The story below is true in most major ways, as related to me by a friend.
All her life she had wanted to become a teacher and now the final stages of the journey were to begin. Fall, 1975 Class registration at Stony Brook, however, delivered a shock. There was not to be an education “major” anymore. “How can this be?” said Karen, with despair.
She went home and entered the foyer feeling frustrated.
“How did it go?” asked her mother
“Terribly,” said Karen. “They’ve dropped education as a major. I don’t know what to do.”
“That’s a shame,” said her mother. “Is that permanent?”
“The lady at registration said they will try to reinstate it, but for now, who knows?”
“I’m sure they will,” said her mother. “Meanwhile, get started with your freshman classes. I’m sure something will work out. And when the department is reinvigorated, you’ll be the first in line.”
Karen was not so sure, but she was anxious to begin college. “In the meantime,” her mother continued, “you can make friends and try out college life.
Karen agreed and bustled off to her classes with enthusiasm and new notebooks. One day, near the end of her first week, she saw a flyer on the Union notice-board touting a meeting of the Red Balloon Society: “If you are unhappy, and want to fix the situation, join us,” it said. This, she surmised, was an organization dedicated to education issues, to speeding the resumption of the education major. Karen jotted down the time and place of the meeting. Typical of her, she decided to bake some cookies to take with her.
When she arrived at the meeting, in a small classroom off the main lobby, Karen was surprised to find herself the least hairy person in the room, though the room filled mostly with men.
“Welcome,” said one, a scraggly beard halfway down his chest. He looked at Karen from head-to-toe, taking in her Dorothy Hamell hairdo, the loafers on her feet, and her favorite dress, the one with all the flowers.
“Hi,” said Karen. “Is this the meeting about the education situation?”
“Definitely,” he said. “Not only education, but workers’ rights, the environment, inequality, everything.”
“That’s great,” said Karen. She offered her cookies.
“Cool,” said several of the guys, descending to the plate like locusts. “Any hash in these?” asked a girl dressed in battered jeans and a shawl.
“Oh, no,” said Karen. “That’s funny.”
The girl shrugged, unamused.
“Okay, everyone,” announced another student, a man with a ponytail and earrings in both ears. “Listen up. We have several events coming up and we need to be organized. Who’s in for demonstrating at the dean’s office Tuesday?”
“I’ll do it,” said one.
“I can’t,” said a girl. “I’ve got a pottery class.”
“Maybe I can,” said another.
“Hey, everyone,” said Karen, perking up. “Why don’t we write down who can come and who can’t. Maybe we can have sign-up sheets for each event.”
“Yeah,” said the first man who’d spoken. “The chick is right. Let’s have a sign up.”
So it went, eight or nine attendees gathered around Karen, signing up for activities and munching cookies. That evening, Karen was excited to tell her mother about the meeting.
“You won’t believe this,” she said, “but they couldn’t stop complimenting me for my leadership abilities and organizational skills.”
“Your leadership?” said her mother, eyebrow raised.
“Yes, they appointed me vice-chairman,” said Karen.
“Don’t they vote for that sort of thing?” asked her mother.
“They don’t really believe in votes,” said Karen. “Jimmy, the Commissioner, he’s in charge, and he appointed me.”
“A commissioner?” said her mother. “I never heard of that.”
“It was something like that,” said Karen. “Anyway, I think I’ll make a red velvet cake for next week’s meeting. They all really like the color red.”
“What did they say about the education department?” asked her mother.
“Oh,” said Karen. “We didn’t get around to it. We were really busy with introductions and the sign-ups and all. They talked a lot about marching and demonstrating, though. They’re really dedicated.”
“That’s good,” said her mother, “I guess.”
The second and third meetings proceeded similarly. There was chaos, then Jimmy called everyone to order, and Karen signed people up to activities that Jimmy listed on a blackboard.
“Did you hear about Peter?” asked a girl at the third meeting.
“He’s suspended,” said Jimmy. “He got caught pissing in the dean’s mail-box.”
“Right on,” said a black guy in the back.
“That’s awful,” said Karen, looking stunned. “Why would he do such a thing?”
“’Cause that dean’s a tool of the system. He’s the man.”
“I don’t get it,” said Karen. “I know he’s a man, but urinating in his mail-box is not nice.”
“He’s not a man. He’s the man.”
“Yeah,” said several of the others.
Karen was confused. Each week they seemed to enjoy whatever food Karen brought, and they seemed to appreciate how Karen kept them organized, but all they talked about were demonstrations and other nasty things; they never discussed the education department. Also, Karen did not feel welcome to attend their activities outside of the meetings, and she was never invited to socialize by anyone.
“How about if I come to the “Books not Bombs” march at the physics lab on Saturday,” said Karen. “Finally, we’re doing something concerning education.”
“Um, we really don’t think that would be a good idea,” said Jimmy. “It could get violent.”
That evening, at home, Karen expressed her unhappiness to her mother. She could not make sense of the meetings.
“I’m not sure they even like me,” she said.
“Sure they do, honey,” said her mother. “It’s just that they sound very serious about the issues and, you’ll forgive me for saying, you’ve never really been much of an issues person.”
“I know,” said Karen. “I feel really bad about it, but I think I’m going to quit.”
“At least take a break,” said her mother. “Maybe you can help at the library or something, and meet some nice kids.”
Karen turned her attention to her classwork and found some friends to share meals. At the end of the term, she was delighted to hear that the education major was reinstated. Karen signed up for courses with enthusiasm and became a successful student of educational theories, learning strategies and curriculum development. Her time in the Red Balloon Society was nearly forgotten, until….
“What do you mean, you can’t hire me?” said Karen. “I have a 3.4 GPA and almost all A’s in education.”
“It’s your associations,” said the principal. “Believe me,” she added, looking at Karen’s anguished expression, “no one is more surprised to find out than I.”
“What associations? Surprised about what?” asked Karen.
“Well, you must have known this would come up. The background check disclosed you were the vice-commissar of the communist club in college,” said the principal.
“Hunh?” said Karen.
“The undercover agent at the Red Balloon Society at the time said no one would have come to the meetings if it weren’t for you. Here’s a quote from the file. ‘Jimmy Steinberg, the Commissar, said of Karen: that chick is really cooking good stuff.’”
“The Red Balloon Society was communist?” said Karen.
“Here’s another quote, from a guy named Peter, a suspected bomb-maker: ‘That Karen girl, she’s got all the recipes.’”
“He’s talking about brownies,” said Karen, reddening.
“Brownies?” said the principal. “Not bombs?”
“Of course not,” said Karen.
“Weren’t you a communist?” asked the principal.
“No, I’m a democrat,” said Karen. “There must be a misunderstanding.”
“I’ll say,” said the principal.
EPILOGUE: Karen’s days as an accidental campus radical were eventually explained. She obtained a position in the Long Island schools, where she taught for thirty years, widely praised for excellence in teaching as well as baking. Co-workers knew her brownies as “to die for,” but only in the best, non-violent sense of the phrase.