Arts & Life

Student Protest – Notebook, November 2010

Written by Steve Kennedy | Oct 22, 2010 1:25 PM

The charter of the NSUOR is long lost now. Unless my co-conspirator still has a copy, which I somehow doubt. Or if it’s on file at my old elementary school, or the school district office. Or possibly the FBI.

The organization, whose first two letters stood for the name of our school, followed by “United Organization of Rights,” was founded in 1964 and was the first ’60s student protest movement I was aware of. It had two members, both of whom were named Steve, although that was not a requirement for membership. It lasted maybe a week or two.

The NSUOR grew out of conversations that the other Steve and I had while walking home from school — gripe sessions about the unfairness of teachers and other unjust aspects of sixth-grade life. Other kids would join in at times, leading us to believe there was a groundswell of public opinion in support of our views.

The other Steve’s parents, one of whom was a pastor, and mine, who were also good, honest church-going people, had taught us to stand up for what is right. Encouraged by both our parents and our peers, though without their actual knowledge, we decided to take a stand. It was, in our minds, not so much an act of rebellion as an outgrowth of traditional values and a desire to put them into action.

We drew up a charter that, not unlike the Declaration of Independence, affirmed our rights in general terms and then delineated various examples of their violation, primarily by teachers. We had no hostility toward any particular teachers as individuals; in fact we generally liked our teachers. Their acts of injustice were simply endemic to the system in which they were mere pawns. We had no doubt that our declaration would be a revelation to them and, decent people that they were, they would hasten to correct the situations and thank us for bringing them to their attention.

I’ve forgotten most of our specific grievances, except that teachers would demand that we students immediately heed the bell at the beginning of a class period, while they considered themselves free to ignore the bell for a couple of minutes at the end of the period. That, and the fact that the boys who founded the organization somehow had the impression that teachers showed a degree of favoritism toward certain girls.

Though we did show our charter to a few other students, the expected popular support never materialized. I believe a few of our classmates laughed in our faces. Nevertheless, we continued to make plans for confrontation with the oppressors, even if it was just the two of us.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, before we could get too far down that road, one of us inadvertently dropped a copy of our charter in the hallway, from which it made its way to the school office. The two of us were summoned separately to see the principal.

The principal, a thoroughly genial and caring man who had once calmly endured the hostile condemnation of parents angry about school consolidation, emphasized in fatherly tones that an organized protest movement was not necessary, and we were always welcome to talk to him about any grievances we might have. I have no doubt he meant it.

This approach had a much more disarming effect on me than anger, threat or outrage would have. On the way home from school that afternoon, my friend wanted to talk about continuing the struggle. I had no interest. The NSUOR was effectively disbanded and never mentioned again. My friend moved away the summer after seventh grade, but I don’t think that was why.

It could be just a coincidence, but within three or four years, student protest was erupting all over the country — indeed, the world. Of course, there are sometimes real injustices, and institutions unwilling to address them. And I respect those who had constructive intentions and were willing to take a stand when necessary, as well as those people like my principal, who were willing to listen and reason. Perhaps, if there had been more dialogue and less free-floating rage, we could have spared ourselves a little anguish.

Photo credit: Lochinvar1 on flickr

Published in Notebook

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