Despite the turbulence in America during the summer of 1970 resulting from ongoing Vietnam angst and unresolved civil rights issues, as a college student, I focused solely on the four classes I needed to pass in order to graduate. I had only 9 weeks left before I earned my BA in English.
Instead of saving easier or more interesting classes for the concentrated summer sessions, I had postponed taking some of my more dreaded classes.
With a heavy heart, I walked into my first day of American Government, a graduation prerequisite, on a June Monday morning. At the time, I hated history classes because they seemed irrelevant and redundant. The room gradually filled, and I remember being surprised by how many students enrolled in summer classes.
The youngish professor soon arrived with his briefcase in hand. As he set his bag on the desk, nearly half the class groaned and rose to their feet in a seemingly orchestrated movement, making a mass exodus out the door. My jaw dropped open. I had never seen anything like this before.
"What the hell is going on?" I wondered. "Could all these students be in the wrong room?"
Did I mention that I was also naïve? It never occurred to me that students dropped classes if they did not like a professor. I was so regimented that if I signed up, I stayed.
I learned later that Professor Burton had earned quite a reputation for himself as a taskmaster.
Without mentioning the students who had abandoned the rest of us, he went over the work we would accomplish in the 15-day semester. Each class day, we would spend three hours together in the classroom and then we would have to turn in written homework assignments each day. Our multiple exams would be blue book essays we completed at home. In other words, I was going to live and breathe American Government for three whole weeks.
"My God," I wondered, "Will I survive?"
Class was a mixture of Professor Burton's lectures and discussions about the readings. I busied myself that first day by taking notes, assuming I needed help to stay awake. Oddly, I soon discovered that what he said was interesting. He was not pounding us with dates and facts. Over successive days, he made history come alive and for once in my life, an educator pointed out flaws in our government. America was presented as "imperfect."
I knew several young men with "unlucky" lottery numbers who had either fled to Canada or told the Army they were gay to get out of going to Vietnam; I had marched in Washington at a peace rally and had National Guard members point rifles at me; and I had grown up hating racism and eventually sexism, but prior to this class, my political interests were limited.
Professor Burton's lectures became enthralling as the days passed. I devoured the non-traditional readings he gave us, particularly the Black Panthers—Cleaver, Newton and Seale. We were learning that freedoms weren't available to everyone in America and that the real basis of America's Constitutional rights was "the ownership of private property," not individuals' rights in some glorified utopia. For a young woman from a WASP family with traditional values, this was cutting edge.
Then, the impossible happened. One of my classmates reported what we were reading to her mother. As a result of calls to the administration, Prof. Burton was no longer "allowed" to "hand" us Black Panther treatises. He now placed them on the edge of his desk, so we could "take" them if we wanted.
Except for that one repressed girl, most of us now lusted after those essays. Being told "no" intrigued us.
One day, Prof. Burton shared a story about one of his colleagues, a newly hired black professor. This man was looking to buy a house. Oddly, every time he tried to buy one of the houses he saw listed, he was told the house had already been sold.
Soon, Prof. Burton began visiting realtors' offices claiming to be a prospective buyer. None of the houses in question had been sold—they were only available to white buyers. This situation culminated in a threatened lawsuit and the black professor soon had a house.
I fell in love with Prof. Burton's sense of justice that day.
He was asking me to think, not about literature (which I loved) but about America. I now had a context for Lt. Calley and the burning of My Lai, the student deaths at Kent State and for the Black Power movement.
When I received a B on my first exam in that class, I was crushed. I resolutely decided to earn an A to prove myself to him. He inspired me more than any other professor I ever had, except Prof. Jordan, who made me cry when she read to us.
Lucky for me, my mother had kicked me out of the house that summer, so I was living in a little apartment nearby. I raced home after each class and, except for eating and sleeping, I wholly devoted myself to my classwork. For the second exam, I spent 22 torturous hours writing and rewriting. I never worked with such determination before or after that class.
Sometimes people are angels sent to transform us without our awareness. I believe Professor Burton was a treasure gifted to me that June. He has remained my favorite professor for over four decades and the "A" I earned in his class is the one I am most proud of. He loved justice and equality and wanted us to work to help America achieve them. Those other students who walked out that first day cheated themselves.