When I started teaching at my current school, they placed me in the reference room of the library. I was hired after the school year started, so they had to create new classes. The principal assured me that he would find me a classroom, but first he had to evict the teacher currently in there. I spent a week or so in my makeshift space, and then I was able to move into my new classroom. It was the first room on the left side of the hallway, on the second floor of the newest building on campus. It had an LCD projector mounted on the ceiling. This was amazing to me. My previous school required that we share a projector with an entire department of teachers, and it came on a cart with a tangle of wires. My new classroom had large windows and lots of light, and on a clear day you could see Signal Hill and San Pedro. It was like winning the teacher lottery.
The beginning of a new assignment at a new school is a blur of stress and just being overwhelmed. A few faces stuck out, particularly the handful of kind people who offered their help, their phone numbers, and came in to check on me. Most people kind of just leave the new person alone. My future husband, located in the only classroom next to me, opted to ignore me in the early weeks and months. I later found out that he was mad at me for taking over his buddy’s classroom (the unlucky teacher who got evicted in order for me to move in). But in one of those early days, Kenneth caught me in the hallway. He basically asked about my political party registration. I didn’t even know his name, but there he was, asking about how I vote.
I didn’t answer him, and politely as possible, without saying “none of your business,” but meaning “none of your business,” dodged his question. The new guy across the hall wasn’t so lucky. He naively disclosed it, and the answer appalled Kenneth.
“You’re like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders!” Kenneth told him. He took over articles for the new guy to read. He tried so hard to convince this new guy that he might be missing pertinent information that would surely change his mind, but this was all for naught. New Guy didn’t buy any of it.
Kenneth basically left me alone after that one early encounter.
Until we started dating.
When we started dating, I didn’t know what a union was, even though I was paying dues. He made sure I knew what it was, and not only would I know, but I would learn how to precinct walk, go to marches, and actively participate. There was no such thing as being passive if you were in Kenneth’s world.
Kenneth didn’t just talk politics. He felt politics. Whereas most people live their lives generally apathetic about what is going on in Washington, bad news seemed to literally cause Kenneth physical pain. I don’t think he could have survived the world we live in now. He barely survived the Bush years.
Kenneth abhorred apathy. He couldn’t understand it, especially when an issue directly affected our jobs. I remember him trying to get other teachers to volunteer for precinct walking. Most of them usually had a thousand excuses about why they couldn’t phone bank or precinct walk. They were too busy. They had kids. They lived too far. Whatever the excuse, it drove Kenneth up the wall. We were too busy. We had kids. When we were living in Long Beach, it was inconvenient for us too. But he still did it.
The reason Kenneth would get so mad was because he knew what was at stake, and he wanted to do everything he could to stack the odds in our favor. When people didn’t want to do their part, it drove him nuts. But if you did volunteer, you would forever be on his good list. He’d never forget.
Kenneth would precinct walk every day he possibly could have during election season. He said that was his role. He wasn’t organized enough to do anything else, he claimed, but he was a workhorse. There were many times when I would find him in a neighborhood and drop off water or lunch so he could keep knocking on doors while I took care of the kids. Or we would go together as a family. I always seemed to be pregnant during election season. We’d often go door-to-door pushing a stroller, or one or both of us would have a kid strapped to our backs.
I think Kenneth thought in his mind that if he didn’t do everything he could, it would surely lead to disaster.
And he couldn’t understand why other people didn’t see it in the same way.
That was Kenneth. He felt everything he cared about passionately and deeply with every fiber of his being.
He was a vault of information. His memory of details was phenomenal. Putting his socks inside of the hamper or keeping the floor or his desk clear and tidy wasn’t something he could handle. But following the latest news about whatever issue he was paying attention to at the moment was an obsession, and he could remember every word, every detail, every source cited and then be able to tell you about it. Maybe that’s why we always fought about his clutter. I knew he had a great memory when he wanted to use it. So why did he pretend to forget about the socks?
Kenneth was like a mad scientist. If you look at his collection of books, you can see his obsessions. Politics. Philosophy. Chess strategy. Health. Finance. Poetry. He focused on one thing at a time, and he consumed everything he could about the topic until he felt like an expert. He was a genuinely interesting person, at least in my biased opinion.
Sometimes it was overwhelming. There were times when I wanted to turn off the world and relax, but he couldn’t. He was always hungry for more information. He was always feeling like there was something he had to do.
In the car, KPFK was always on.
“Can’t we listen to music?” I’d plead. “I don’t want to hear Ian Masters again.”
“This is important,” he’d say, and begin trying to educate me. I knew he wasn’t going to budge.
He gave money to causes he felt strongly about.
He was always calling or emailing elected officials.
Going to protests and marches.
He was a voracious reader, even though he was a slow reader. But whatever he read, he remembered. His black backpack always had a book inside of it. There were stacks of books in the bathroom. His classroom was loaded with books that we had no room for at home.
At night, he’d watch documentaries.
When he believed in something, he’d want to tell everyone about it.
Some people resented him for his boldness. They interpreted it as pushy, I guess. Too political. Too extreme. Or they made fun of him for always stressing out about things, being too paranoid, or the way it would get him worked up.
Other people loved him for it. They appreciated his dedication and passion. They recognized his efforts and selflessness. They knew he was a kind, sensitive person who had deep feelings and cared a lot.
When I would bring him to a social event with friends or family, I’d have to give him the lecture.
“Do not talk about politics or religion.”
“Because I don’t want you embarrassing me.”
“Then what the hell will I talk about?”
He’d get that pouty little boy look. “Fine,” he’d say. “I won’t talk about anything then.”
Kenneth and I could drive to San Francisco and back and never run out of things to talk about. We used to do that drive every other weekend for a few years when we visited his son. It was the only thing I liked about those weekends.
We were always sending each other articles. Texting each other something we learned or heard or thought about. I’d come up with theories, and if he thought they were good, I would know because he’d say, “let me think about that one.”
I really miss that about Kenneth. I haven’t found anyone since him who I can talk endlessly to about politics and philosophy and anything else under the sun. In fact, since being married to him, I find most men boring. I know somewhere out in the world there is somebody who I will know is worth my time because we never run out of things to say to each other, but so far it feels like Kenneth will be hard to match. He had fire inside of him.
I want to carry his torch, but I can’t. I’m not ignited by the same kind of passionate fury that burned inside of him. I care. But he cared more. I can’t feel injustice reverberating inside of me the way it did for him. I want to be like him, but I am not him. Sometimes I feel like I’m not as good as he was. Not as kind. Not as feely. It makes me simultaneously proud to have been married to him, and partly ashamed that I can’t continue his legacy in the same way.
The reality is, the world is full of different people. But people like Kenneth are rare. People who aren’t afraid to feel things deep inside of their bones. People who aren’t afraid to speak out about issues they care passionately about. People who don’t spend the majority of their time trying to be nice and liked; people who instead will err on the side of doing what they feel is right, even if you don’t like them for it. People who will show up to do the grunt work, who will walk to every house in a precinct even in sweltering weather, people who will seek new information and share information.
People who really care, and don’t just say they care.
I want our kids to know that this was who their father was. Somebody who cared immensely for people, his country, and for the rest of the world. Somebody who hoped for a better future not only for his own kids, but for your children too. Our Kenneth. How we miss him so.