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Next Year's Television Season Is Business as Usual

TV critic David Bianculli looks back and ahead at the television season.


Other segments from the episode on May 27, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 27, 1997: Interview with Bill Ayers; Commentary on the past and coming television seasons.


Date: MAY 27, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 052701np.217
Head: Bill Ayers
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

William Ayers contradicts the old stereotype of the '60s radical who burned out or sold out. Ayers was a co-founder of the militant group "The Weathermen" which called for armed struggle against the government to end the war in Vietnam.

The group was responsible for several bombings. After one of the bomb makers blew himself up, along with two other people, Bill Ayers went into hiding. He lived underground with his wife Bernadine Dorn (ph) for most of the '70s.

Since resurfacing, he's dedicated himself to improving the quality of inner-city education. He's taught in public schools, run alternative programs, and teaches university students who are about to become teachers.

He is the author of several books about education. His new book, "A Kind and Just Parent" is based on his experiences at a Chicago juvenile detention center, where he taught and observed other teachers at work.

I asked him if he came to the detention center with stereotypes of the kids.

WILLIAM AYERS, EDUCATOR, AUTHOR AND FORMER POLITICAL ACTIVIST: Well, I think that like most of us, I had an image of kids who were locked up, that they would be pretty fierce and pretty frightening; that they would be out of control -- none of which I found to be true.

I found the kids to be engaging and interesting, the way a lot of adolescents are. They had a lot of issues that all adolescents have, but they were kids who could be very easily engaged in kind of a project or a pursuit or a piece of literature.

And so I found the experience, I think as often happens with teachers, I found it so rewarding that I kept wanting to go back, just to have the feeling of making a difference for somebody.

GROSS: Did you see any connection between students who you'd work with in public schools and the students who you were working with at the detention center?

AYERS: Not only did I see connections between kids I'd worked with and these kids, but I saw connections between my own three adolescent boys and these kids.

I saw kids who were, on the one hand, willing to commit to something; on the other hand, highly narcissistic, self-absorbed the way teenagers tend to be; an inflated sense of their own power in some ways; giddy and silly sometimes, but serious and thoughtful other times, and willing to kind of think about their own thinking. And I found that all pretty exciting because, again, it challenged my sense of what I was going in to see.

GROSS: You watched one of your students get sentenced to life in prison.

AYERS: That's right.

GROSS: What was the crime? And what was your reaction watching this?

AYERS: The crime was that he had killed a drug dealer, and it's a crime that I actually didn't know the whole year that I had worked with the kid. I didn't know what he was in for.

GROSS: Is that a policy at the detention center, that teachers shouldn't know what the kids are sentenced for -- or what the kids are in there for?

AYERS: It's a policy in the juvenile court, that there is a privacy policy and that we are not supposed to know what the kids did. Initially, I was curious what kids were doing there, but I fought that curiosity and I decided it was unfair to pursue it.

And I think it's a natural reaction -- people go into a setting like this and they wonder: what did this kid do? By the time I met Jeff, I had stopped wondering and I'd stopped asking, so I didn't know what Jeff was in for.

But it turned out that Jeff was a small-time, screwball kid who'd been kind of sucked into a big Chicago street gang, and on an evening one summer, the big boss of the gang came along, picked him up in a car, drove him to a street corner and said: "see that guy there? He's encroaching on our territory. I want you to take care of him." Handed him the gun. Jeff, who'd never been arrested, walked over and shot the guy eight times.

Well, I couldn't have been more surprised when I heard this story in court, because Jeff was a discombobulated, tiny, skinny kind of silly kid. And he was a kid who had a lot of charm, but he also was quite disorganized and manic.

He seemed the least likely kid to be, you know, a hard-boiled killer. And in a way, he isn't only that, but in a way, that's what society has now defined him as. And that's, in some ways, the tragedy of what I saw enacted again and again.

GROSS: What do you think the just way of dealing with him should be?

AYERS: Well, it's an interesting question, and certainly Jeff committed a crime. He killed another kid, and he needed to account for that. And so certainly, there had to be some heavy punishment brought down on him.

The thing that I think is problematic, though, is that in the popular image, and I hope we don't reinforce this, but in the popular image, our policy toward all juveniles is driven by these extreme cases.

The thing that we need to do, I think, with kids like Jeff is: even there -- even in the extreme case -- is to provide an opportunity for some recovery, for some growth, for some development. Clearly, this kid was on a collision course from a very early age, and the kid he killed, who was portrayed in court as a pure victim, could have as likely killed Jeff.

In other words, they were both caught up in the deadly drug trade. They were both perpetrators and victims, and in a sense, there's a kind of a hollowness to the victory of saying, well, we caught Jeff and now we've locked him up and society's a safer place. I don't think society's a safer place because Jeff's gone.

GROSS: When you started teaching at the detention center, you didn't know what you'd think of the kids, and you ended up really liking a lot of them, and they didn't fit your stereotypes of them. Did you ever feel, though, that you were in danger? That you were unsafe? And are there any special security precautions for teachers there?

AYERS: I never felt in danger and I never felt unsafe. There were times when you get that many kids kind of crowded together, there were times when there were fist fights.

There were times when kids, you know, punched each other out, especially during events like the fire drill, when everybody would be crowded into a small space and it was kind of predictable that something would jump off.

But no, I never felt threatened, and the kids never were threatening. In fact, in many ways, they were able, for the first time, some of them, in their lives to lay down that tough exterior and lay down that kind of posturing, and really begin to settle down, because the classes were small; the learning environment was intimate; the kids knew one another very well and came to know the teacher very well.

And so, it didn't feel threatening. It didn't feel as threatening as most urban public schools, to tell you the truth. It felt quite relaxed.

GROSS: As you point out, a lot of young people think that respect is based on power.

AYERS: Exactly.

GROSS: And in this classroom setting, where you're not allowed to use displays of power, what? Kids find other ways of getting respect?

AYERS: Absolutely. And the important thing is -- the two teachers that I write most about, Frank Tobin (ph) and Willy Baldwin (ph), are people who explicitly say: I will not use power to make you do what I want done.

In other words, as teachers, they've made the decision that they're going to try to pull kids into learning. They're going to try to interest kids and engage kids and challenge kids, but not by using threats or power.

What that does is create a terribly different kind of environment, where kids begin to kind of settle down, relax, drop the tough stuff and get busy with each other.

GROSS: Well, in a way, it's a luxury for the teachers 'cause the teacher doesn't have to use force. That's kind of implied in the whole setting. I mean, they're already locked up, in a way, right?

AYERS: Well, there's that, but in an odd way there's again an irony there, which is that it's true the teachers don't have to use force, but a lot of teachers still do. It's a kind of a knee-jerk thing with some teachers. Frank Tobin and Willy Baldwin teaching anywhere would not use force.

They would use love and persuasion because that's the kind of teachers they are, and ironically, you have in this detention center small classes, personalized learning, individual attention -- that's what we really ought to have in our big urban high schools, and then maybe we wouldn't have such a great need for the juvenile justice system.

GROSS: What were the punishments when punishment was necessary?

AYERS: There were a couple of standard punishments and they were pretty simple. One was to be locked up upstairs, and I only saw that resorted to a couple of times by these two teachers. If there was a fight or if kids got quite unruly, then they would be sent upstairs to the living units and locked up.

What Mr. B did, his standard punishment was to stand on the wall, and it was five minutes for cursing and 10 minutes for threatening and it was pretty simple.

And so you would -- there'd be a group of 10 kids in the classroom or 12 kids and somebody would accidentally, in the course of conversation, curse and Mr. Baldwin in his low-keyed voice would say: "Five minutes."

And the kid would just walk over to the wall and say: "oh, Mr. B, you're punishing me. Don't do it." But he'd stand on the wall for five minutes, and then return to this seat and it was very relaxed.

GROSS: What worked about that? That it's a way of acknowledging something went wrong, but of the kid saving face? It's not like a terrible, horrible punishment.

AYERS: Yeah, I mean I think what Willy would say is that he's trying to make the punishment fit the crime. He's trying to say yeah, there are consequences, but the consequences aren't crippling, and the consequences aren't life-changing.

The consequences are that you have to pay more attention; you have to notice this. And you will be kind of -- it's like time-out for a toddler. It's that kind of thing, and so it's down to scale; it's not extravagant.

GROSS: My guest is Bill Ayers, the author of several books on inner-city education. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Bill Ayers. His new book, A Kind and Just Parent is based on his five years as a teacher and observer at Chicago's juvenile court prison.

You had a pretty good experience teaching at the detention center. You had a pretty bad experience out on the street one day when you were robbed at gunpoint by a teenager. How did you feel about the juvenile justice system when you were a victim?

AYERS: Well, it's an interesting thing. I mean, I think that anyone who's a victim of crime has to feel agitated and has to, you know, feel that impulse for revenge. There's no way to be kind of violated in that way, and not feel hurt and angry and humiliated. And so, I think I had all the natural reactions.

But I think also one of the good things about human beings is that we can think, then, about that as soon as we catch our breath, and I think we can wonder about what should really happen as social policy. We don't have to be driven by the basest fears and kind of reactions we have.

I was -- I ride my bike a lot in the city, and I was actually jumped shortly after I finished the book. I have a passage in the book where I talk about riding my bike and never having experienced a problem. Shortly after I finished the book, I was riding home from the university and it was Halloween night and I hadn't accounted for that.

And it was dusk, and a group of teenagers appeared out of nowhere, and just started beating me up. And it was a furious few seconds, and I got through it. I didn't fall off my bike, but I got hit and I was bleeding.

And I was scared and I was angry. By the time I got home, I was calmed down considerably, but I confronted two of my teenagers in the kitchen. They were there with a bunch of friends, and they were getting ready to go out and do their teenage wild Halloween night thing.

And it was kind of amazing, because we could have a talk about, then, about what kids do in groups that they wouldn't do alone, and how kids act sometimes in groups that they don't act alone.

And it became a kind of a moment where we could think about that together, and I said to them, you know, these kids who hit me probably are pretty nice kids, one on one, but together they were a little dangerous. And so, you know, you can grow from that, I think.

GROSS: You don't want your ideas about policy and punishment and justice to be governed by your more visceral reactions to getting attacked, right?

AYERS: Well, exactly.

GROSS: So, yeah, no -- I want to give another example of this. Your son's friend was seeking vengeance against your son for a perceived -- a perceived slight. And so, what happened as far as you can tell is that your son's friend came at night to your place and trashed your car.

AYERS: That's right.

GROSS: So, I mean, you were really angry; you were victimized by this crime, and you -- your initial reaction was: get this kid and punish him good.

AYERS: Right.

GROSS: And then you thought about it, and after thinking about it, what conclusion did you reach?

AYERS: Well, that was an interesting moment, because it happened as I was winding up my year in Willy Baldwin's classroom. And I had heard him talk to a group of kids who had misbehaved pretty badly just a week or two prior to this incident happening.

And I found myself, in my grief and anger, really thinking about what Willy Baldwin would do at his best. I mean, none of us is great all the time, but I was thinking: here's my model of what a great teacher ought to be. What would have done at his best?

And by the time the morning came, and it was time for me to try to deal with this kid having thrown a brick through our car, I had kind of come to a different idea of what I'd like to do, and what I did do is go find the kid -- at school -- and take him aside with some of his friends and begin the conversation, not by threatening him, which is the easy thing to do and the thing that would have been the natural thing to do, in a sense, but by saying to the kid: you know, I love you and I'm not going to hurt you, but I need to talk to you about a problem.

GROSS: You already knew the kid?

AYERS: I knew the kid, and I felt, you know, that was also part of what hurt me, that he would do this, but he was so angry at my son that he was going to get even. But to begin the conversation by saying I'm not going to hurt you was so disarming that we had a completely different ground that we were standing on when we kind of negotiated a solution to this.

Because I made it very clear that I wasn't going to tell anybody; that I wasn't going to try to cripple him because of what he had done; that I wasn't going to try to wound him, but I simply wanted him to understand that he'd wronged us; that he had done the wrong thing and that there was a consequence for it. The consequence was repairing the damage.

GROSS: Actually, what you told him was: you don't really care who did it...

AYERS: That's what I said.

GROSS: ... but you weren't saying to this guy: hey, you did it. You said: I don't really know who did it, but I know that you probably do know who did it, so I'm going to hold you responsible. You find the guilty people and make sure that I get compensated.

AYERS: That was the part where I was quoting Willy Baldwin, because I had heard him say the identical words to a group of kids who had misbehaved. He said: I don't want to know who committed the act. I don't need to know. What I need is for you to rise above that and to make the problem that you've created right.

And so that's what I tried to do in a microcosm with these kids. I tried to say: look, I don't know who did it, and don't tell me who did it, because then it will just get ugly. What I want is my window fixed. I want you guys to take responsibility for that. I want you to know that it was the wrong thing to do. And once that's all clear, we can move on with our lives.

GROSS: What was the outcome?

AYERS: The outcome was that this kid was very anxious to tell me that he had not done it, and so he did say: but I need you to know, Bill, that I didn't do it. But he said: you're right. It's a result of the tension between your son and me. You're right that I can find out and compensate you. And he went off and did that.

The other thing he did that I thought was nice is he went and told his mother. I told him I wouldn't tell anybody, but he did go and tell his mother, and his mother called and was both kind of horrified at what had happened, and also grateful that it was -- there was not going to be a kind of a witch hunt in the school or a kind of a...

GROSS: Big court case.

AYERS: ... big court case, or juvenile court called in, or something like that.

GROSS: What was your son's reaction of, you know, like Dad going to school and talking to his friends and fixing things up?

AYERS: Well, I think that kids, teenagers, on the one hand have the reaction just as you portrayed it. They have the reaction of: oh boy, there he goes again. On the other hand, I think teenagers, like toddlers, want to know that you're there and want to know that you care.

GROSS: Behind the scenes.

AYERS: Very -- well, behind the scenes, but when you're in their face, they also -- they appreciate it, even though they're not always able to say: gee, thanks a lot. That was terrific. They're at a stage in their life when they're necessarily turning away from you. That's part of growing up, and I think that's completely reasonable.

On the other hand, they're in that awkward in-between, and they need you to say: I'm here. I'm here when things are over your head. I'm here to lift you up and give you a second chance. I'm here to help. And when you say that consistently, you can be an embarrassment, but you can also be a great ally and guide.

GROSS: I want to get back to the detention center where you were teaching. I think one of the reasons why kids could let down their guard when they did at the detention center is that they know they're safe there. I mean, you just can't get away with stuff at a detention center the way you can in a public school.

AYERS: Well, there's that, and I think also the gangs and the organizations are less powerful.

GROSS: Exactly. Exactly. And as you said, people aren't armed.

AYERS: Right.

GROSS: Now, what advice to you give the college students who are becoming teachers -- the future teachers who are your students -- when you're advising them how to keep the peace in a classroom, because there is going to be no learning that goes on unless students feel safe and secure, and there's a lot of high schools where it's really difficult to create a safe and secure classroom.

And especially for the new teacher coming in, who isn't used to being a teacher and isn't used to having to create a safe environment like that -- it -- things can get out of control very quickly.

AYERS: They can, although I think that teachers need to come into teaching thinking of the challenge of teaching quite differently than they're taught in most colleges of education. The challenge of teaching really is to see the child before you -- to see each child as three- dimensional; as the one and only; as induplicable.

And that's a very hard thing to do when you're a teacher.

GROSS: Well, can I just interrupt here?

AYERS: Sure.

GROSS: One of the things that makes it hard is that in a lot of public schools, you have, what, 30 students in each class and you have, what, four, five, six classes a day?

AYERS: Yeah, for 50 minutes each. So you get...

GROSS: Yeah.

AYERS: ... 150 kids a day.

GROSS: How can they possibly be individuals to you until, like, a few months down the line, when you've had a chance to actually see who they are?

AYERS: Well, even a few months down the line, it's very hard because it you have 150 kids a day, say, and you're teaching English, and you want to make a commitment to each kid, you're not going to really have the time to even assign them a two-page paper a week, because you can't read 300 pages.

GROSS: Exactly.

AYERS: OK. So we've created a structure, again, that undermines the best intentions of the best teachers. So, one of the things that I spend a lot of time with my students is ways to restructure schools so that that very human, personal kind of relationship can jump up. And that's not as complicated as it sounds.

You can begin simply by finding a few allies among teachers in a school, who begin to meet with one another and slow down the kind of march that you just described, by co-teaching; by getting -- by kind of grouping together for 100 minutes rather than 50 minutes. And slowly you can begin to create the conditions where a more intimate learning environment is created.

It's not easy. It's not automatic, and in many ways, the system undermines it, but it is essential.

GROSS: Well, co-teaching -- how do you do that? You combine two classes with two teachers, you've got double the number of kids.

AYERS: Well, let's say a history teacher and an English teacher begin to get together about what they're going to assign and how they're going to spend, you know, 100 minutes. And sure, you can have more kids, but if you think of teaching as kind of -- which I think you're almost assuming -- as kind of didactically standing in front of a class and delivering the stuff, it's a kind of a difficult challenge.

But if you think of teaching as creating an environment for discovery, for surprise, for -- where kids can be visible to one another and to you -- it's not impossible. And it's what I spend most of my time, in fact, doing in Chicago, is creating conditions where schools can be restructured exactly along those lines.

GROSS: Bill Ayers is the author of the new book "A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court." He'll be back with us in the second half of our show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with more of our interview with Bill Ayers. Earlier, we discussed his work as a teacher, trying to improve the quality of inner-city education. His new book, A Kind and Just Parent, is based on his experiences teaching and observing in a Chicago juvenile detention center.

For most of the 1970s, Ayers lived underground in hiding from the law. We talked about the years when he was a radical activist.

In the 1960s, you were part of the -- first SDS, then the Weather Underground, and the Weather Underground being a group of very militant students or former students who believed that armed resistance was the only way to make the necessary change in the United States.

And I wonder if you could, like, look back to that period, what it was primarily that led you to the conclusion that an armed struggle was necessary?

AYERS: I don't think that -- I don't think I ever thought armed resistance was the only way, but I think that what happened is that many of us who'd been involved in the anti-war movement and in the civil rights movement found ourselves, as the decadent '60s wore on, more and more convinced that the government was not going to pull back from its mis-adventure in Indo-China; that it was going to expand at every turn. It did expand, and we felt increasingly that more and more militant action was necessary.

When I first was arrested opposing the war in Vietnam in 1965, I was convinced that within a year or two years, the government would have to see the error of its ways and pull out, because it was so apparent to me, a 20-year-old, that it was wrong.

But more than that, we had convinced the majority of the American people that it was wrong. What started off as a tiny, marginal minority movement had become a majority movement by, say, 1968, '69. But instead of pulling back; instead of working their way out of that, the war seemed to continually expand.

And so, I became more and more convinced that I had to take more and more serious resistance to that war. I feel very blessed today that I was able to kind of come of age during that, because it taught me a lot. I learned a lot. I grew a lot from it.

But in an odd way, since I started teaching in 1965, I really thought of myself as a teacher through all those years. I've not thought of myself as a -- as you just characterized -- that as a some kind of armed guerrilla. I thought of myself, really, as a person who was serious; who wanted to be -- live a life that was kind of consistent with my values; and was willing to take risks on behalf of that.

GROSS: How hands-on did you get with the armed revolution aspect of things?

AYERS: Oh, I supposed I was as hands-on as anybody. We -- as an organization, we claimed credit for a lot of the kind of armed actions at that time against the Pentagon and against the military bases. When I say a lot, I mean, you know, really a relatively few, if you think of the scale of the thing. The scale of the thing was that the war was, you know, going on and on and Indo-China was being pounded by air and sea from the United States.

And here in the United States was a popular movement against the war, and a small group of us willing to try to act even more militantly against it.

GROSS: What was your approach to thinking about people who would get hurt? And about whether these people were 100 percent guilty and responsible, or whether, you know, somebody who was in the Pentagon when it was bombed?

Or in a police headquarters if it was attacked -- if they were just completely guilty of the problems you saw? Or if they were people doing their jobs and people who shouldn't have been hurt?

AYERS: Yeah, I think at the time there was certainly a tendency in me and in others to have a kind of an over-generalization about, possibly, about people. But we actually learned very quickly and very painfully that the people were not our enemy; that actually, we were in a position where we were trying to convince people, and that we didn't want to hurt anybody.

And the way that we learned that is that three of our own people were killed in Greenwich Village in New York in 1970. And...

GROSS: They were killed while one of them was trying to make a bomb...

AYERS: Building a bomb. That's right.

GROSS: ... and the bomb went off.

AYERS: That's right. And that was, you know, it's one of those kind of crazy things. It's hard to unscramble it in my memory in the sense that it's hard to know if that was, like, meant to be -- if it was just a fortunate thing, in a sense, that we blew ourselves up instead of hurting others.

But in any case, whether it was choice or chance or accident or whatever it was, the lesson we drew from it very quickly was that our responsibility was to not hurt anybody, and we never did.

GROSS: After that?

AYERS: After that.

GROSS: How did you find out about what had happened? About the townhouse blowing up?

AYERS: I heard it on the radio.

GROSS: What was your reaction when you heard it on the radio?

AYERS: Horror, grief, anger, sadness.

GROSS: Were you close to the people who had died?

AYERS: Very close.

GROSS: And did you immediately feel like it's time to rethink the strategy?

AYERS: I don't know. I think I had a chaos of emotions, including thinking that it was time to rethink the strategy and also thinking that, you know, kind of, well, it's inevitable we're all going down because of the viciousness of the situation we're caught up in; the viciousness of the government.

And I think I had some fatalistic feelings at the same time. But again, fortunately, very quickly we pulled ourselves together and moved away from that.


AYERS: We pulled away from it by deciding that we would be very careful in terms of both what we targeted and who, you know, and how we did it, and being sure that no one would be hurt. And we were very careful about it. We knew how to do that. And it was true: no one got hurt after that.

GROSS: You lived underground for, what, 11 years...

AYERS: Eleven years, yeah.

GROSS: ... with a different identity.

AYERS: That's right.

GROSS: When did that period of your life start?

AYERS: 1970 -- the moment of the townhouse explosion, when the three people were killed. You know, we had set out months earlier to create the possibility of being able to do illegal action, but we had no vision of all of us living underground, and that just happened when the townhouse happened. Within days, I was disappearing.

GROSS: What was the alternative for you? Jail?

AYERS: Jail, right.


AYERS: And we felt -- I mean, I felt at the time that, you know, too much of the anti-war movement was being caught up at the end of the decade in defending itself, and lawyers were playing too prominent a part in deciding strategy. And it seemed a kind of a dead-end.

It seemed, in a sense, that the government, the pro-war government at that time would win simply by putting everybody on trial or putting everybody in jail. And you'd spend all of your energy there, instead of spending your energy opposing the war.

So, I was determined not to spend one extra minute on trial or defending myself.

GROSS: So who did you become, physically, and what was your cover identity?

AYERS: Well, the wonderful thing about being underground is that the underground begins two steps out your own front door, and you don't have to change very much at all. What you have to do is not go back to where you lived and not visit your parents, and pretty much everything else takes care of itself.

There was a large youth community at the time that lived kind of on the margins. I could drift into that pretty easily and become part of that.

GROSS: And when you did, would people know who you were?

AYERS: No. Occasionally, relatively often, people would recognize me, but because of the stance of that community, nobody had an interest in turning anybody in.

GROSS: My guest is Bill Ayers. He's now a teacher and author. His new book is called A Kind and Just Parent. We'll talk more after our break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Bill Ayers. We're talking about the '70s when he was a radical activist, living underground.

You've said that you, even through the late '60s and early '70s, thought of yourself as a teacher, and I think, you know, that among the teaching techniques on the left at the time were a kind of self-mythology -- you know, the self-mythology of the radical. There were just so many, like, mythologized posters of Che and of Patty Hearst with a machine gun. And it just started to look, like, really cool to wear, like, the revolutionary beret and maybe, you know, fatigues, army fatigues.

And looking back now, I wonder what you think of that self-mythology part of, you know, educating people about political revolution?

AYERS: Kind of embarrassing, isn't it? I, you know, I went and saw a film that was made about us when we were underground. Neil d'Antonio (ph) made a film called "Underground." And a 20-year-old kid in Chicago invited me to come and see it, and I was cringing.

I didn't want to do it. But he had some friends and he had seen it, and he thought it'd be fun to talk with his, you know, young radical friends and this aging radical.

So I did it, and the reaction I had watching the film -- I hadn't seen it in 20 years. And the reaction I had was similar to what you're saying. I -- on the one hand, I felt very close to the politics. I felt that the critique stood up remarkably well. I think that the notion of what we ought to do stood up remarkably well.

But the self-mythologizing; the self-importance; the narcissism was absolutely embarrassing. And I said this to the kids. Interestingly, that was the part they liked the best.


GROSS: Oh, that's great.

AYERS: What are you gonna do?

GROSS: Right. What were examples of the self-mythology?

AYERS: Well, the kind of, you know, I -- d'Antonio had found some news footage of a friend of mine and myself after a demonstration, standing in front of the cameras and talking about the demonstration.

We both had a cigarette hanging from our mouth. We both had sun glasses. We were both kind of looking this way and that, and we just looked like a couple of self-absorbed punks, you know.

The interesting thing, though, about the young kids who saw this film kind of liking that part, I also think that's a feature of being a young kid, in a way. I think there's a normal narcissism. And of course, we overlay that normal narcissism with a kind of...

GROSS: Political righteousness.

AYERS: ... a political -- yeah, a political righteousness, and so we could kind of really feel great about it. But there's no question that I had become quite distant from it, and found it embarrassing, and the kids thought it was terrific.

GROSS: There's something else I imagine that you feel less than comfortable about, is the rhetoric of the times? Because a lot of things were dispensed as manifestos and, you know, 10 -- what -- 10-point demands...

AYERS: Right.

GROSS: ... written in really, like, arch-politico jargon.

AYERS: Yeah. Insufferable.

GROSS: Insufferable -- that's a good word.

AYERS: Yeah, it -- but, you know the thing is that it, again, it's hard to kind of put yourself back there, but the thing that's important is, I mean, first of all, we were young kids and we had broken from a kind of path that was laid out for us.

We were deeply influenced by the civil rights movement, and then not only by the anti-war movement, but by the struggle of the Vietnamese for self-determination; by the struggles of other third world peoples.

And for the first time in our lives, we could see people as three- dimensional from another place. I mean, we could see the Vietnamese as people with hopes and dreams and aspirations. We had never experienced that. So, that was pretty heady stuff.

Add to that that we really thought that the country was going over the waterfall in a barrel. We really did think that the crisis was upon us, and that it was up to us, 20 years old and self-righteous -- it was up to us to solve the problems of the day.

Now that's a pretty intense kind of way to live, and it had its excesses and its mistakes. I must say that I think that there's something also hopeful and engaging and interesting about a group of kids who would feel that way. And I hope kids -- I think some kids today feel that way; that they want to save the world for all of us, and I think that that's a good starting point.

GROSS: So much of your identity was built around being a revolutionary. When you went underground, you couldn't be that person anymore -- not overtly. So, who did you become and how did that affect your sense of who you were?

AYERS: It was a wonderful antidote, to tell you the truth, because once we were underground, we had to get ordinary jobs and live in ordinary places.

GROSS: After talking a lot about...

AYERS: Yeah.

GROSS: ... the value of the ordinary worker and...

AYERS: Yeah. Yeah, now we were the ordinary workers.

GROSS: Yeah.

AYERS: And in a sense, it was a wonderful antidote to a self-inflated kind of sense of mission. And in some ways it helped to bring us back into, I think, a -- back into scale, say.

And I think that those years, those 11 years, were years of continued commitment and passion and concern, but also kind of, I think, rounded out by the ordinary necessity of living a life and putting bread on the table and paying the rent, and not seeing it as anything more than that.

GROSS: You've said you've always thought of yourself as a teacher, and one of the jobs that you had when you were underground was at a day care center.

AYERS: That's right. I got back into teaching. I started teaching in 1965. Actually, when I was first arrested opposing the war in Vietnam, I met a teacher in jail and I went out of jail into my first teaching job. So, I've always kind of linked the two in a funny way -- activism and teaching. But, I went back to teaching when our first child was born, and I taught in day care.

And again, found, I think, a compass for myself that wasn't too big or too small, but was kind of, in a way, just right, that I still had and I still have great hope that big transformation can happen, can occur; that people can make it happen.

But I also think that one of the ways you work that out is face-to-face, close-in with real people.

GROSS: You had, I think, two of your children, two of your three children were born while you were living underground...

AYERS: That's right.

GROSS: ... is that right? And one of them was still really young by the time you surfaced, but the other one was probably, I don't know, three or four years old. So did the youngest child -- did the oldest child only know the recreated version of you? And not who you really were? What your real name was? What your real past was?

AYERS: Well, you know, a three-year-old knows that your real name is "Dad" and...

GROSS: Well, true.

AYERS: ... you know, and so it wasn't all that complicated...

GROSS: Good point.

AYERS: ... although...

GROSS: Yeah.

AYERS: ... you know, he -- and he had not only our love and commitment, but he lived in a very loving, extended kind of community around this day care center, and that didn't change for him when we surfaced. So in a sense, he had coherence, consistency. That's necessary to grow up.

We did have a kind of an odd event when we were driving to Chicago to turn ourselves in. He -- we had told him that we were going to turn ourselves in, and he didn't quite know what that meant, but we were going to, you know, go to -- before a judge and we explained it as best we could.

And we found ourselves in a rest stop on the Ohio Turnpike, and he was talking to the people behind us about the fact that we were going to Chicago to turn ourselves in. Of course, he didn't know what it meant, and of course, they didn't know what it meant, so it was no big thing, but...


GROSS: Oh, so -- what was the -- when did you decide: OK, this is what we're gonna do. We're gonna turn ourselves in.

AYERS: I think that when the war ended and the organization came apart. The organization had really come together as a militant opposition to the war, and while there was a lot of rhetoric over that, that was, in fact, what its mission and purpose was. When the war ended, it began to fragment, the way organizations do.

And at that same exact time, we were pregnant with our first child, and so the pressure -- the desire to straighten things out and to be public and to organize in a public forum began to grow right from there. It took us three years or so to get organized to do it, but that's where it began.

GROSS: You were very lucky. You were -- you got off without any sentencing and your wife Bernadine Dorn got a really modest fine and three years of...

AYERS: Probation.

GROSS: Probation, yeah. So basically, you didn't -- you didn't really have to do much of anything. You could just, like, start your life above ground again. Were you surprised that you got off so easy?

AYERS: I wasn't really surprised, because for a couple of reasons. One is because the heat and passions of the war years at that exact moment were kind of at their low ebb. They're heated up again in an odd way now, but at that moment, with Carter's amnesty and with all the things going on, it was a time of kind of forgiveness and reparation and pulling things together.

Also I didn't have any charges against me, so the federal charges that had been brought against me had been dropped during Watergate, because of government misconduct. And so, I didn't have anything outstanding. So I wasn't surprised.

Now, there are other consequences, of course, for that kind of thing and Bernadine in particular has kind of carried those consequences. For example, she's been unable to get past the character committee of the Bar. She's a trained lawyer. She's passed the bar exam, but she can't get a license because, you know, because of her notoriety from those years, more than anything else.

GROSS: You have said that one of the important things about teaching is to communicate to students: you can change. You can change your life.

AYERS: That's right.

GROSS: You can change yourself.

AYERS: That's right.

GROSS: Do you feel like you're an example of that, in some way? Because it seems to me some of the things about you have changed -- stayed exactly the same -- a certain belief in principles and following what you believe in.

But you've, on a more literal level, changed yourself several times, from like the affluent middle class kid to the underground revolutionary to the school teacher. I mean, you've had several identities, although the fundamentals have remained the same.

AYERS: Well, I think that's an important lesson, again, for most people. That is, that none of us wants to be essentialized as one thing. You know: you are this or you are that, pinned to the board like a butterfly.

One of the things that I struggle all the time with in schools is the way in which, kind of, schools have developed a kind of toxic habit of labeling kids, and always by their deficits. Well, I don't want to be labeled.

I want to know that I can change -- that I grew up in a certain family, but I didn't have to follow that script. I became a teacher, but then there were other things that called to me, and I could do other things. I could return to teaching.

Look, I'm 52 years old and I still want to believe that I can change my life -- that I can still forge an identity. I can still wonder who I'm going to be. I don't want people to say, well, you're this or you're that, even when those things are good.

You know, I remember once introducing a famous scholar at a conference, and it was a hot July day, and I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, and afterwards he said to my office mate: who was the guy with the tattoos -- referring to me.

Now, it's true, I have several tattoos, but I would never call myself "the guy with the tattoos."

GROSS: Right. "The guy with the tattoos"

AYERS: And you think about the -- how glibly we throw out labels on people. And certainly, the book is a lot about that -- it's about the way in which we have decided that a group of kids is super-predators; you know, pre-social beings -- some of the social scientists call them.

That label is not only hateful and destructive, it's inaccurate. Follow those kids two minutes into their classroom, and they become something else. They become interesting commentators. They become thoughtful, reflective people.

You have to believe that people can always be more than -- or you wouldn't teach. I mean, you have to believe that you can be more than you already are.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

AYERS: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Bill Ayers is a professor of education at University of Illinois at Chicago. His latest book is called A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Bill Ayers
High: William Ayers contradicts the old stereotype of the '60s radical who burned out or sold out. Ayers was a co-founder of the militant group "The Weathermen" which called for armed struggle against the government to end the war in Vietnam. The group was responsible for several bombings. After one of the bomb makers blew himself up, along with two other people, Bill Ayers went into hiding. Since resurfacing, he's dedicated himself to improving the quality of inner-city education. He's taught in public schools, run alternative programs, and teaches university students who are about to become teachers. He is the author of several books about education. His new book, "A Kind and Just Parent" is based on his experiences at a Chicago juvenile detention center, where he taught and observed other teachers at work.
Spec: Politics; History; Education; Crime; Youth; The Weathermen; SDS; 1960s; Violence; Bombings
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Bill Ayers
Date: MAY 27, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 052702NP.217
Head: TV Season
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:54

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The 1996-97 TV season officially ended last week, just as the last of the networks announced their upcoming schedules for fall. TV critic David Bianculli takes a look back and a look ahead.

DAVID BIANCULLI, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Far as I'm concerned, there are two ways of looking at any fall season: quantity and quality. The quantity way is merely to add up who's doing what. Some of the early analyses of the upcoming fall TV season are registering surprise about how many sitcoms there are: a total of 62, if you add up all the situation comedies on the schedules at CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, UPN, and WB.

But that's actually two sitcoms less than last year, so it's no big deal. No big deal, in fact, seems to be the general trend. There are no seismic shifts in TV genres for the coming TV season -- only a few little blips.

In prime time, news magazines are slightly up, with 10 weekly hours next season as opposed to eight a year ago; and so are dramas, with an increase from 36 to 39 hours per week. Movies, like sitcoms, are a little down, with five movie nights next season instead of seven.

But that's it. Basically, it's business as usual, except that more and more of the so-called mature shows are taking over the early time slots once known as the "family hour." Oh, and another part of business as usual that won't change next year is TV's annoying habit of moving shows to different nights so you have a hard time finding them. NBC's "Third Rock from the Sun," for example, is moving for the third time in as many seasons; this time to Wednesdays.

Now for the quality: the best series that television produced last season, "Easy Streets" on CBS, wasn't renewed. Neither were ABC's "Relativity" and "Murder One" -- two other dramas that did fine work, but attracted too few viewers.

One way to look at the cancellation of Easy Streets is to get angry that a network can't support a show that good no matter what the ratings. Another way to look at it is to be amazed and appreciative that a show that good can get on the air at all in a mass medium so blatantly obsessed with drawing the largest possible audience.

I managed to react both ways at once: I'm grateful and I'm angry.

So let's pause just for a moment to play a requiem for Easy Streets, from one of Lorena McKennet's (ph) songs heard on the series.


BIANCULLI: Even so, I've got to admit that quality TV is alive and well. "NYPD Blue," "The X-Files," "Homicide: Life on the Street, (ph)" "Seinfeld," "Frasier," "The Simpsons" -- when shows like these not only survive but thrive, television is doing something very, very right.

Based on a very brief early taste, I'd say next year's new cop show from Stephen Bochco (ph), "Brooklyn South" on CBS, will earn its way onto that high quality list. But for that, and for the other new shows, we'll have to wait until fall.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: David Bianculli, New York; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: David Bianculli reviews the past TV season and looks ahead to next fall.
Spec: Media; Television
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: TV Season
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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