After graduating in ‘69 I went to Paris where living for a year was very, very cheap. With help from Reid Hall, a Columbia grad friend and I found an apt. in the first arrondissement. I went to a few demos at the American Embassy, got through Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky, worked cutting vegetables for a blender demonstration at the Exposition des Arts Menagers, and finished up a journalistic novel that I had begun in a Kenneth Koch course senior year. Large sections of Riches and Fame and the Pleasures of Sense (Knopf, 1971) feature the building occupations, student strike and all that followed. Also woven in are interviews with Barnard seniors talking about their post-graduation ambitions.
After Paris I went to Columbia Journalism School but soon dropped out after Dean Elie Abel didn’t pick up on my idea about teaching Mao’s Talk to the Editorial Staff of the Shansi-Suiyan Daily. I also didn’t like being reamed by Fred Friendly for a few feminist film minutes I shot for his course. I believe he growled something about wanting his wife waiting at home when he got there, with dinner.
Soon I fell in with some Columbia grads and others who were working in factories and hoping to spread the revolution there. I hired on at a small jewelry plating shop in the diamond district, then a bookbindery in Long Island city and finally in a clerical job at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank on Wall St., typing little slips transferring millions of dollars from Dubai to Qatar, and back again.
That year I fell in love with a guy who’d just come back from cutting cane in Cuba with a Venceremos brigade and we moved to Los Angeles. After stints in meatpacking, glass bottle inspecting, and helping out with the Alaska pipeline at U.S. Steel I began working on the assembly line at General Motors. I stayed at the South Gate plant from 1972 until it closed in 1981, giving birth to two sons during layoffs, making many attempts at mass organizing and trying to make the UAW more militant. None amounted to much –although it was great fun to take a bus to Coachella after swing shift let out at one a.m., then picket at dawn with the Farmworkers union (who then were fighting the Teamsters.) When the South Gate plant closed down I managed to help build a mass movement that succeeded in preventing GM from sending older workers – who would lose their unemployment benefits – to their new Oklahoma plant, while not allowing younger workers, eager to relocate, to transfer.
In the early 80s I became a freelance journalist, which left me relatively free in the afternoon for mothering. Later I engaged in a successful epic battle to keep UCLA from throwing my sons’ laboratory elementary school off campus to make room for the business school expansion. I became very interested in motivation theory and wrote lots of articles on intrinsic motivation, autonomy and related subjects, including in particular the research that shows that people who believe that intelligence is malleable do far better than those who believe it’s inborn and fixed. I coauthored two books, Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning (Holt, 2001, with Stanford ed school dean Deborah Stipek ) and Pressured Parents, Stressed Out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child (Prometheus, Feb. 2008,with Clark U. psychologist Wendy Grolnick. Available now! At Booksense.com or Amazon!!)
Now I’m working on a memoir for the years 1967-1981, enjoying it very much, and trying not to eye other people’s grandchildren too enviously. The memoir is allowing me to return to the literary pursuits I loved in high school and college. It opens with me arguing with my parents, who disagree with my plan to plead “not guilty” for my arrest in the Math building (does anyone remember the plans to mount a political trial?). The rest will show how 1968 gave me what I called in those days “a reason to live beyond myself” – the path of political engagement and joining with others to fight against injustice – and how that idea influenced the next decades of my life. (These days I work on the Sierra Club Global Warming Committee since I think it’s important to ensure that we don’t all become toast.)
So, like many others in our generation, my experience in the spring of 1968 marked my life. As a high school and Columbia friend puts it, “my experience of the times remains central to my way of thinking.” I tend to cast a rosy revisionist glow over what we did but at the same time I agree with and admire the self-criticisms that others have raised. I look forward to more of that mulling over and sharing of our thoughts and feelings in April.- by Kathy Seal