dictionary definition of a vegetable, an herb that grows in the ground, but an onion, in fact, is a ball of drugs. Now, you and I wouldn't know that because we don't speak the language.
Bill Ayers Well exactly. One of the damning things about intelligence tests, of course, is that the outcome on almost every standardized test, you know, the outcome is predictable based on class, background, income, parents, education. So in a sense it's already skewed, isn't it?
Bill Ayers Exactly.
Studs Terkel Maybe you've got a composer, a lyricist like Yip Harburg. He wrote Finian's Rainbow. You mentioned onion. He might do well because he understood something that these kids feel. He did a play called "The Bloomer Girl". It's about escaped slaves and about the feminist movement. And there's a song that Dooley Wilson sings. Dooley Wilson was known for "As Time Goes By" in Casablanca. Escaped slave sings something called "The Eagle and Me. We want to be free. When the world was an onion," he says, [laughing] meaning when the world was this thing you peel away from yourself. So in a sense, he might dig [laughing], but he's not the only one I know who would. But so we now come to what is so--what is intelligence?
Bill Ayers Right.
Studs Terkel And the nature of crime. How does--so you are an anti-quack doctor. Quack docs would say there's a cancer, you usually cut it out, so you cut it out. Whereas the real doctor says let's get at the cure for it, a preventive medicine. Find out what it is creates a cancer. In a sense there's an analogy here.
Bill Ayers Well there is--one of the things--I try not to be romantic about these kids or to romanticize them, but it certainly is true that, you know, if you have little kids, when you have little kids living in your home, the first thing you do is to childproof the environment. You lock up the poisons under the sink. You cover the electric sockets. You try to make it a safe environment. One of the things we need to do as a society is take the toxic elements out of the environment these kids are growing up in and that includes guns and drugs.
Studs Terkel Not so much. We're talking to Bill Ayers, William Ayers, and the book is called "A Kind and Just Parent". It's a very lively reading, just quoting the guys in it and through the back and forth conversation. And the subtitle "Children of the Juvenile Court". What's happened in the juvenile court since, and what the trend and what the popular notion is today. And Beacon are the publishers. We'll resume for the third round in a moment. [pause in recording] And so we come back for--come back to Bill Ayers and the book. And I'm thinking--so the cases. Now your wife, Bernardine Dohrn, also works with kids--women, we're talking too much about guys here.
Studs Terkel And the two of the notorious case--we know of the dropping of the kid from--Eric Morse dropping the kid to his death by a 10-year-old and 13-year-old. Well there's the Keystone 19. And that's the one that made headlines of that slovenly horrendous place. Now what does Bernardine say about
Bill Ayers Well, you know, the thing that I--as I went into this, and I went in quite naive. Bernardine's worked in juvenile justice for many, many years. But I would read these stories in the morning and I would be shocked and horrified. And I had this kind of exchange with Bernardine that really was revealing where I had read a story about something like a 2000 count indictment against a couple for child abuse, screaming headlines in the Tribune. And I read it and I was pretty horrified, as I'm sure everyone in Chicago was. When she came down, I read her the highlights and she said to me, about 6:00 in the morning, she said to me, "It's all lies". And I said, "Well, how can you say it's all lies? You don't know." And she said, "Well, watch how this unfolds." As the week went on, every day there was a new story, but the second day the Tribune said some investigator says that the indictments are lies and so it went back and forth. Well it turns out they eventually dropped charges against this couple altogether, and what we often see in the reporting of family law in the papers is we see poverty held up to kind of lip-smacking scrutiny, but it's always kind of a big shock that people are poor and living poor. And then that gets layered over with a kind of sense of, you know, the demons that--the demonic things that people do. And I had a real lesson the couple of years I spent in juvenile court about both the horrors that people-- the real life horrors that people do face and the kind of dignity in which they face those who struggle against this--
Bill Ayers Absolutely, but you know, so much of this is predictable, both the--you know the story that you asked me to start with, the story of Jeff, and once again the story of Alex. In many ways, these is the same story that Charles Dickens told in "Oliver Twist", story of a kid who's abandoned, who's kind of left to the streets, court story of a kid who's been abused as a youngster, and five years later turns up a delinquent, a delinquent who's being used by adults. In both Jeff's case and Alex's case, it was an adult who handed the kid the gun. The kid was 14 at the time the crime was committed and he was in the service of an adult enterprise. Somehow we have to get--to come to grips with the fact that we as adults have created an environment, we've created circumstances that make these kind of outcomes if not absolutely predictable, at least possible. And it's our fault in a sense.
Bill Ayers That's
Bill Ayers That's a new word. You didn't hear it 5, 6, 7 years ago. It was invented by--out of some think tank, and now we begin to use the word "superpredator" as if it describes something real that's out there. But if you notice, what image comes to your mind when you say superpredator? It's a particular kind of kid unlike any kid we've ever known. And that kind of language paves the way for doing anything to kids. I mean, the McCollom bill is only possible after four years of calling kids superpredators. The other thing I find interesting about that language is it really is racially coded. This kid who was convicted of rape in Connecticut, this white very privileged kid, a couple of weeks ago made national news. He was never called a superpredator. He's a kid who has, you know, some things going for him. The superpredator is somebody without a conscience, without any moral framework, without an intelligence. I never met one. I knew a lot of tough kids.
Bill Ayers Yeah, Alex is an extraordinary kid, an extraordinary story because Alex, like Jeff, found himself at the age of 12 homeless, at 14 alcoholic and drug-addicted and being used by a street gang to commit crimes because he was hungry and needy, because he was easily influenced by peers. And at the age of 14, he was given a gun, given an assignment. The gun was always just to scare somebody. That's always the way it is. He tried to commit a robbery. The guy resisted and he killed him. So at 14, Alex was a murderer in for murder facing 30 years in prison. And he met Frank Tobin, and Tobin was the first adult in his life who said, "Alex, you have a mind and a soul and a heart. You could make something of yourself." And he pushed him and pushed him until he did.
Bill Ayers It really is. Frank was a priest and went into the priesthood as a young man and found himself in kind of conflict with the hierarchy of the church again and again around issues of racial justice, around issues of gender equity. And at a certain point in his life, decided that living a celibate life was not for him, that he found too much of power and importance and value in his relationships with women. And eventually left the priesthood and married a former nun. They have three grown kids now. Terrific.
Bill Ayers It is the same and, you know, Frank's references are all--tend to be religious and spiritual. Willy's references tend to be more secular. But what is interesting is that each of them sees in these kids somebody who's unduplicatable, the one and only, and each of them has said to me in one way or another "I can't treat these kids like a massive--an aggregate, just an undifferentiated group because each one is the one and only kid who will ever walk the earth. And I'm not in a position to judge him."
Studs Terkel The
Bill Ayers Absolutely. In fact, both of them--on the one hand, both of them have said to me, you know, and I found this myself, Studs, that I have three teenage boys myself and I would see mirror and shadow of my own children. And both Frank and Willy would say that. They would say, "You know, I can see my own kid this way." And Frank would say, you know, "Who am I, if under certain circumstances I might have done something like this? I might have done the worst thing. And who am I to say that if I hadn't had a lot of privileges and blessings and opportunities, I might not have found myself here? So it's not my job to judge them. It's my job to teach them, to give them an opportunity to recover, to help them to see a different and a better way of life."
Studs Terkel You know, I've underlined this, I just turned to the page randomly here. This is about the acquisition of virtue, and you're quoting someone here about adolescence. "These poignantly thin-skinned and vulnerable, passionate, and impulsive, starkly, sexual, and monstrously self-absorbed creatures are, in fact, avid seekers of moral authenticity." You're quoting someone here.
Bill Ayers Yeah, that's Louise Kaplan. Yeah, she's a marvelous writer about adolescence and one of the things that's so great about that description, it describes my kids and it describes the kids I ran into in the Audy Home. That is, they're thin-skinned, they're narcissistic, they travel in crowds, they have an inflated sense of their own power and their own importance, covering a kind of sense of insecurity and uncertainty, but a willingness to commit and a willingness to do something that's better. I happen to love adolescence. Our society, in many ways, finds them troubled at best. But I think that they are kids who are--they are at an age where they can really commit to something if we provide them with that hopeful thing to commit
Bill Ayers Yeah, they need something. And one of the things that I think a lot of commentators have noted is that the gang provides them with something. If the school is irrelevant in their lives, if the church is irrelevant, if the family is struggling to keep its head above water, the gang provides a sense of belonging, a sense of safety, a sense of purpose that few institutions do. Now, that's not to defend it, but that's to say we ought to put some
Studs Terkel There's something we should get straight here. Some people say that Bill Ayers was covering up. Some of the acts were bad, that they were heinous, terrible. You tried to explain how they came to be and what else is left for that one doing it.
Bill Ayers Well, in a way though, the stories that I try to tell here, I don't judge one way or the other. I mean, I think that some of the acts that these kids committed were not only heavy and horrible, but they are going to have to account for them for much of the rest of their lives. Alex is a fortunate one. He worked his way out of prison, worked his way into a redemptive situation. That's good. Some of these kids won't. And that's sad and it's a loss, but it's also a reality. On the other hand, there are two things we need to focus on. One is we need to focus on our responsibility to create the conditions whereby justice can be in the direction of recovery. I describe in there a standard that my wife always tries to adhere to, and the standard is "What if this were my child?" And she argues that that is not a blanket "let them go" kind of stance. If it were my child who committed a murder, if my child were selling drugs, there would have to be an accounting. There would have to be consequences. The consequences might be very heavy indeed, but the consequences would be toward recovery and justice. They would not be towards retribution and revenge. The interesting thing about retribution and revenge is those are so much the the kind of tools of the politician because retribution and revenge always point toward re-election. And that's what--that drives a lot of this--
Studs Terkel That's what this is about. And in a way, it's script--we have to take another--in a way there's a scriptural theme to this. But there's scripture in almost everything. And Bill Ayers is my guest and the book is "A Kind and Just Parent", the title that Jane Adams used when the court came into being, when? 19--
Bill Ayers 1899.
Studs Terkel And remember one of the early heads of the juvenile protective was Jessie Binford, a marvelous woman. And she was a friend of Jane Adams, and the subtitle of the book is "The Children of the Juvenile Court". And so the whole matter of the juvenile court itself today and what it was at--the idea of its beginning and what it has become and the Audy Home, which is--little Joliet, one of the kids calls
Studs Terkel Ito.
Studs Terkel And another great story that Willy Baldwin taught, a South African story called "Return". And here again a whole arsenal of arguments come to being and their own lives are involved as I discuss that story after this break, more. [pause in recording] So we come to round four. This is a heavyweight fight.
Bill Ayers That's right. In fact, at one point during the writing of the book, I felt--I had a little crisis and I felt gee, I better leave the writing off and go to law school and become a lawyer. But I rejected that and I felt that actually the lens of a teacher and the lens of a citizen and a father were just as good as the lens of a lawyer, maybe even more perceptive, more hopeful.
Studs Terkel I'd rather not talk about it. [laughing] I'd rather not say. We're talking about the teacher and Mr. B., Willy Baldwin, and a while back he was talking about "The Piano Lesson" of August Wilson and that short story, and now one called--he says here's a short story, a South African story. It's called "The Return".
Bill Ayers Yes.
Bill Ayers Well, "The Return" is a story of an African freedom fighter getting out of detention and returning to his little village by a river. And as he comes down the path towards his village, he's filled with hope that nothing will have changed. And of course, the first thing he discovers is that things look familiar but different. He can find his way to his home, but there are so many different enterprises, so many different houses, different people, he barely recognizes the place. Only to discover once he arrives at home that his wife has left, that the rumor was that he had been killed and that his wife is no longer there, that his family is disrupted, and that everything has changed. And in his confusion and his anger, he runs to the river and throws in a bundle that he had kept and preserved for all his years in prison. Well, the kids read this and just, I mean, there were tears and the deepest kind of discussion about what their own hopes are. Now, these are 14, 15-year-old kids and worrying about what has changed and what hasn't changed in the months or years that I've been here in detention. Great, deep, rich, vivid conversation about their hopes and aspirations.
Studs Terkel Let's hit some of that. They're talking about what do you do? Do you expect this woman to be faithful all that time to you if you've been in the pokey? Let's say you expect that. What do you expect her to do? Wait a minute, doesn't she owe you--why don't you pick up on that? Anywhere there.
Bill Ayers You know, the whole problem is, you know, not only the women, but the question of "will I return to the life of crime?" and all of that. So I'll just read a little bit. "It's Rashid's turn to read and there is a long pause as he stares at the page. Rashid is a good reader and this should give him no trouble at all, but he pauses. No one speaks. Finally he draws a breath and read slowly, ardently." This is quoting from the river. "He had suffered many humiliations and he had not resisted. Was there any need? But his soul and all the vigor of his manhood had rebelled and bled with rage and bitterness." End quote. My visitor. I had a visitor in the classroom that day from South Africa named Michael Freeman. And Michael Freeman, his eyes misty now, stares straight at Rashid. The narrator of the story discovers that his wife who we had imagined would be waiting for him has run off with a friend. The man had been detained with him and upon release had come home and told the villagers that come--that he was dead. "Outraged and overwhelmed, he rushes to the river, the living river, changing and constant both, where he had bathed as a child and tosses away the bundle of little things that had so strangely reminded him of her and that he had guarded all those years." Now as the conversation goes on, the kids really have a deep conversation. I'll read a little bit of it. "A protracted silence follows Rashid's reading. Several students keep their heads down in their books. Antoine shakes his head slowly. 'Man,' he says in his whispery voice to no one in particular. 'Man, this is just like when we get out. A lot of things are going to be new. That's weird,' he says. Then he reads some. 'Why should she have waited for me? Why should all the changes have waited for my return?' Antoine shakes his head again. 'I know just how he feels, man. I want everything to stand still.' 'Yeah,' says Andrew. 'But I'm realistic too. Things change, people change. You've got to expect the difference. Look, I got a girl out there and I want her to wait for me. But five years? No, I wouldn't want her to wait five years. I'd want her to get on with her life.' 'Well,' replies Antoine, "if I had a female out there, I wouldn't expect her to wait forever, but to wait some? Yes, I'd want her to wait a little bit, a year at least, and I'd want her to stay in touch with me, like to be my friend."
Bill Ayers Yeah, well you know, here are these adolescents. Think about it. You know, they're 15 years old and they're worrying about their lives. And they're reading some literature that reminds them of their lives. It's very powerful.
Studs Terkel That it's going to start with a black kid somewhere along the line, you see. Who is this kid? Now we come back to it again and what led to it. So that's why they treat the story. So they use--so these two guys use literature.
Bill Ayers That's right. They use literature and art to open the kids to thinking more deeply about their own lives, to seeing that life is a series of choices. I mean, it's a series of chances also. But within that, it's a series of choices and both of them are very, very explicit with their students about the fact that you've got to make choices that will lead to other choices that make sense in a long life. This is one example of them opening up. But the other thing you see here, Studs, is a kid like Ito. Ito is a kid who has been involved in a gang. He's a kid who has been a leader in a gang. But he's also a kid caught in the first rush of love. And so which is he? A young adolescent having his first puppy love, or a gang-banging gangster we should all be terrified of? Well, the truth is that he's both and it's more complicated.
Studs Terkel The new industry is the bringers of bad news. But we're not saying "oh give us good, not bad at all!" I'm kind of fine as it is. And so here we have it, the super--and so the new word "superpredator" comes into being.
Bill Ayers That's
Bill Ayers It's an amazing--it's not an amazing thing, but it's sad and sadly true that the question of poverty is very predictive about who's going to land in juvenile court and who's going to land in juvenile jail. The other thing that's predictive, and this was kind of stunning to me, the number one predictor about whether you'll go to juvenile court is truancy from school. And when I discovered that, that was an important thing for me because I spent most of my adult life trying to improve urban schools. And now I see part of the deeper reason for that, that if you are truant from these schools that are offering you a rotten education and not serving your needs, not engaging your passions and your commitments and your interests. If you're truant from that school, your chances of landing in the justice system are very high indeed. So there's a direct link between getting society cleaned up a little bit, getting these schools on track, and lessening the problem of juvenile crime.
Bill Ayers That's
Bill Ayers Well, I mean, I think you know--I even think, Studs, that there's a direct line between that little experiment and this book in the sense that a theme of my life as a teacher has been this notion that teachers--the challenge of teaching is to see that our students are neither a collection of deficits and needs nor a set of encumbrances to overcome. But our students are full human beings with hopes, dreams, aspirations, skills, capacities, as well as needs. And that a good teacher, a successful teacher like Mr. B or Frank Tobin or hopefully like the group that we gathered 30 years ago in Ann Arbor, are teachers who see children as full of possibility, as full of hope, and find a way to engage that hope toward their own development.
Studs Terkel Reconciliation. The "R"'s again. And you mention Alex and this teacher Frank Tobin. That's right. Alex Correa, he did something. You didn't ask what it was, but it was pretty bad what he did. And Alex is set on redemption, reading from Bill Ayers's book. Toward the end, he says, and you're quoting Alex, this guy, how old will he be when he said this about--
Studs Terkel Oh,
Studs Terkel He spent all the time. He comes out, he says "I have to believe"--this is Alex now, one of the demons. "I have to believe that people can be better," he says. "I'm the proof. Don't get me wrong, I'm no saint. But if I didn't believe in redemption, I'd still be living in a cage. No, I believe in change and recovery and getting it together to start over." And his teacher Tobes, "Tobes" he's called.
Bill Ayers That's right. That's what it's all about is this notion that people can be better. That whatever you've done, wherever you've been, the challenge of the good teacher is to tell students, to tell people "You can change your life. You can be better."
Bill Ayers Alright, well I get a letter from Jeff towards the end of my writing this book and Jeff is now serving 47 years in prison. And I write this at the end of the book. "Jeff reminds me that teaching is transformative work animated by the fundamental message of the teacher. You can change your life. With considerable effort, that message might come to inform all our work with children, even children in crisis, even tough kids in terrible places. You can change your life."
Studs Terkel And so the book is by the guy whose voice you just heard, Bill Ayers, "A Kind and Just Parent", that's the juvenile court. And Beacon the publishers, and it's a beauty and I think it's not simply revelatory, but it's absolutely necessary. Thank you very much.