No Regrets

From our August 2001 issue: “Kill your parents!” urged sixties leftist Bill Ayers, whose father was the chairman of Commonwealth Edison here. In Ayers’s new memoir, Fugitive Days, he reconciles his militant past with his present identity: father of three, esteemed professor at UIC—and unabashed patron of the great bourgeois coffee chain, Starbucks

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Now, Ayers is a respected name in the field of education; his books, including To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher and A Good Preschool Teacher, are hailed by some as groundbreaking and thoughtful approaches to learning. Certainly they are reactions against the popular theories of the 1950s, which held that students were empty vessels to be filled with knowledge.

“Essentially, you must see the student before you as a locus of energy,” he says. “He already has a heart, a soul, a mind, interests, and dreams. You need to help him shape those interests, pursue those dreams.” Ayers is distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where two years ago the university named him Senior University Scholar, an award given to outstanding faculty members. He also directs the Center for Youth and Society, an organization that brings an interdisciplinary approach to working with youth—from art education to after-school programs. One of the center’s recent efforts was a symposium inspired by the book Racism Explained to My Daughter, by Tahar Ben Jelloun. “We brought together people to discuss how to address racism with kids,” says Therese Quinn, associate director of the center. What strikes Quinn about Ayers is “his enthusiasm and optimism,” she says. “He is just overwhelmingly generous and supportive.”

“Teaching has always been, for me, linked to issues of social justice,” he says. “I’ve never considered it a neutral or passive profession." 

In Fugitive Days, Ayers has a personable style that pulls the reader in from the book’s start—when he describes the moment he heard about the 1970 Greenwich Village explosion. It is the moment, of course, when his own life figuratively blew apart. “In the beginning, Bill wanted to write about the Vietnam War and why he thought it was wrong,” says Helene Atwan, director of Beacon Press, who edited Ayers’s book. “But I told him that most Americans now believed that that war was wrong and certainly the people reading a book of memoirs would feel that. I wanted him to concentrate on his personal story.”

Except for a few minor polemics along the way, Ayers does—and then some. “He very effectively captures the spirit of the times,” says Bernardine Dohrn, who is now a clinical associate professor at Northwestern University School of Law. “He conjures it up and reflects on it.”

Like her husband, Dohrn claims she feels no need to escape the legacy of the 1960s and 1970s. “I feel it’s always with me. It’s taken a long time to achieve a precarious balance about it, where it’s not all defining and a cartoon. But this isn’t just my problem; it’s a generation’s problem.”

For two radicals once living underground, Ayers and Dohrn have raised three accomplished children: Zayd (named for a fallen Black Liberation soldier and colleague), 24, graduated from Brown University and has an M.F.A. degree in writing from Boston University, where he now teaches; Malik (for Malcolm X), 21, is attending the University of California at San Diego; and Chesa, 20, their adopted son, just finished his sophomore year at Yale University.

Recently, Ayers himself has returned to school as a student for the first time since he earned his Ph.D. in education at Columbia University—thanks to the monetary award he received from UIC as senior university scholar. He periodically commutes to Bennington College for the school’s low-residency M.F.A. program in writing, in which he is concentrating on nonfiction. So far, he has studied with essayist Philip Lopate and novelist/memoirist Susan Cheever. “It’s exciting and scary and all those good things,” he says. “They have been wonderful in helping me find my own voice.”

That is not something you would have thought Ayers needed help with. It is a different time, though, and he is a different man. But not completely changed. Talk to him for any length of time and some rhetoric of the past slips into the conversation. “I think there will be another mass political movement,” he predicts, “because I believe that the kind of injustice that is built into our world will not go quietly into the night.”

But the time-warp moment is over as quickly as it begins. Ayers—totally back in the present moment—pauses to sip his double skim latte, then greets a graduate student who awaits his attention. “These aren’t mountain times, these are valley times,” he says, acknowledging a change in the culture, the political climate, and maybe even in himself. “But you can still work the vineyard where you are.”

 

Photograph: Jeff Sciortino

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