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Lessons From Middle Age

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I never approved of Jerry Rubin, but the news of his death last month immediately affected me in ways I found startling.

In the middle of a predictable headmaster's announcement to our 9th graders, I unexpectedly discovered myself talking about Jerry Rubin's death, encouraging these freshly minted independent-school kids to pay attention to the news broadcasts that night and try to get a handle on the Way It Really Was.

Our current generation of students loves to dress up for "Flower Power Day" on the campus; true to their suburban heritage, they capture the "look" to perfection. But revisionists have succeeded in adumbrating the details of the 1960's for them, softening the focus like the television cameras that have recently been developed to make our news correspondents appear ageless and wrinkle free. So I found myself last month trying hard to describe to our 9th graders what it felt like in the late 1960's: not the sanitized, romantic Woodstock version with which they have grown up, but the maelstrom of anger and divisiveness and jealousies that eventually drew everyone in.

Jerry Rubin was a wild man in 1968. By standing (albeit temporarily) on his convictions, he effectively indicted almost everyone, even carefully conservative protesters like me. But that's not why I disapproved of him. What really got to me was the fact that underneath it all, he looked like he was having a lot more fun than the rest of us, and he had laid claim to the high moral ground to boot. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too.

When Jerry Rubin "sold out" in a later incarnation, my disapproval cemented itself. But I retained one angry image of him, hairy chested and wrapped in a desecrated American flag--the incarnation of what I now recognize as the pure spirit of adolescence.

On my way to the assembly where I tried to explain some of these feelings to the "seniors" in our school, I noticed a trio of 5th graders standing by the flagpole, discharging their morning responsibility of raising our three flags. An early-winter wind gusted through the leafless maples. The children were having a hard time keeping their flags under control. The American flag briefly escaped and touched the grass by the flagpole, and I came over to lend a hand. Then, as soon as the flags had been secured to the line and the students drew them up the pole, I found myself repeating the litany of flag etiquette--explaining how important it is that the American flag not touch the ground.

"It has to do with respect," I told them, feeling sententious and conscious of the irony that we should be having this discussion the day after Jerry Rubin died. Respect. The 5th graders nodded politely.

The children were eager to be off to class, and I to my cameo appearance at our Upper School assembly. Turning my back on the flagpole, I began to reflect on the meaning of Jerry Rubin's life. I thought about how one generation leads to another, about my own father's recent death, and about the ways in which we are all just "passing through."

I thought about how important it is to remember, every single moment we share with our students, that we are all teaching and we are all learning, often in ways we only dimly appreciate. That is a thought that will stick with me in the new year.

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