King’s ransom for social change: A personal essay

PX Here/File

“Oh, you don’t seem to understand. I want you to leave this class and buy the reader. Right now.”

 

The professor’s voice rings throughout the auditorium, to stunned silence. This is not what I imagined my first class on radical politics and social change at UC Berkeley would be like. We are a week into the semester. I was enrolled over the weekend. I have never seen this man before.

“Or drop the class. Both are good.”

There is an immediate sense that we have missed something. The class is strikingly small. A handful of students are seated closer to the podium, their noses buried in recently procured readers the size of Russian historical epics. The rest of us are exchanging befuddled looks. The discomfort of everyone present is tangible.

“Or drop the class. Both are good.”

A young man raises his hand. He inquires with the professor whether we can have until next session to buy the reader, as there doesn’t seem to be a readily available syllabus, and the student portal is empty of any indication as to what the course actually entails.

“No.”

I cannot say I expected that answer.

“We are not doing that. If you don’t have the reader, you can’t participate in the discussion.”

There are murmurs and scattered protestations. They are swiftly cut down as the professor interjects.

“It’s not personal, but I am not starting today’s session until you leave. The reader is available at the copy center.”

There is a rustling of coats and backpacks as about half the students rise to their feet.

As we file out of the building, no one speaks. I merely listen to the low creaks of rubber soles against the linoleum. And I try to imagine anyone but a middle-aged white man demanding his students prove their buying power for the privilege of attending a class they are already enrolled in.

We emerge from Moffitt Library, and I do not see a single person stop by the copy center; I must admit that I take a certain degree of schadenfreude from that. It makes me feel slightly less alone in whatever just happened. I exchange a few words with a fellow student before I inadvertently overhear part of a young woman’s phone conversation with her mom. She needs the four units the class provides but is understandably taken aback by the amount of money this reader is going to cost her at a moment’s notice. My heart sinks.

Moffitt resembles a bunker as it peeks out through the foliage. I picture the professor in polished military boots, as opposed to his dusty brogues. Would that it were so simple. Is he in any way cognizant of the symbolic value in what he just did to the low-income students attending his class? Or the irony in choosing to gate-keep this particular class based on disposable income?

Moffitt resembles a bunker as it peeks out through the foliage. I picture the professor in polished military boots, as opposed to his dusty brogues.

I begin to make my way across campus, toward a café on Telegraph Avenue. And I am reminded of my experience when migrating to the United States for my studies here at UC Berkeley, facing the behemoth of American bureaucracy for the first time — albeit as a white, cisgender man. The fees upon fees to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and various other government agencies, to prove that I am worth the investment. The expensive short-notice plane tickets to the capital of my country, only to conduct a ridiculous two-minute interview with an old man in a glass booth. And how that experience came to be an exercise in empathy, as the people of color with me in line that day faced mistrust and undue antagonization from people who looked like me and seemed to have no problem treating me with basic human decency.

I am hunched over a cup of tepid coffee by the time I decide to put all this into words. And I can’t seem to shake the feeling that this one event and the silent protest that followed it are deeply significant. Increasingly, I do not believe that one can trust people in power to look out for anyone’s interests but their own.

Since I came to this country, I have met many young Americans who have one thing in common — a strong anti-authoritarian bent. When I see ugly structural issues being reproduced at a liberal bastion of education such as UC Berkeley, I am only emboldened in my conviction that those young people must remain skeptical of authority, see through the rhetoric that seeks to divide them and strengthen their bonds of solidarity. The lack of trust young Americans place in the institutions of their country seems increasingly justified. I do not see why they should feel otherwise. But that is an opportunity. There is hope to be found if you know where to look. The world only spins forward.

Contact Andreas Gjosaether at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @gjosaether.