Something There Is That Doesn't Love a Wall

Apr 20, 2018

With Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Radrennbahn Weissensee, East Berlin, July 19, 1988

I grew up in a place where people had “jobs.” The first time the word “career” hit me I was 15, listening to a song called “Here We Are in the Years,” on the first Neil Young album, that Joe Petro lent me, on the little yellow G-E “Wildcat” record player in my room.

...Lives become careers

……Let us out of here

It was confusing, our counter-culture heroes in the land of make-believe telling us in the midst of building their own wonderful self-actualized careers that “careers” are de-humanizing, that ”a working class hero is something to be” while our own working class fathers’ lives did not begin until they got home from the work they hated. We learned to aim our “freak flags” at the “mongrel dogs who teach,” building walls between the teachers who wanted to help us and ourselves.

Joe did not live to be 32.  

I took another shot at school, this time to be a teacher, enrolling at IUSB at 33.

There, school was not a waiting game anymore. The wall between life and school had come down. In Greenlawn and Northside Halls, with Professors VanderVen, Issacson, and Scanlon, I appreciated that I had a lot to learn about teaching high school English, but I was happy to know that I had something to share, too, that I’d picked up some insight myself, along the way, somefrom the working-class heroes of my youth. 

“I found out ….” that I had learned transcendentalism from the Beatles, that Huck Finn is Tom Petty, and that Bob Dylan is everywhere you look. I saw Bruce Springsteen in Robert Frost. 

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” dude, that’s “Dancing in the Dark.” Hope flickers, across the border from despair. 

I knew some stuff, I learned more. For the first time I heard Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall.”

In it, the narrator describes an “old-stone savage armed” neighbor with whom he walks an eroding wall line in early spring, repairing the wall as they go.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

But, while the neighbor celebrates the endeavor, by saying what his father said, “Good fences make good neighbors,” the narrator wonders, “Why?” adding, 

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out

Why do walls make good neighbors?

Today, I remember, it was right then, 1988, that Bruce Springsteen carried the American spirit of rock ‘n roll Behind the Wall to East Berlin singing Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” to 300,000 captive kids who looked like Joe and me, waving homemade American flags and signs that said Born in the USA.  In the hazy dusk they heard that, “When I’m out in the street, I walk the way I wanna walk.”  

President Reagan gets credit, but it was those East German kids, sixteen months later, who tore down the wall, with “Born in the USA” still echoing in their skulls. 

Thirty years later American kids carry tiki torches for white supremacy through the streets of a university town, and the leader of the free world says, “Nobody builds walls better than me.” 

Hope flickers, though, on the border with despair. 

Today, on the third floor of the Marycrest Building on Western Avenue in South Bend, teachers, students, and volunteer tutors come together four times a week for classes that help legal permanent residents prepare for what’s officially called the naturalization interview and exam.  That’s the biggie, the test people take to become American citizens, receive an appointment, travel to Chicago, and if you pass the test, you are in, a full-fledged citizen of the USA. The next step is a ceremony, the public swearing of an oath of loyalty to the United States, and the granting of a certificate of naturalization as proof of citizenship. 

The citizenship class is one of the many programs run by La Casa de Amistad, the community non-profit that’s been serving the Hispanic community of Michiana for 45 years. 

Most of the students are Hispanic, but not all. Judy and I recently tutored a couple who, along with their children, are refugees from the civil war in Iraq. 

In that setting we begin to know one another and from that develop the trust that we need to learn from one another. Students learn that in the United States, the Constitution is the highest law of the land, and that the “rule of law” means that no person is above or beneath the law. I learn not to take that for granted.

The classes begin with a lesson and then, for around 90 minutes, tutors work with the students one-on-one. We learn together. It is a pleasing, effortless, and natural exchange in a mutual spirit of generosity. It’s really something.  “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” says Robert Frost.