Sunday, April 26, 2015


My first year of college was hard for me. I felt socially isolated and disconnected from many of the students in my dorm, who spent their free time getting high or going to fraternity parties. I joined a couple of student groups to try to find a community, including the Anti-Apartheid Coalition. The Coalition was working to convince the college to divest itself of any holdings in companies that did business in South Africa, which at the time was still under apartheid, a system of racial segregation created and maintained by the state. The idea was, first, that it was immoral to reap profits from a violently repressive, racist state, and second, that divestment would create economic pressure for South Africa to change its oppressive policies. Those of us in the anti-apartheid group spent time educating ourselves about the history and politics of South Africa as well as putting together campus rallies and demonstrations to urge the college trustees to divest.

I grew up inspired by the activism of the 1960s. I often felt that I had been born in the wrong era, as I so passionately wanted to be part of a larger social change movement. Yet by the time I came of age in the 1980s there was little enthusiasm for social activism. While I proudly identified as a feminist, the popular culture offered up anti-feminist backlash; I wouldn't find a strong feminist community until the 1990s, when I was in graduate school. The political idealism of the anti-apartheid movement was deeply compelling to me. I wanted to be part of a movement that worked toward positive social change and I truly believed that dedicated activists could, in fact, make the world a better place.

Like most college students, I was juggling the academic work of writing papers and studying for exams, as well as a number of extracurricular activities. As the semester wore on, paper deadlines neared and we stepped up preparation for our big divestment rally, so I got even busier.

It was an unwelcome surprise, then, to wake up one day with my eyes glued shut.

Seriously, my eyes were completely glued shut, and I couldn't open them. I didn't even know that was possible! I panicked, and finally found my way to the sink in my dorm room. I washed out my eyes and was able to able to open them, which was a huge relief. My eyes were red and puffy, crusty with some stringy mucus secretion. Weird. It seems like a design flaw for a species that relies so much on sight that your own eye secretions can render you unable to see. I rinsed them out more fully and got ready to go to class.

I know -- you're thinking that I should go to the student health service and get this red-eye-gluey thing checked out. But you don't understand: I was busy. With important, life-changing, world-changing things. What did it matter if I had a little eye goop in the morning? We were going to end apartheid. Not only were my personal problems trivial, but ignoring my suffering revealed the depth of my selfless commitment to the cause. Real activists are willing to lay their bodies on the line, risking arrest and bodily harm on a regular basis. Of course, I wasn't in the least prepared to face arrest or expulsion, so my inflamed eyes would just have to do. And it never occurred to me that this even needed treatment. I didn't think of it as an infection that could be spread or that it could have long-term consequences if left untreated. The same boundless optimism that made me think I could change the world also told me that my body could take care of itself.

Another reason I didn't see this eye goop thing as a problem had to do with the pink eye scares of my childhood. When I was a child, my parents and the pediatrician periodically thought I had pink eye. I rubbed my eyes and they were red, so they couldn't tell if my eyes were red because I rubbed them or if I was rubbing them because they were red and infected. Just to be on the safe side, they would diagnose it as pink eye and prescribe daily eye drops as treatment. Couldn't be simpler, right? Except not for me. I have a very strong blink reflex -- when I see something coming at my eye (even if it is just a tiny drop of fluid), I blink. To me, that has always seemed reasonable. So to get the eye drops in my eye, my mother would hold my eye open and say, "Now, don't blink." And I would agree not to blink. But then as the eye drops were falling toward my eye, I would blink so forcefully that she couldn't keep my eye open, and the eye drops would fall on my closed eyelid. We'd do this a couple of times, and then my mother would just give up, hoping that some of the medication got into my eye through my closed lids.

As it turned out, it hardly mattered -- I never did have pink eye as a child. So I learned two things from this experience: One, that some things are out of my control, like blinking, and two, that I was invulnerable to pink eye.

But back in my college dorm room, I had to figure out some way to manage my goopy eyes. So I worked out a system. I'd keep a damp washcloth next to my bed so that I could clear out my morning eye-glue, at least enough to open my eyes, and then I could get on with my day. I worked my shift at the cafeteria, went to class (I never missed class), then handed out leaflets for our upcoming divestment rally. I'd stand in the path through the main campus green, wearing my denim jacket covered with political buttons, rub my red and gooey eyes, and offer leaflets to passing students.

"Don't forget about the rally on Wednesday!"

"Anti-apartheid rally, Wednesday afternoon!"

"Divest now!"

The passing students could not have been less interested. This was not Berkeley -- the majority of these students were not politically engaged. And South Africa was far away. What did this have to do with their lives? When the administration later attempted to ban keg parties, then the students found their political voice, to be sure. But the number of students interested in demonstrating to ostensibly help people in a distant country was a small minority, at best. And even if successful, our movement would only benefit those oppressed by apartheid indirectly through economic pressure -- it was not as though attending the rally would instantly free Nelson Mandela and others unjustly jailed. But I couldn't help being angry at the apathy I saw all around me. Why can't people see how important this is? So we persevered, handing out leaflets and getting the word out about our rally. I even wore a DIVEST NOW sandwich board to classes one day. I was the only one wearing a sign. I got quite a few stares that day.

The rally came off, though it wasn't as well-attended as I had hoped. We stood in front of the campus administration building, listened to the speakers, and chanted as loud as we could.

Hey hey!

Ho ho!

South African stocks have got to go!

Hey hey!

Ho ho!

South African stocks have got to go! . . .

We were a small group, to be sure. But student groups across the country made similar demands, and colleges started to feel the pressure to respond in some way. There was some divestment, though the process was sometimes slow and incomplete. And the international social and economic pressure did have a role in bringing down apartheid. I think we made a difference. 

Photo of the protest via  

I came through the experience with my optimism largely intact, both in terms of social change and in terms of my own body. Maybe I couldn't marshal thousands of students into the rally. Maybe the trustees delayed their decision on divestment. But in the end, the divestment movement had an effect. In the end, apartheid fell. And that goopy eye thing? After a week or two, it cleared up on its own; I never did go to the doctor about it. It wasn't until years later that it even occurred to me that I might have gotten pink eye that semester. No matter how often I got sick or hurt, I maintained a pretty robust belief in my body's resilience, assuming that any physical problems would resolve themselves without the need for medical intervention.

I have to admit, though, that my political optimism was a bit bruised by all those apathetic students. It can be difficult to sustain one's hope for social change in the face of such pervasive disinterest. My experience as an activist and as an educator has taught me that you aren't going to reach everyone, or even most people. You can leaflet and argue and talk yourself hoarse, but many people will not be persuaded. Like blinking, this is something I can't fully control.

However, as a teacher I've also learned that we can sometimes have an effect on someone that isn't immediately apparent. I don't know that I changed even one mind or inspired one student to attend the rally. But it could be that being exposed to the passionate political ideals we wore so proudly and shouted so enthusiastically created a sense of possibility for the power of a dedicated movement to enact social change. Those seemingly apathetic students may have gone on to become political activists for some other cause, or they may have formed community organizations or joined the Peace Corps. And certainly our public activism raised awareness about apartheid for students who might have otherwise not even known about it.

In the end, I'll never know whether or how they were influenced by our leaflets and chanting. I want to believe that I made a difference, even for those students who seemed utterly uncaring. It's important for me, even all these years later, with my idealism a bit tarnished, to have made an impact. I'd like to think I had at least some effect on them.

Well, if nothing else, I probably gave some of them pink eye.


NOTE:  I've come to enjoy storytelling podcasts like The Moth and The Story Collider, which feature live performances of people telling true stories from their lives.  It got me to thinking -- if I had to give a live storytelling performance, what stories could I tell?  I wrote this story with that in mind (it's not the same, of course, since I am writing it, not telling it live, but one does what one can).  Many thanks for helpful feedback from Clio, Ken, and, of course, Q.  The title was also Q's idea, so blame him for the pun.  (In case you were wondering, Divestment Bunny, pictured above, is a relic from my college days, when even my stuffed animals were politically active.)   

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