Something else had also been eating at me: In the 1960s during the Alaska project, we were able to appeal to the sense of fair play of U.S. senators and representatives. They listened to our appeal and made a decision they thought best. They did not have to consult with their campaign contributors, nor did they care that we had not given money to them. I felt a real sense of belonging as an American back then, in the early sixties. There was a sense that we were adults who respected each other and listened to each other. I don't mean to overidealize it, for politics is often a dirty business underneath. But the backroom scandals we heard about back then, where cash was traded for votes, are now the front room norm. There is no room for regular citizens in that front room, and there is no shame.
I had been watching the change. During my husband's final years, in the early nineties, I had worked hard and successfully to bring some modest respite services to the families in our area who were caring for Alzheimer's patients. The logic of these programs was obvious, yet our only way of getting funding was to raise money privately, which we did. From what I was hearing in the community, and from my own experience fighting the interstate highway system, which had threatened to destroy our little town of Dublin, New Hampshire, congressmen were no longer interested in what some person or village might need if they were not major campaign donors. For the first time in my life I felt politically powerless-something no American should ever feel. It was like living in some other country.
My women friends in our Tuesday Morning Academy, which is a little study group in New Hampshire, had looked at the campaign finance situation in detail over the previous few years. We had become quite knowledgeable about it, just as we had studied many other issues.
Our group had its origin in 1984, when the Extension Service canceled an adult study class for lack of students. Nineteen of us--mostly retired--were nevertheless set on the idea of learning something new, so we accepted the leadership of Bonnie Riley, a retired teacher whose passions are poetry, drama, and history. She is tall, blue-eyed, and as dignified as a queen, with her light hair fixed in a French twist. She loves dance and in fact studied as a dancer under Isadora Duncan's sister in prewar Germany. She taught school in Africa and has had many fine adventures. Now, as a volunteer, she teaches Shakespeare two days a week to the men in a New Hampshire prison, who love her above all other human beings. Her father was a brilliant man--a Pittsburgh steelworker who labored among the sparks of the Bessemer process by day and poured out the scintillating ideas of our civilization before his daughter by night. Those sparks remain in her eyes, and she passes her father's love of learning on to her friends and students.
At her invitation, we began meeting at her house in Francestown. We continue there today after fifteen years--occasionally picking up a new student and burying an old. Bonnie decides what we will study next, as she has a good radar for issues and knows well our interests and gaps. A new subject always begins with a provocative book on a good topic. We studied China in great detail for a full year and then the Middle East. We never stop with just the book: We find related books and articles and we each make reports. Our Tuesday meetings begin around 8:30 a.m. with some ballet exercises to get the blood moving and our brains in gear. We hold our class in her living room until noon.
We are good followers because Bonnie is a good leader--we trust her because her commitment to us is unselfish, skillful, and generous. It is easy to be a good follower when you have unselfish and competent leaders.
When Bonnie's husband leaves town from time to time for a conference, we ladies have a night out. During one of these evenings--on the same day when the newspaper reported the Senate's failure to pass Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold's campaign finance reform bill--I said, "I am terribly distressed about what is happening to our government. It seems to me that the rich are taking over and that you can't get elected unless you have a million dollars!"
Excerpted from Granny D by Doris Haddock with Dennis Burke Copyright 2001 by Doris Haddock with Dennis Burke. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
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