I worry about the examples our kids, even those in their twenties, are growing up with today. Maybe every generation of parents has said the same thing. I remember my parents saying something to me about my choice of music and the artists I listened to. But this now seems a lot different. Social media far dominates and influences everything beyond anything we could have expected even 10 years ago. Where are our kids learning values and learning good lessons in life beyond their social media heroes of today?
This is the primary reason I wrote What Made Me Who I Am; to provide good examples of success and accomplishment and a blueprint to understanding the importance of the turning points in our lives. Here is but one chapter in my book, an important example to have as our kids head back to school and college this fall. It is the story of Robert Reich, former secretary of labor and one of the foremost authorities on equal equality for all, and how he got there.
The powerful influence in Bob’s life shines a light on childhood experiences—in his case being bullied. We are all shaped in one way or another by our childhood relationships and while we may think we have grown beyond them, they often, sometimes dramatically, influence us well into adulthood.
I am four feet eleven inches tall and have always been short. Starting in kindergarten, I was teased about my height. I remember being called names and being shoved around in the boys’ bathroom. As I result I felt vulnerable. Early on, I developed a coping strategy: I latched onto an older, bigger boy and made him my protector.
When I was in kindergarten, I knew a boy who was in the fourth grade; his parents and mine were friends. I asked him if he would watch out for me. He said he would. I made sure we were seen together in the hallways and on the playground. The bullies got the message and backed off.
Growing up, I spent part of every summer at my grandmother’s house in the foothills of New York’s Adirondack Mountains. The bullying continued there. I met an older boy in the neighborhood who had kind eyes and a warm smile. I befriended him, and he made sure that no one messed with me. That boy’s name was Michael “Mickey” Schwerner and, although neither one of us could have suspected it at the time, he changed my life.
I was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1946. My father was in the women’s clothing business. When I was six, we moved to northern Westchester County, to what was, in the 1950s, a small farming town. Today it’s an upscale New York suburb, but back then it was largely working class. My father opened two moderately priced stores.
I never felt deprived, but money was always a concern. I remember my father coming home from work and worrying about not being able to pay the bills. My mother stayed home until the mid-fifties, and then she joined my father in running the stores.
In the late fifties, my parents realized that wealth was moving north in Westchester. They responded by taking their stores upscale, and they did well. While they certainly never became rich, I was happy to see my father relax as his financial insecurity lessened.
My parents were not political; they were too busy making a living. My father was a Republican, my mother a Democrat. We almost never talked politics. I remember, though, watching the McCarthy hearings with my father and him calling Joe McCarthy a son of a bitch. I was vaguely aware that McCarthy was hurting people and abusing his authority, and I certainly recognized his bullying demeanor and tactics from my own experience. When Edward R. Murrow went public with his concerns about the McCarthy witch-hunts, my father cheered him on. But generally, the great issues of the day didn’t concern me.
I graduated from high school in 1964 and entered Dartmouth that fall. I’d heard about three young civil rights workers—two white and one black—who disappeared in Neshoba County, Mississippi, in June, but their bodies weren’t discovered until months later. One of them was Mickey Schwerner, my childhood protector. I had lost track of Mickey. He had originally attended Michigan State and wanted to be a veterinarian but had since transferred to Columbia to major in social work. Mickey had gotten married, and he had dedicated himself to fighting for social justice and equality. He had headed off to Mississippi where the action was. I was horrified and deeply shaken by the news of his death. The local sheriff had engineered the murder, and the injustice and sheer savagery of the crime was staggering.
The impact of Mickey’s death dramatically changed my life. For the first time, I took a good look at the world around me. I began to take an active interest in the civil rights movement. That led me to the anti-Vietnam War movement, which was just beginning. I got involved in campus politics and was elected president of my freshman, sophomore, and junior classes.
I went to Washington at the end of my junior year and spent the summer interning for Senator Robert Kennedy. Kennedy cared deeply about the poor, and I worked on anti-poverty initiatives in his office. I took time off during my senior year to work for Gene McCarthy’s presidential campaign because I was convinced that the Vietnam War was wrongheaded, dangerous, and diverting the nation’s attention and resources away from pressing domestic needs.
The following year, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. There was rioting in our cities, and the Vietnam conflict was escalating. Like millions of others of my generation, I couldn’t stand on the sidelines. My commitment to public service took firm hold, eventually leading to my being appointed secretary of labor by Bill Clinton.
Today, my youthful optimism has been tempered by time and experience, but my students where I now teach at the University of California, Berkeley, renew it and give me hope. Mickey Schwerner was just twenty-four when he was murdered working to make America a better place, a country that lives up to its ideal of liberty and justice for all. When I was a vulnerable child, Mickey protected me from harm. I, in turn, feel a responsibility to protect others. I was honored to know him, and I hope, in some small way, that my life’s work honors his idealism, his courage, and his sacrifice.