I grew up on eighty acres in a hollow outside of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Reader’s Digest’s “Best Place to Raise a Family” in 1995. The front forty was flush with cedar and pine, the back forty, deciduous. The whole thing was a quarter-mile of gravel drive from the road that edged the country block my family shared with neighbors, some who farmed alfalfa fields and others who had backyards crowded with rusting stock cars.
When my younger brother, Gaar, and I played outside we changed our names to our G.I. Joe alter egos, constructed lean-to forts against fallen trees and chased each other in our own game of war, the turning point usually coming with a well-timed swing on the rope dangling over the babbling creek that bisected the property.
One July afternoon we dammed the stream with lichen-spotted rocks from its bed. The water rose six inches. We felt powerful.
A year later I was in seventh grade. 1998. It was a Saturday in my friend’s basement. We were seated in a circle playing Magic: the Gathering when Hootie and the Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View ended. Reuben got up and opened his backpack that had been lying crumpled on the olive green recliner. A classmate had lent him an album. Something called Evil Empire.
The first track, “People of the Sun,” started like this: Yeah, people come up. Yeah, we better turn the bass up on this one. Check it… and kicked in.
The wailing alarm of a guitar pick scraping steel strings. Syncopated lyrics—sharp as semi-automatic fire. Funky, angry bass hammers. Drumming that sounded as if the skins and cymbals were being battered with bottles and rocks.
My mouth watered, my head instinctively bobbed, my spine alternated in waves of heat and chills. It was as if the dynamo at my core was stuck on, spinning faster and faster, my body barely keeping it from tearing through my chest. There was no going back.
I folded my cards, moved to the Pioneer, and stared through the plastic window of the CD tray, the disc’s concentric black and white circles spinning, hypnotizing. We listened to the album straight through. When it finished I looked at my hands. I’d kept them balled tightly for all forty-five minutes. My fingers cracked when I unfolded them, as if the joints had begun to fuse.
I saved the allowance I earned by mowing my parents’ three-acre lawn and sorting garbage to burn or haul to our rural township’s recycling center. After a few weeks, when I had fifteen bucks in my dresser drawer, I tagged along with Mom on a grocery run into Sheboygan. I bought my own copy of Evil Empire at the Music Den on 8th Street, a block from the corner of Erie, where five years later I, with dreadlocks poking from beneath a hand-knit cap, would protest the impending invasion of Iraq.
I spent my eighth grade year in my room—surrounded by posters of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Gary Payton, and Alonzo Mourning, as well as a painting I’d done in art class of a Nike-outfitted snowman. I listened to Evil Empire on repeat. When the batteries ran out in the middle of “Tire Me,” I replaced them. When it was dinnertime I left “Revolver” and the black and white circles spinning on pause. When Gaar asked me if I wanted to go outside and play war, it was over “Vietnow” that I answered, “No.”
With florescent lights flickering overhead, I read the lyrics along with the music. For every decipherable, is all the world jails and churches?, there was something baffling like, NAFTA coming with the new disaster/and, yes, we in with the wind and the Plan de Ayala kin. Even “People of the Sun,” the song with which I’d first connected, had references to the year 1516 and Cuautemoc.
The songs’ meanings were a mystery, like alcohol or, when on a school field trip three years earlier, a friend and I found a plastic grocery bag of Penthouses hidden under the rocks along the Sheboygan River.
Besides lyrics, the inside of Evil Empire’s booklet included a centerfold picture of books, laid out as if they’d fallen from an overturned shelf. I copied the titles and took the list to the single-story library in Kiel, the nearby and close-knit 3,000-person town where I went to school, hoping they would prove the Rosetta Stone for Rage’s lyrics.
The Anarchist Cookbook, Joe, The Black Panthers Speak, Rebellion form the Roots, The Media Monopoly, A Race for Justice, Power at Play, Tropic of Cancer, Hegemony and Revolution, Guerrilla Warfare, Democracy is in the Streets, The Wretched of the Earth, 50 Ways to Fight Censorship, Marx-Engels Reader.
I searched the stacks, ran my fingers across the Dewey Decimals tags taped on the spines of the library’s dusty books. I took my list to the librarian. They had none of them.
They don’t got to burn the books/they just remove them.
I sat in the sunlight at a wide, composite table in Sheboygan’s Mead Public Library with a pile of books before me and a spiral notebook opened. My mother had dropped me off on her way to work that August day. Before I got out of the car, we’d idled for a minute in the parking lot and she’d looked at my list. “Everything but the Communist Manifesto,” she’d said and handed it back to me. After she drove away, I’d added it, though suspicious.
First I flipped for pictures. Photo of a naked Vietnamese girl running down a gravel lane. She was on fire. Photo of mustached men wearing sombreros on horseback. Photo of a cellblock, black faces and arms sticking from between the bars.
The tables of contents in these books listed chapters with the phrases: US hegemony, US tyranny, US intervention, war machine, military industrial complex, revolution, revolutionaries, New World Order.
I checked them out.
I read about anarchist cooperatives, the Zapatistas, the US’s meddling in Chile and Iran, the radioactive wasteland in parts of in Kuwait and Iraq—sand contaminated with degrading depleted uranium shells, a result of Gulf War I.
They rally round the family, with pockets full of shells.
I stared through the pages, my hands on my head, shocks of hair spilling between my fingers and thought about school, which started in a matter of weeks. We hadn’t covered Che or Zapata, Chomsky or Zinn at Kiel Middle, and I just knew we wouldn’t at Kiel High, either. These were histories that would be left buried.
We hadn’t dashed around the playgrounds hemmed in by cornfields pretending to be Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, or AIM freedom fighters. We were cowboys. We were soldiers. We were CIA.
With dial-up Internet freshly installed at my parents’ house, I tore down the posters in my room and replaced them with images from websites: Evil Empire’s cover, a hammer and sickle, Che, broken chains with the words “All we have to lose,” a closed fist. I sat under the flickering fluorescent light, my chest heaving, taking the images in, feeling like I finally understood.
Then, right before 2001, Rage Against the Machine broke up.
I searched Napster for any Rage I hadn’t heard. Rarities. Live tracks. My mother reassured me from the kitchen. “I know how you feel—I remember when the Beatles broke up,” she said.
Clearly, she didn’t understand. “The Beatles weren’t about anything important, Mom.”
“Oh yeah? We have all kinds of anti-war stuff,” she said, and fished out records from the cabinet under the stereo.
I blocked out the pops and hisses of Joan Baez and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young with my headphones—Evil Empire spinning in the D: drive as I continued my search. Through mislabeled files and fan sites, I found other political bands, like Propagandhi, Crass, Choking Victim, and Dead Kennedys. Some were new, some old. I found that Zach, before fronting Rage, was in a punk band called Inside Out. I imagined him with a stereo, instead of a computer, hearing Minor Threat for the first time, feeling like me, learning about a war that had been raging since before he was born, a war without media scrutiny. A war on the voiceless.
These punk bands crafted music that was more simplistic than Rage, but it was just as angry. I listened to each new track with my forehead against the screen, my hands pressing the headphones against my ears until they felt hot. In these songs Rage’s funk was replaced with speed. Rap replaced with snarl.
I assembled these new songs into my own albums, each time trying to capture that same on-edge feeling I had in Reuben’s basement. Fingers twitching. Neck sweating. My stomach’s bottom falling out.
Without CD burning technology, I held a tape deck to the speakers and recorded from magnet to magnet. When I got a decade-old Nissan the tapes spun on endless loops in the stereo, the watery quality was like something captured on reel-to-reel when the world was at war.
Those last two years in the Wisconsin countryside I drove to that soundtrack, past farmers waving from tractors and shopkeepers sweeping outside storefronts, to school, to political rallies, and anti-war demonstrations.
The microphone explodes, shattering the molds.
Stephanie, with her big blue eyes and toothy smile, asked me to help her with the announcements. It was a Tuesday. She’d inherited the responsibility from her cousin who was absent that day. She said she’d gotten the okay from the principal.
This was the opportunity to act that had been building since Reuben’s basement. To make my whole school think about the world differently.
To change something.
The rungs torn from the ladder, can’t reach the tumor.
Stephanie and I walked into the office at 7:58. It smelled like the secretary’s hairspray and the pumpkin scented candles on the ledge behind the copier. Mr. Pomerening was waiting for us by the announcement phone, comparing his watch the school’s clock above him. He was a short man with a large nose and salt and pepper hair slicked back like he was always walking into the wind. At 8:00, he smiled at us, picked up the phone, and pressed the “all call” button.
“Hello, this is Mr. Pomerening, principal of Kiel High School, where we expect greatness. Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and the rest of this morning’s announcements,” he said, handed Stephanie the receiver and walked into the hallway to corral the tardy. Stephanie handed it to me. I felt the entire school holding its breath.
I shifted in my Chuck Taylors, rubbed my matted hair, and launched into the Pledge, reciting it correctly until the end when I paused and used the words from the back of a NOFX t-shirt, “With liberty for just us, not all.”
I handed the phone back to Stephanie—her eyes open, shocked irises twinkling with the bright office light—and walked out. In the hallway a teacher stood at every door, waiting. For a moment I thought they had formed this receiving line to thank me for liberating them.
So make the move and plead the fifth, cause you can’t plead the first.
I went to a Jesuit university, one that advertised itself as an institution rooted firmly in service and justice. Got involved in student organizations with names like, JUSTICE, Students for an Environmentally Active Campus, CommUNITY. Met guys with beards, a guy that hiked mountains, a few that traveled to Kenya and secured funds to build a library there, and another with “The Thinker” tattooed across his back.
On Wednesdays, these guys—my friends—and I got together in an apartment above Murphy’s Bar and had Guys’ Night. Mostly we sat, drank, and bitched about two dubious presidential elections, two condemnable wars, the PATRIOT Act, the government’s response to Katrina, the state-by-state “protection of marriage,” the war on women’s rights, Rick Santorum, etc. etc. etc. We had this roiling suspicion that something deeper, more fundamental, was terribly fucking wrong.
Sometimes a movie like A Few Good Men played in the background and during the commiseration we reminded each other to drink each time an actor said, “Sir.”
Around 10pm, before we went down to a packed Murphy’s for karaoke, we put Rage Against the Machine into the stereo and air guitared. Most of them had come to Rage later than I. But when they did, the lyrics didn’t surprise them. Their high schools and their own reading had made them aware of alternative histories. It made me wonder: if Reuben hadn’t put on Evil Empire, who would I have been?
But I didn’t talk about that after 10. Instead we jammed and shot fireworks from the windows and kicked over trashcans and leapt from couch to chair to coffee table to couch.
Bulls on parade.
There’s a picture—my favorite picture—of Mike and I on the kitchen bar. I’m headbanging with my invisible Fender P-Bass, he’s bent-over-backwards, wailing on a broomstick Stratocaster. Beside us is our drummer, pounding the IKEA end table he’s propped on his thigh.
That drummer now works for a Republican politician. A few years later, when I visited him and his wife in D.C., he told me that his boss had Rage in his iPod’s workout mix.
It was fall and we were sitting on the edge of the Reflecting Pool. Brown and yellow leaves tumbled across the mall in a cool wind. When he saw the surprise on my face he put his arm around his wife and said, “Everyone can relate to anger.”
I joined Teach For America after college. The organization got me a job in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, teaching mathematics at a low-performing, high-poverty middle school where most students were children of color.
By this time I no longer glowed with indiscriminant indignation and frustration. I’d captured and harnessed it—compressed it into a cinder that I implanted beneath the part of my heart devoted to my students. There it boiled the blood and soul I used to push through each day, teaching children disadvantaged by birth.
On a hot day during my third year of teaching, the hall was crowded with students pulling at the front of their blue uniform polos, fanning themselves. I was leaning against my doorjamb when I saw one of my students, a tall and slender fourteen year old, Barry, standing stone-like in the hall, forcing the rush of students to flow around him on their way to lunch. Another student of mine, Chris, was swimming through the crowd toward Barry, his jaw clenched. Chris was coming from science, a class he struggled in, often telling me that, “I don’t get why it matters,” or “I don’t get what the teacher’s saying.”
Chris bumped against Barry and said, “Get out my fucking way.”
“Make me,” Barry said, stepping into Chris, pushing him back on his heels.
I waded through current with my arms over my head—navigating flustered students fighting to find a way through the bottleneck of lockers. When I got to Chris and Barry, they were bumping chests, staring at each other. I looped my arms through theirs and pulled them into my classroom, just as the last of the students trickled into the adjacent hall. I sat them in desks, all three of us with wet faces, as they jawed and I decided how to handle the situation.
“This boy needed to move.”
“I can stand wherever I please. You ain’t telling me nothing.”
I sat on a desktop by them and straightened my tie. I waited until they were both quiet and I could hear the lights hum. I touched my toes together and thought about how I had handled myself at that age and when my brother and I had dammed our own stream.
How our mother had come out of the house and down to the water’s edge, watching us marvel at how we had made the water rise and flood an upstream section of lawn. I remember how she tucked her curly hair behind her ears, crossed her arms, and said, “You two aren’t the only ones that use that stream, you know. You’re going to put the rocks back where you found them.”
I remember standing in the water, dripping and bewildered. Rivulets still squirting between the few cracks we hadn’t yet caulked with grass clippings. After she spoke, she didn’t turn and walk away. She stood there, arms crossed and feet pigeon-toed, until we began dismantling the dam—sliding each of the rocks back under the surface. Because who were we?
I looked up at my students. Barry had pulled his mp3 player and earbuds from his pocket and was turning them over in his fingers. He looked despondent. Though we didn’t allow electronics, I said nothing. The backs of Chris’ cheeks pulsed as he gritted his teeth, his arms tightly crossed. I took a deep breath and felt calm.
For the boys, I started talking about the hallway, then how we could move forward together. What all three of us could do to make a difference. To change things. To get it right.
It’s coming back around again.