Friday, September 01, 2006
Rick Ayers Retires
Rick Ayers – June 17, 2006
The kind of wisdom and intimacy we see here today is no surprise, but
it is to be noted and cherished. Music, spoken word, children, food,
a little chaos… These things are neither spontaneous nor automatic.
They are hard-won and invaluable.
Because I've known Rick for almost 60 years—much longer than anyone
else in the room… And we're told we look exactly alike… And because we
lived together—off and on—for over a third of that time… And because
we learned a lot about being students and teachers together, wrote
books together, looked out for one another's kids, buried our mother,
and take care of our father together…
And because we fought the power together, came of age in opposition to
the whole nasty mess of racism and war and empire, tried to make a
revolution together, and went on the run together, and plan to be on
the barricades together during the next inevitable upheaval, perhaps
in our walkers or wheelchairs by then…
And because he was the first real intellectual I ever knew, and he
taught me early on the power of ideas, the beauty and importance of
books—which I know he taught many of you—and has been a life-long
model for me—and for many of you—of someone who has both a free mind
and a happy heart, the courage to be exactly who he wants to be… in
the face of all manner of pressures and obstacles.
For all these reasons and more I want to say a word about my brother
Rick on the occasion of his leaving Berkeley High School.
Rick was born into privilege—"Born into Belonging"—in a country
stratified by race and class and standing like a colossus astride the
whole world. He could have had it easy. But he never bought into the
idea that background is destiny, that privilege is somehow deserved,
nor that there is some chosen people who ought to live above and
beyond the rest, and so he chose to exile himself from all that and to
reinvent himself against the facts of his birth—he chose, and this
would astonish our waspish parents, to be re-born a mensch.
Mensch as some of you know, is Yiddish and without an exact English
translation, but Rosa Luvemborg, the great German revolutionary came
close, writing from prison to a friend. Being a mensch, she said, is
a contradictory ideal—it asks that you simultaneously love your own
life enough to find the joy and the beauty and the ecstasy in every
precious moment—the clouds, the sunrise, your friends—and at the same
time that you put your shoulder on history's great wheel when needed,
that you fight with fierce determination against injustice; all the
unnecessary suffering and pain we see everywhere around us. In this,
Rick has always been a mensch: a lover of life who steadfastly refuses
to close his eyes to injustice, someone who rages against injustice
without himself becoming pinched or bitter. Rick is an uber-mensch.
Many of us—appalled by the staggering distance between reality and our
hopes for peace and democracy and justice, horrified by the state of
the world and the criminal misbehavior of our rulers—become
speechless. We're told, even by allies, to trim our sails, to
compromise our principles again and again, to just grow up.
Rick never does.
He speaks, he writes, he acts and his message, harsh and unyielding in
one way is also filled with hope that human beings can be better, that
we can, if we will, find ways to come together and change the things
that matter most.
He brings this contradictory ideal to his teaching, to his
identification with students and their families, to his deep empathic
understanding of others: he challenges and nurtures in the same
gesture; he becomes the other person without ever ceasing to be
himself; he changes while remaining constant.
The great Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks, wrote a piece to Paul
Robeson, another freedom fighter, and her words seem appropriate here:
we all heard it,
cool and clear,
cutting across the hot grit of the day.
The major Voice.
The adult Voice
forgoing Rolling River,
forgoing tearful tale of bale and barge
and other symptoms of an old despond.
Warning, in music words
devout and large,
that we are each other's
we are each other's
we are each other's
magnitude and bond.
This is Rick, this is the legacy of his work here, this is his
message: Love one another. Work hard and take responsibility for the
In your family and with your friends and neighbors, in your community
and your nation, in your politics and in your life: be a
revolutionary; be a socialist; at least be a mensch.