By David Sullivan
David “Irish” “Sully" Sullivan and I went to the same high school on New York’s Lower East Side in the late 1960s. Though we worked together organizing the anti-war student movement there, we subsequently fell out of touch for many years.
When we reconnected in 2006, it was as a result of a mutual friend informing me that David was working on a memoir about his youthful radicalization. Thus David and I began an increasingly fruitful and mutually affirming correspondence centered around our writing. When he died unexpectedly in 2009, David had outlined most of his book, Troublemaker, and produced three chapters he considered essentially final drafts.
Bereft at his loss, I also mourned the foreclosure of his memoir, which now, it seemed, would never see the dark of ink.
Nonetheless, the spirit of his project, and what I had read of it, stayed with me over the intervening years until few months ago, my filing cabinet beckoned me, and I opened the drawer in which “finished” pages he had sent me had been living for thirteen years. Rereading them confirmed that the persistent hold his memoir had on my mind had less to do with our friendship, than with the nature of his writing.
David was ever concerned with getting facts straight, and reporting events he’d witness as accurately as possible. But another quality suffuses the words you’ll read below – that of someone in the process of discovering themselves as a historical subject. Here you will encounter a writer who, in light of that realization, shaped his narrative with diligence, humor, and even love.
After sailing through the first five years of elementary school, often as the “teacher’s pet,” it was my fate to be assigned to Mrs. Sayres’ class for sixth grade. That year, 1962, I began a transformation from compliant and conforming student to rebel and “troublemaker.”
In my eyes, Mrs. Sayres was the Wicked Witch of the West come to life. She was old, crabby, and conservative. Whatever pedagogical spark that had originally motivated her to seek a teaching career had long since gone out. She commuted into New York City from New Jersey to teach at our elementary school, Public School 41, on 11th Street just west of 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village. Most teachers would have regarded our school and our class, for “gifted” students, as a good assignment, but not Mrs. Sayres. She seemed to think that all of her sixth graders were the sons and daughters of treasonous left-wing intellectuals and decadent Village beatniks who needed to be brought down a notch or two. At the same time that she lectured us about having a respectful attitude toward adults, she made snide remarks about our parents. When she was not blaming our parents directly, she faulted the “liberal establishment” for producing children like us. On her average bad day Mrs. Sayres told us that we were all headed for a life of crime. When she worked herself up, she blamed us for a wide range of social problems. Greenwich Village epitomized for her everything that was wrong with the modern world and was certain proof that the decline of western civilization was well advanced and that its fall was imminent.
At a time when the cultural and political climate of the country was shifting away from the conservatism of the 1950s, earlier and more rapidly in Greenwich Village than in most places, Mrs. Sayres did her best to instill in us traditional and conservative values. It must have been apparent to her that she was waging an uphill battle and that her efforts were not meeting with the expected success; the harder she tried, the more resistance we put up. Although my classmates and I may have sometimes complained about our parents to each other, we did not want to hear about them from Mrs. Sayres. We had our own criticisms of life and trends in our community, but were quick to take offense when she looked down her nose at the Village. Within weeks of beginning the school year, she managed to alienate many of her students.
Fortunately for the future political activists among her alienated students, Mrs. Sayres had apparently missed the class on “divide and rule” in Teacher’s College. Committing a classic tactical error in managing group dynamics, she blamed all of her sixth graders for the sins, both real and imaginary, of a relatively small minority of the rebellious students. Instead of isolating the more outspoken students from the rest, she eventually drove the majority into resistance or even rebellion, something that we could never have organized on our own. Mrs. Sayres put herself forward as the representative of all that was proper and respectable in society. In doing so, she became the object of our rebellion. She was lucky, though, that when it came, our urge to rebel took the form of political protest, otherwise it would probably have found its outlet in some nasty pranks directed at her personally.
My first considered political act, as much as a sixth grader can consider anything, was a decision to join with several of my classmates in refusing to participate in a civil defense drill. 1962 was the year of the Cuban missile crisis and civil defense exercises were common. In October, shortly after the school year began, the U.S. and the Soviet Union went to the brink of nuclear war over the issue of the Soviets installing nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba. In preparation for Armageddon, we practiced taking cover under our desks, or, in another variant of the drill, filing into the interior hallway of the school building to crouch in lines against the masonry walls. Of course, my friends and I were terrified of the prospect of nuclear war, but the strangest thing about the “duck and cover” drills was that they seemed oriented toward preparing for a World War II vintage air raid, not nuclear war. I remember playing at my friend Danny Paley’s house during the blockade of Cuba when his mother, Grace Paley, the noted author, received a panic-stricken call from a relative who told her to make sure to keep the bathtub filled with water because it was possible that city services would break down if the Russians attacked. Mrs. Paley humored her relative, but shook her head in dismay when she hung up the phone. If World War III broke out, remembering to fill the bathtub was the least of her worries living in lower Manhattan, certainly a primary target in any nuclear war.
My friend Erik, the ringleader of our protest, had the gumption to ask Mrs. Sayres what good huddling under our wooden desks would do if the Russians detonated a hydrogen bomb over Manhattan. She explained that the desks would help shield us from flying glass when the nuclear blast shattered the classroom windows. I recall discussing with my friends how ridiculous we thought that was. Even as sixth graders we knew that in the event of World War III starting, we had a lot more to be concerned about than flying glass. With Erik taking the lead in our discussions, we convinced ourselves that civil defense drills had little to do with protecting us from a nuclear attack, but rather were part of the general hysteria of the Cold War, designed to build up in us a fear and hatred of the Russians. Erik had the audacity to suggest to Mrs. Sayres that if Russian missiles hit New York, we might as well save ourselves the trouble, stay in our seats and be vaporized along with everyone and everything else. To say the least, she was not pleased to be contradicted on the subject.
After this exchange, several of us decided to remain sitting at our desks during the next drill, which, as luck would have it, came later that day. The decision not to participate in the drill was an important one, in that it was the first time that some of my friends and I openly defied school authority. But, as I look back on this episode, I find myself obliged to resist the temptation to make more out of it than was the case at the time. The truth is that we acted on impulse. Our first political action took place virtually without planning and lasted only the duration of the drill, about four or five minutes. We did not know what to expect, but when the air raid siren sounded and a half dozen of us remained seated, the rest of the class took part in the exercise. It was a weird sensation to set oneself apart from others, refusing to obey orders. As the few of us sat at our desks, I remember feeling initially euphoric and then profoundly depressed. As brief as our first act of civil disobedience was, it revealed a quality of most controversial political activity on behalf of noble causes that would repeat itself over and over again during my school years: in the actual event you spend most of your time thinking about tactics and worrying about the consequences of your actions, rather than reflecting on the cause itself.
Mrs. Sayres was in no mood to suffer our protest gladly. She hectored us for hours afterwards and would not drop the issue of our upstart behavior. Then again, we would not apologize or make excuses. My friend Erik was sent to stand in the hall for an hour after a classroom argument about nuclear warfare in which he suggested that Mrs. Sayres was “not well informed” on the subject. However, she did not report the protest to our parents and made no mention of it later on our report cards. Shortly after the incident, I purchased a mock civil defense poster at a local bookstore. Resembling a government issue placard, it had a long list of instructions for civilians to follow in the event of a nuclear attack, things like, “Stand away from windows;” “Loosen your tie;” “Remove earrings and other jewelry;” etc., but the last line read, “...And kiss your ass goodbye.” I surreptitiously put the poster in school, but it lasted only a day before someone in authority noticed the punch line and removed it.
It is still difficult for me to judge to what extent our first protest action was a genuine political act or simply a way of provoking Mrs. Sayres. I persist in thinking that despite our youth, or perhaps because of it, we instinctively had a more realistic view of the practical consequences of nuclear war than the adults supervising us. We may not have understood the finer points of international power politics during the Cuban missile crisis, but we grasped the essentials: the world as we knew it was about to self-destruct and both the U.S. and the Soviet Union were practicing foreign policies verging on madness. My classmates and I were developing a view of the world much like that portrayed a short time later in the film Dr. Strangelove. Looking back, what passed for dark comedy in those years turns out to have been a healthy appreciation of early 1960’s mainstream politics.
* * *
One might conclude from our civil defense drill protest that my sixth grade classmates and I were mature beyond our years. In a certain sense this was probably true. Our insights on nuclear war notwithstanding, we were still only eleven or twelve years old; particularly the boys in our class were acting their age most of the time. Our next serious altercation with Mrs. Sayres occurred when six or eight of us were disciplined for organizing a totally non-political lunchtime pea shoot fight outside of school. Several residents of 11th St. surrounding P.S. 41 complained to the Principal, Mr. Kriteberg, that students were running amok on the block blowing peas at each other through plastic straws. They were not lying. By the time that our game was broken up, sections of the sidewalk were so littered with hard peas that attempting to walk on them was like trying to cross a floor full of ball bearings.
Angry, Mr. Kriteberg called an early end to lunch period. As the students filed back into school, he pulled aside the sixth grade boys and ordered us to line up against the mosaic mural in the vestibule. Mrs. Sayres appeared, sternly lectured all of us about our errant behavior and demanded that the guilty boys step forward. My friends and I remained motionless. When no admissions of guilt were forthcoming, she raised the octave of her harangue. Mrs. Sayres was practically apoplectic when finally one of the students involved in the lunchtime ruckus, Mark, spoke up. Claiming to be innocent himself, he volunteered to name all of those involved in the pea shoot fight. As Mark and Mrs. Sayres walked along the line of boys, he pointed to each of the guilty ones, including myself.
While we conjured up visions of a slow and painful death for Mark, Mrs. Sayres heaped praise on him. She dismissed the other boys not fingered by him and then sent Mark on his way. Mr. Kriteberg gave the rest of us a dressing down while Mrs. Sayres telephoned each of our parents to report the incident. Our punishment was minor: for a period of time he restricted us to the school yard at lunchtime. For me, however, there was one additional penalty. My anti-social behavior made me unfit to be a pedestrian crossing guard, a task that I had performed long before and after school since fourth grade. At Mrs. Sayres’ suggestion, Mr. Kriteberg instructed me to turn in my belt and AAA badge. Looking back, this may seem like a minor event, but I know that at the time, it loomed rather large in my consciousness. By sixth grade I would have preferred to hang out with my friends before and after school rather than shepherding the younger children across 6th Avenue, but having this responsibility taken away from me was humiliating.
My friends and I should have known better than to include Mark in our game. Most of us already regarded him as untrustworthy. In a class of bright kids, his competitiveness had an evil streak running through it. Several times that we were sure he had purposely given fellow students who had been absent the wrong homework. Apparently, he concluded that since he could not do better than his classmates, they at least could do worse than he. Mark never lived down turning us in for the pea shoot fight. He spent the rest of the year as Mrs. Sayres’ lackey, her only one, but he was treated as an outcast by most of the boys. In retrospect, Mark was the prototype of the informer that, in later years, during more serious political activity, my friends and I regarded with such scorn. It was a sign of the times, however, that subsequently even Mark became active in the movement. When my politically active classmates and I heard a rumor in the early 1970s that, as a student at Columbia University, he had joined one of the particularly sectarian and obstructive Trotskyist splinter groups, our view of him (and of the more dogmatic Trotskyists) was confirmed.
Another personal incident a few days after the pea shoot fight debacle affected me deeply. I had idolized my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Capiaghi. While I was not her best student, I thought that I had been one of her favorites. Short of bringing her apples every day, I had gone out of my way to please her. While confined to the school yard, I saw Mrs. Capiaghi standing near the back door of the school. I ran up to her to say hello, expecting her to give me a hug or at least a smile and a friendly greeting. Instead, she said gruffly, “Not now!” and turned away. I was crushed perhaps more so because I was still feeling sorry for myself after being dismissed as a crossing guard. Looking back, I have no idea why she was curt with me.
At the time, however, I took the paranoid view. I imagined that her kindness to me in 5th grade had been insincere, that now I was no longer her student, she had no need to be nice to me. As I brooded about the incident, I decided that Mrs. Capiaghi was probably at heart another Mrs. Sayres who was just more clever at manipulating her students, the flip side of the same coin. I concluded that I had been a sucker for trying to please her the year before. Afraid of being rejected a second time, I never spoke to her again. I did not mention the incident to my friends or my parents. As ridiculous as it sounds, between being yelled at for the civil defense protest, fingered for the pea shooter fight, getting dumped as a crossing guard, and being snubbed by Mrs. Capiaghi, I began to feel that I had nothing more to lose.
Whether or not my friends and I realized it at the time, the model for our anti-civil defense action was the new form of protest used by the civil rights movement growing in the South. In retrospect, the “sit-in” and “stand-in” tactics employed to integrate lunch counters and movie theaters, as well as the courageous journeys of the Freedom Riders integrating interstate bus routes and bus terminals, seem tame by later standards, but there was nothing tame about them at the time. These bold and courageous actions gave new life to a dormant civil rights movement. The simple act of sitting down in the “wrong” place became a powerful form of protest because it challenged prevailing prejudices. Even though my friends and I paid attention to current events and were aware of developments in the South, I remain unsure how conscious we were in sixth grade of imitating methods of protest from the civil rights struggle. I sometimes think that we absorbed lessons from that movement remotely, perhaps in simplified form, by a process of political osmosis.
We did not have long to wait before we were exposed to the civil rights movement at first hand, though. By early 1963, the fight against racial discrimination had spread to the North. One of the campaigns launched by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was a boycott of the Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain, an attempt to pressure them to hire more blacks. SNCC activists set up a picket line at the local Howard Johnson’s on 6th Avenue in the Village. While picketing the restaurant and leafleting passers-by, they chanted a parody of the chain’s advertising slogan, “Howard Johnson’s–21 flavors [of ice cream], all vanilla.”
My classmates and I talked about the SNCC protest. Because there were no “Whites Only” signs in New York City restaurants or bus stations in the early 1960s, in my naiveté I thought that racial discrimination was something that only happened in the South. I was outraged to learn that a business in my own neighborhood also engaged in this disreputable practice. I walked by the picket line many times, politely accepting a leaflet from one of the demonstrators. On several occasions I stood across the street to watch the protest from a distance. One day, on the way home from my piano lesson, I asked the SNCC organizers if I could join them. They were glad to have me, even if I was just a kid. I remember chanting along with the others, “Jim Crow has got to go!”
Though I joined in the protest only one time, and just for an hour or so, it made me feel good to think that I had done something to defend the civil rights of blacks. I was impressed with the stories that the SNCC students told me about the protest movement around the country. I looked up to them as modern day heroes. Still, my sense of things was hazy: at home after participating in the picket line, I remember asking my mother if Jim Crow was a Senator from one of the Southern states.
Over the winter of ‘62/’63 my classmates and I settled into a stalemate with Mrs. Sayres, but below the surface our spirit of rebellion was still simmering. In the spring, One of the girls, Terry, told that in two weeks there was going to be an “hour of silence and meditation for peace observed at the same time all over the world,” and suggested that we organize a vigil in class. Looking for another opportunity to assert ourselves against Mrs. Sayres, it sounded like a good idea to us, particularly to the boys, because Terry was one of the cutest girls in the class. None of us inquired too closely who had initiated this event. We also did not wonder very much how many other people were actually participating in the vigil “all over the world.” But, after our earlier protest against civil defense drills, it made a difference to us how many in our class would join in.
The hour of silence was scheduled for mid-morning on a school day and it was not difficult to imagine that Mrs. Sayres was going to be less than happy with the event. Several of us coverly recruited almost half the class to participate. Again taking a cue from tactics of the civil rights movement, we agreed that, to draw attention to our action, we would stand up at our desks for the entire hour.
The tension of preparing for the vigil and the event itself was incredible. Unlike our relatively spontaneous anti-civil defense protest, we’d had plenty of time to worry about whether we would be able to carry it off. We knew that an hour would be a long time to endure Mrs. Sayres in the process of having a nervous breakdown. We sworth oaths to each other that, no matter what happened, we would each stand up and remain completely silent for the entire hour. Despite the promises of many of my classmates, as the day for action approached, I remember wondering if I was going to be the only one foolish enough to stand up.
Amazingly, though, at the appointed hour everyone who had agreed to participate actually stood up, albeit some a few moments after others. As soon as we were standing in silence, our inexperience as budding peace activists became apparent. We had neglected to choose a spokesperson to make a short statement about the purpose of our protest before going silent. Taking our promises to each other not to speak very seriously, it was too late to remedy our mistake once the action had begun.
Mrs. Sayres was totally clueless about the protest unfolding in front of her. Almost half of her class rose from their seats and stood at their desks like statues, refusing to speak. She went completely berserk and started yelling at us. When haranguing us as a group had no effect, she went from student to student, standing directly in front of each, sternly demanding to know if we knew the “consequences of our actions.” These were intense moments for eleven year old children, but not one of us spoke a word or sat back down. I remember trying not to blink when Mrs. Sayres attempted to question me, as if blinking were a sign of weakness or fear. Finally, one of our classmates not participating in the protest explained what we were doing.
In exasperation, she flagged down another teacher in the hallway, asking her to summon the Principal. When he arrived, Mr. Kriteberg took a glance into our classroom and then he and Mrs. Sayres conferred with each other briefly in the hall. When Mrs. Sayres returned, she announced, for a reason that I never understood, that the entire class would march to the auditorium. My classmates and I participating in the protest looked around at each other. We had not anticipated being told to leave the room. We had to decide amongst ourselves, without discussion, if the spirit of our vigil required us to stand only at our desks in our classroom or if we would obey the order. Judging from the expressions on each other’s faces and a nod from Terry, there appeared to be agreement that going to the auditorium was not too much of a concession to as long as we could continue our hour of silence. So off we went.
Despite what seemed like eternity, it is doubtful if any of us had much of a chance to meditate about peace. I never thought that an hour could last so long. Why couldn’t we have had just ten minutes to think about peace, I wondered more than once. It became obvious to me that whoever had come up with the idea of an hour of silence and meditation had not had the likes of Mrs. Sayres in mind. Every minute that we stood in silence was another minute for her to think about how to punish us. Every tick of the clock seemed like another shovel full of dirt out of a progressively deeper hole that would become impossible to climb out of. Imagining myself standing in that hole, I spent most of the vigil thinking about how I would explain being suspended from school to my parents. The distance that we put between Mrs. Sayres and us that day became unbridgeable. In retrospect, it was more difficult to stand up at my desk in sixth grade than it was years later in college to slug it out with the police at demonstrations and risk injury and arrest.
This time Mrs. Sayres did report each of us to our parents. Along with the others who had joined in the vigil, I was marked down for “behavior” on my next report card. To our tremendous relief, though, there were few other consequences for our action. Too many of us had participated for Mrs. Sayres to make an example of us. Apparently, it just would not do for half of the brightest kids in 6th grade to be suspended from school for non-violent civil disobedience. There was an important political lesson here about the strength of numbers that was not lost on us. She denounced us as “a bunch of subversives.” In our own ways, that is how some of us began to think of ourselves.