The chair of the Putney School Board, who was also a member of the John Birch Society, pounded his fist on the table and roared, “We can’t have Heidi Watts in our school, because Heidi Watts is a Quaker, and Quakers are passive people.”
It was 1966, and protest against the Vietnam War was heating up. Corresponding rhetoric about the threat of communism was also on the rise, and the two forces were being played out over my contract renewal — or non-renewal — at the small elementary school in Putney.
The audience was townspeople, some of them my outraged supporters, who nonetheless could not suppress smiles at the confusion between a pacifist and passivity.
But they were not all supporters — not that evening in the library, nor in a later meeting in the school auditorium, nor in the letters to the editor, and the conversations at the Putney General Store.
Earlier in the month, a large sign appeared over Main Street: “Communists, aliens and pacifists, go home!“
My husband, Simon, was British — a registered alien — and I was a “passive” Quaker. So both of us must have been the communists.
* * *
Like most women of my generation and before, I had always been an unconscious victim of discrimination. It was only out of the emerging stridency of the 1960s women’s movement that I began to understand how much that had affected my life.
But now, in the 1966 of Putney, Vermont, I knew about discrimination.
I knew that when I went into the General Store, conversations stopped. I knew that when I went into the post office, there was a label on my forehead which read “communist,” and I knew that the children who flooded, ambled, raced, and dawdled into my classroom every day were not only looking at me as a teacher to be obeyed or evaded, a source of learning or repression, but through the lens of the truths, lies and confusions from their parents.
I knew some believed as their parents did — they were, after all, aged 11 to 14 — but some were trying to reconcile what was said about me to what they knew from their own experience.
It was a small rural school, and this was my third year. I had taught the eighth graders English and social studies for three years, a long time in a young life.
Only 11 students made up the eighth-grade class, and as I learned later, in their ninth-grade class at the regional high school, they represented the top and the bottom of the IQ scores in a school of more than 1,200.
But we had a good time together, and they seemed to me to be making progress from wherever they were.
* * *
What was being said about me?
I didn’t really say the Pledge of Allegiance, I only mouthed it. I wore sandals to school. I didn’t use textbooks. I went on peace marches.
My husband wrote letters to the paper against the war. We circulated petitions calling for an end to war in Southeast Asia. To war in Vietnam. To war. Period.
And, most telling of all, they said our kids liked school.
If children liked school, could they be learning anything?
* * *
When I was teaching in Putney, there was a three-person school board, each person serving a staggered three-year term. This meant that after every Annual Town Meeting in March, the composition of the board would change, as could the majority view.
Contracts and contract renewals were issued in February according to union regulations. In that February of 1966, the board did not reissue contracts to two teachers: the principal, and a woman who had been teaching kindergarten for about five years. (She also went on peace marches.)
But they made a mistake, and by a 2–1 vote I was offered a contract.
All would have been well, except at that year’s Annual Town Meeting, one of my supporters on the board was replaced, and the new board promptly rescinded my contract.
This was illegal, and the ensuing uproar divided the town between those who were anxious to get the corrupting influence of Communists and Quakers out of the school and those who either wanted to, at the least, abide by the contract rules or wanted to actively support the kind of education they thought we represented.
* * *
When the chair of the board made his striking denouncement at the meeting in the school library, I was as surprised as anyone else.
I had no idea he felt so threatened. Two of his children were in my three-grade span, and our teacher/parent meetings had always been friendly.
In the fall, he was one of the parents who volunteered to drive for the eighth grade’s annual trip to visit the state Legislature. I sat beside him in the front with three of the students in the back, and we had a companionable chat on the way up, about weather patterns, the well-drilling business (his own and others’), and special school events.
On the way home, the conversation drifted to national politics. It was clear we were on different sides in regard to the war on Vietnam, and I welcomed the opportunity to explain my position in a friendly conversation with someone on the other side.
One of the students told me later that every time I said something about the war, he stepped harder on the accelerator. It is true that we got home in record time.
* * *
As the controversy in Putney warmed up, the Quakers sent a small delegation to the superintendent to protest. I also met with the superintendent, who said, “If you make waves, you will never get another job.”
In April, I met with the head of the teachers’ union, and he said the School Board’s behavior was illegal, according to school policy and civil-rights legislation. The union representative would speak with the School Board.
Two weeks later, I got a letter from the teachers’ union saying they had met with the Putney School Board and learned that my contract was not renewed because I had “poor parent-teacher relationships.”
I took my case to the ACLU lawyer in Brattleboro, a kindly gentleman lawyer from one of Brattleboro’s best families who was friends with most of the others. He said that I did have a case and he guessed he could represent me.
He asked me what I wanted. Did I want my job back? Hardly! It was impossible to imagine teaching again in that toxic environment. All I wanted was justice.
I said as soon as my contract was honored, I would resign.
I never heard from him again.
* * *
All of the known avenues for redress seemed closed, though I knew that I could — and should — challenge the report of the teachers’ union, and/or look for another lawyer to represent me. But I was confused, and I procrastinated.
On a warm Saturday in mid-May, Simon brought the lawnmower out from winter storage and discovered it was out of gas. He offered to take our 6-year-old son, Richard, with him to fill the gas can, and they went off together in our Volkswagon van.
When they returned, I was standing on the front step. Richard bolted out of the van and clung to me.
I looked over his head at Simon.
“What happened?” I asked.
He shrugged. “We ran into some trouble. It’s OK.”
Later, he told me that at the small gas station on Main Street, a group of three or four men, on break from the paper mill down the street, were hanging around the station buying cigarettes and drinking beer. As Simon alighted from the van, well decorated with anti-war bumper stickers, the men began muttering things like “Hippies! Commies! We don’t need your kind around here. Go home Commies!”
As the slurs grew louder, one of them came up to the van, grabbed him by the neck and pinned him to the van.
Simon said, “I thought he was going to hit me and those lines from the Aeneid flashed into my mind, ‘Having done what man must, they suffered what man can.’”
Fortunately, the owner of the station came out at that moment, and the men dispersed.
It probably didn’t help the conflict that just up the road from the gas station, a group of back-to-the-landers were working in their newly purchased fields, on a farm bordering the road into town. Many of the women werebare-breasted.
* * *
Memorial Day speeches that year were even more patriotic than usual. A local sculptor displayed his most recent piece: a large silver metal box with the stars and stripes painted around the sides. It revolved mechanically and mindlessly on its shiny aluminum stand. The irony was lost on the organizers.
Richard marched proudly through town at the head of the Memorial Day parade with a wooden gun across one shoulder, and when asked for his favorite song, he suggested, “The Marine Marching Hymn.” Pacifism was not contagious at home.
The next day, at the Memorial Day picnic, I was introduced to a family who had just moved to town, the Wilsons. Norman Wilson, the newly appointed director of the Antioch/Putney Graduate School up on the hill, said to me politely, “Do you get much involved in town politics?”
I replied without thinking, “But I am town politics!”
* * *
On a Sunday night in early June — the Sunday night preceding the last week of school before the summer vacation — all the teachers and parents received a call from one of the school board members: the school would be closing and there would be no more classes until the fall.
I didn’t know about the others, but I had a week of closing activities planned, ways in which we would present and honor the work my students had done, put a closing on various projects, and celebrate the years we had spent together. We’d wrap up the school year, put a bow on it, and say goodbye.
I was devastated. There would be no closing, no chance to say goodbye, no resolution. A break as sharp and clean as the cut of a knife.
And then I caved. I crumbled. I threw in the towel.
I cried uncle. I gave up.
I was young, and untried by fire. I had been brought up to avoid conflict at all costs. In my family, we didn’t fight; we went all silent and tight-lipped, or we turned away to hide the tears of rage or rejection.
I was a woman, I wanted to be liked, and I needed to be liked. I couldn’t bear to be a pariah and the object of town attention.
My husband did not have that problem, but in what I thought was a synchronous identification of support, he managed to hurt himself in his shop, where he made furniture.
The Monday when I didn’t go to school, a chessboard went awry in the planer and he broke the bones in the back of his left hand. He drove himself to the hospital, and when he returned with his hand in a cast and his arm in asling, he had instructions to stay out of the shop for two weeks.
He got out of the car and asked, “Doesn’t your sister have a house in Nova Scotia?’
Within a week we were out of Putney, and when we returned several weeks later, someone or something else had become town politics.
When school reopened in the fall, only one of the 11 teachers returned. Three of us had not been invited back, one resigned in protest, one went on maternity leave, and the remainder had quietly found themselves jobs elsewhere.
* * *
Some months later, I had the opportunity to read a report by a student at The Putney School on the “brouhaha” (as one reporter had derisively described it).
In this senior project, the student described what happened between March and June and concluded that the conflict was not actually about the corrupting influence of communists on young minds, but about values.
Some of the townspeople, he said — mainly the families who had farmed or worked in Putney for generations — wanted their children to carry on their values. They wanted them to be respectful of authority, to dress “appropriately,” to learn what they had learned as they had learned it in school (not generally described as “fun”), and to think as they did.
However, some of the families, many of them representing the influx of flatlanders into Vermont and an educated professional class, wanted their children to think critically and to question authority, or at least to think for themselves — and if their kids liked to go to school, all the better.
It wasn’t specifically about the war, he wrote.
* * *
This was the 1960s, the time of a great awakening and a great unraveling in American society. The sturdy conservatism of landed Vermont farmers and an underclass of small-town factory workers or farmhands was threatened by a wave of immigration from a mixed assortment of “others,” “flatlanders,” “people from away,” and romantic naturalists who wanted to “go back to the land” as homesteaders, anarchists, and artists.
It was too much change, too fast, for the longtime residents, he concluded.
What the Putney School student didn’t write, but I would write now, is that the arrogance — the assumption that our way is the right way — and the failure to see how “those people” might think or feel, was not the prerogative of the chair of the School Board or the people at the gas station.
What we actually had in common was a lack of respect or openness to ideas or values different from our own.
Over time and with a good dose of small-town interaction, we might have developed enough common ground to be able to accept, or at least tolerate, one another’s differences.
But in 1966, there was too much change, too fast.
And not just in Putney, Vermont.