-Mark Stefanik. Mark is a middle school language arts teacher and long-time contributor to this blog.
On a late August morning, I stepped from Michigan Avenue into one of the small spaces that bordered the south end of Grant Park, and my world changed forever.
Several blocks to the north the whole world was watching as a convection of protestors, police, and politicians – an American Pillar of Fire – consumed the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
My friends and I had been drawn to these flames, attracted not so much by ideology, but by the sensational reporting of events that dominated the evening news and inflated the daily headlines. We were St. Ignatius schoolboys, gathered to purchase our textbooks for the upcoming junior year, and, our chore completed, we decided to see what all the fuss was about only a few minutes from our campus. Most of the guys profiled like me: Southside Catholic boys, parochial educations, world views shaped by the Vatican, the Chicago Tribune, and whatever the Jesuits told us to read.
Beyond that, my parents subscribed to Time Magazine, and, sporadically to The New Yorker, an anomaly of liberal thought on 40th Street whose cartoons I devoured.
So, our heads uncluttered by fear of being drafted into a war that was killing 500 American soldiers a week (we knew that we were college-bound and eligible for the golden ticket of our generation, the 2S deferment), and filled with images of long-haired, commie-duped, parasites of the American Dream, we entered the park.
The area was secluded; tall shrubs muted the traffic noises from the street, and bushes and statues on a slight berm hid the little valley from the chaos to the north. Before us, circled on the ground, sat a group of protestors. Some of the girls wore granny gowns. Most of the guys had longer hair, but it was mostly just past their ears. A few had bandaged heads. All looked up, startled by the intrusion of a group of 16 year-old boys in penny loafers and buttoned down shirts.
My very first thought was that they looked just like us.
Social galoots that we were, we stared. Then…
One of the girls stood, smiled, and asked us if we would like some donuts.
We joined them for powdered donuts and coffee. And, as we sat and talked, it dawned on me that they were us. Or, at least the us that I aspired to be. They were ethical; they were caring; they were brave.
Most impressively, they were humans facing oppression with dignity.
They weren’t violent, and they certainly weren’t a threat to my America.
It was an epiphany. I joined them forever.
Within a year, I became co-editor of my high school magazine. For decades it had imitated Time Magazine (right down to the red cover border) but due to budget constraints, it had to be re-engineered to include the school’s arts magazine.
I suggested The New Yorker.
One of our first cover stories was entitled, “In Defense of the Black Panther Party.” We reported about the group’s community efforts – feeding the hungry and providing after school activities in impoverished neighborhoods- but many of my fellow Ignatians had not been with us that day in South Grant Park. Quite a few set issues of the magazine on fire and tossed them through the transom into our third floor office.
Thus, I learned that the epiphany business could be quite the lonely business.
And now, nearly a half century later, here we are back on Michigan Avenue. In so many ways, I’ve seen this all before.
I am reminded of those young people I met long ago. As in the past, I am invited to the righteousness of the protestors’ message – not only by the barbarity of Laquan McDonald’s execution – but by the dignity with which they conduct themselves in the face of oppression. This is conviction. This is courage. This is the stuff that changes hearts and minds.
My moment? My epiphany déjà vu? A young woman, caught between a wall of protestors and a wall of policemen, calmly suggesting to the officers that they go home and have dinner with their families. No rage…although it would be understandable. No confrontation…although antagonisms bristled on both sides of her. Just a simple reminder of our shared humanity.
Tranquility amidst riot. It changed my heart and my mind in 1968.
It gladdens my heart today.