The Common Good
July-August 1998

Not Divided By Age

by Kaethe Schwehn | July-August 1998

When generations stand together, a movement is strengthened.

Specific issues come and go, but the work for justice is never finished by one generation. Yet often the elders of a movement or organization fail to bring in the next generation and share the vision and responsibility. The following essay gives a glimpse of one intentional effort to "pass the baton": an intergenerational blessing ceremony held during the November 1997 action protesting the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.

—The Editors

In second grade I attended a small Catholic grade school, the kind where grades K-8 have convocations together in the gym, eat in a small lunchroom that smells like day-old bologna sandwiches, and are permitted the luxury of two recesses a day. One of the nuns, a 50-year-old woman with short, shaggy gray hair and eternally mismatched clothes, was often assigned playground duty. I actually believe she enjoyed recess more than we did. Somehow, that neon orange playground duty vest looked almost natural on her short, thin body.

On days when she was supervising, we never knew quite what to expect. Sometimes she taught us peace songs, other times it was Native American dances, and once she even came dressed in a clown suit and gave us all butterscotch candies. We thought her activities were fun—and all of us were convinced that she was crazy.

I SAW HER AGAIN last November. I was at the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia, protesting the School of the Americas with a group of students from my college. A priest stood before the crowd and announced an "intergenerational blessing." Following his instructions, the older generations of activists formed a circle around the students. We were to face our elders and they were to raise their hands and bestow a blessing upon us.

I turned then, and saw her in front of me. No longer wearing the neon orange vest, but with unmistakable fiery eyes and an ugly pink knit scarf totally inappropriate for the 60-degree weather. She raised her hands for the blessing and smiled right at me. Of course she didn’t know that I was the little girl with the plaid jumper and blond braids who she had taught "We Shall Overcome" 12 years ago. I gazed back at her worn-out canvas hightops, wrinkled blue skirt, oversized wool sweater, and that scarf. She took in my Birkenstocks, faded army surplus pants, navy hooded sweatshirt, and tentative smile. As we stood there, a smile between us like we’d known each other for years, I realized I didn’t know anything about her.

I didn’t know how many deaths she’s seen, or how many protests she’s been to, or what her favorite color is, or if she’s ever fallen in love. And probably she knew little about me—about my parents’ divorce, for instance, or that I love to act. She didn’t even know whether I’d do a good job fighting for the issues that have been her life. But she was there, looking at me, and somehow that made everything okay: everything that I was terrified of, everything that I was about to do. Her presence was reassurance enough.

The next day she and I marched onto the Army base together, clutching white wooden crosses in our hands. We stood together in a mock funeral procession formation, waiting to be formally arrested. Along with hundreds of others, she and I planted our crosses in the hard earth, and then watched as a policeman, dressed in a navy blue suit and white gloves, removed each newly rooted cross from its place. I felt anger well up inside; I wanted the officer to feel a moment of remorse, wanted to grieve for every life that had been lost. Her face said she felt the same.

We were arrested then, she and I. We boarded white school buses, held the hands of the friends sitting next to us, and stared out the dusty windows at the manicured green hills of the Army base. We were both herded into holding pens, then searched, photographed, and questioned. We watched the sun set from inside the walls of the detention area and vowed to continue the struggle for peace and justice, no matter what the consequence.

Then I was released and began the long journey home. This morning I stretched out in the grass in front of my dorm and wrote a letter to that crazy nun. She’s in prison now, serving seven months. I’d like to think that by the time she leaves, she’ll have every prison guard within hearing range singing the same songs she taught me.

"Deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome some day."

KAETHE SCHWEHN is a sophomore majoring in English at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. This creative non-fiction essay drew from the accounts of Therese Cullen, Ted Pawlicki, and Brenda Thull. The 1998 anniversary action at Fort Benning will be on November 22.

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