Photo © Estate of Fred W. McDarrah. Used with permission.
From the book by Fred W. McDarrah: New York Scenes
Rock, Writing, & Resistance
A Storytelling and Writing Workshop
for High School & College Students in 2020
from the Streets and Cafes of the 1960s
How do the students and I come to be together in the classroom is an opening question that is often met with a collective yawn: You’re a teacher, we’re students. What are you talking about? I segue into PEN and how it promotes and protects writers and the First Amendment, guaranteeing that we are free to meet and speak in class or anywhere else. In theory the students understand, but it is just another lecture. They can read it in a textbook. So I take them with me to the arrival of the Beatles in 1964 and their unique haircut. What no one knew at the time is how it would change the school I attended, Midwood High School, in Brooklyn.
One boy comes to school with a similar style, hair just below his ears, and he is immediately suspended until he cuts his hair. My local students look at me: Everybody has seen the photos—for a bowl cut? They snicker. But the Midwood High student refuses to cut his hair in an act of what everyone considers rebellion. As a result, his parents are called to the principal’s office. His father asks how his son’s grades are and is told excellent. Then what's the problem? The school rules: his son has violated them by wearing his hair below his ears. What rules? There are none. But if the principal says it, it is the rule. The father refuses, and he comes to school with his son every day until the principal relents. It is the beginning of a revolution. My workshop students are surprised, but not yet moved.
So flash forward to 1971 when I am teaching English in Seoul, South Korea with the Peace Corps. Now what is being presented is not just a lecture or a chapter from a textbook, but a journey through the lives of other people, past and present. I have traveled almost 7000 miles from New York to teach classes at the English Language Institute of Yonsei University, a small independent building on top of a hill slightly off campus. At 7PM our class of about a dozen under and graduate students and professional people, including attorneys, journalists, doctors and teachers is distracted because of an unusual rumbling outside. During the break, we go into the teacher’s room where the Korean staff are huddled around a radio: Martial law has been declared. All classes are cancelled indefinitely.
Park Chung Hee, a ruthless dictator supported by the United States government, has terminated all college and university classes across the country at night so word would not spread and students can not gather to protest and march against the government, a practice that Korean college and university students take very seriously. We are done. As we walk down the hill, tanks and the armed military are steadily moving into strategic positions, manned by the brothers and sons of some of my students. What, I ask my high school workshop students, would they do? Go home is their unanimous response. What happened to the freedom to speak openly and study in the classroom? To read and write as they wished? Terminated. No questions asked. No response necessary.
Not for me, I explain. I begin meeting with the students in cafes, but the group gets smaller and smaller. No one wants to take a chance on being identified as defying the government and they think there is a spy among them. Soon, it is just one student, a journalist, and me meeting in various cafes. However, I am called into the office of the American director of the Korean Peace Corps, along with the Oxford educated Korean liaison and professor of English literature. They ask me to resume teaching at the English Language Institute. Great. When are all the colleges and universities opening? They’re not. These are highly privileged students and an exception is being made just for the English Language Institute at Yonsei University, a leading private university like Yale. I should feel privileged to teach there.
But I didn’t travel 7000 miles from home in New York City to teach the elite, many who were learning English to leave South Korea for better jobs, while all the other schools are closed. I refuse. I will only teach when all the schools and universities re-opened. It is unequivocal and unexpected. How can I refuse? It is my job and I have to do what I am told. Word gets out quickly among staff and the Peace Corps volunteers about what I am “doing." I am summoned to the office of the Director of the Peace Corps again and accused of trying to foment a student protest—a rebellion, maybe even a revolution. My service could be terminated and I could be sent home.
With the schools closed, I am still meeting with the journalist who has become my friend and I am writing in cafes. But the classes are still cancelled and higher education has ceased, so I decide to find another teaching job—in Japan. When I tell the journalist, he asks me if he may tell me something personal. He says we are being followed by the Korean CIA—which isn’t news because they are quite obvious in their black leather bomber jackets, collar up, and dark aviator glasses shadowing me like Spy Versus Spy in Mad Magazine. But I am young, American, and invulnerable. I am also from Brooklyn and attitude precedes me. I don’t think twice about being at risk until he says meeting with me is dangerous—dangerous for him. He can be taken off the streets day or night and never be seen again by his wife and two little children. I ask him why he continues to meet with me and his reply is profound: Because, he says, “If I don’t tell you my story, no one else will ever know.” At that moment, I understand what it is to be an American, what we represent in the eyes of the world, and it is clear: The First Amendment. Freedom. Freedom to study. Freedom to speak and gather and meet openly in public. Freedom to report and criticize the government in newspapers, on radio and TV. This, I tell my workshop seniors, is why we are in this classroom together … because we are free to do so. As a young man, it reinforced my dream to write and teach, and allows me to walk them through another story.
How do you walk through a story? The way you walk through life. I am an observer in cafes and on the streets—in Seoul, Tokyo, Paris, India, where I walked to absorb the sense and touch of where I am. To see, listen, and smell the life around me. That’s how I learn the stories of the people and culture of any place where I live or visit. And then the Beatles come back.
On one particular afternoon, while walking the streets of Seoul, I hear voices in the distance and notice a gathering crowd. As I approach, the police are questioning a young man and beating him. I inch closer as the police take out a scissors and with great pleasure begin cutting his hair. I hold my breath—he is one of my students. He plays the guitar and idolizes the Beatles. His hair is just below his ears. I freeze and watch in an endless moment of self-reflection because I can do nothing to stop this abuse. Why I ask my workshop students? Why did I just stand there as a spectator? Because I would have gotten in trouble, they say. No. Because it would have made it much worse for my student. Now I know that I have to tell his story, too, because I never saw him again.
(detailed proposal available upon request)