When you grow up in Northeast Ohio, May 4 haunts you before you even know it. Sometimes you realize it after the fact, or its effects are oblique, not explicit.
My newly-minted English teacher was a hippie with platform shoes, magnificent sideburns and shoulder-length shag. He was an awful teacher, who failed to hide his contempt. Even 6th graders could tell how much he got stoned, could see his anger over being trapped in room full of poor, stupid, rural, white kids. Years later I figured out why there were suddenly teachers like him. It was better than going to Vietnam.
But, teaching was better than that Ravenna boy who thought he’d be safe in the National Guard. A decade later, alcohol, acid and his guitar made him paranoid, a best friend one minute, worst enemy the next. We humored his lie about taking classes, being excused from duty. Eventually he admitted that he got sent to shoot his friends. He was still young when he drank himself to death.
I attended Kent State in the 1980s, a journalism student in the hall that presides over the field, on that hill. I demonstrated against the new ROTC building. Cops beat a boy who hung a poster where he shouldn’t have, and I knew that nothing would change. In every job interview the HR drone murmurs: “I see you went to Kent … that … how tragic …” And with a stiff smile, I explain that there is no better place to study journalism, a case study in crisis reporting, historic First Amendment blahblahblah … while thinking “Will this stain ever erase?”
I thank my friends who told me their truths about May 4. My adored drama teacher who hunkered down in his dorm, terrified. My co-worker who showed me where she stood, looking stunned and uncertain, in a famous photograph. An artist friend worked with veterans who asked him “Did you go?” I truly hope they l believed his answer, “No, but I did all I could to bring you home.” But every soldier hears so many lies. My lifelong companion is a “townie,” proudly tear gassed as a young teen while protesting the new gym on sacred space. The gym covered the stain but can’t erase it.
My parents were liberal, but I remember at the time, they were like many “Good Americans”. If “those kids” hadn’t done “that,” this tragedy would not have happened. But, I am proud that, together, we learned more about the world, and listened to other voices. My mom became my equal in cynicism, knowing that that “outside agitators” are ghosts made up by authorities who don’t want us to question them.
I still spend a lot of time in Kent, but not today. I carry too much of it in my heart, even though I was not really there.