Kent State: Memories of a dark day

The inadequacy of authority figures back then is just as true of today

The author is a retired community college instructor.

Forty-five years ago, on May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students at Kent State, killing four of them, wounding nine others.

I was a grad student teacher. For the previous six years, I had been active in the anti-war movement, fretting every day over the erosion of faith I once had in the goodness of my country.

Just before a class I was to teach that morning, I heard the news of that campus conflagration, and the lesson I had planned for that day suddenly seemed obscenely inappropriate. I dismissed class and made my way across campus where I found several hundred people milling around outside the administration building. We went inside and engaged in an impromptu sit-in, blocking the corridors that led to the president’s office. Everyone sensed that what we were doing might bring down on us what had come down on our brothers and sisters in Ohio. I kept thinking I had some responsibility for figuring out how to proceed, but in the hours I sat on that hard floor, nothing came to me.

And so I left to go back to the department where I was now a quasi-teacher. What I found there was an impromptu meeting of professors whose classroom wisdom had inspired me to want to be like them. But as I listened to them speak about the situation, it became clear that those gray eminences had no more idea than I did about what to do.

I rose to leave. At the door, I turned and made a self-righteous exit speech. “Your students are in the administration building,” I said. “They’re confused and scared. I thought you might have something to tell them. I can’t tell you how sorry I am that you don’t.”

Or that is what I meant to say. My voice was quavering with the drama of the day and with the awareness that these profs had power over my future.

Within weeks, 4 million students took part in a student strike, the largest student protest in the nation’s history.

Those professors are mostly dead, and I have grown older than they were then. I am less likely now to expect adult authority figures to know what to do when confronted with the chaos history dispenses to every generation. But I regret my own generation’s inadequacy in times as troubling to young people of 2015 as those days were to us in 1970.