Everyone who takes Dr. March’s human rights class ends up falling in love with him a little. It’s his passion for the subject that gets to you. Unlike the many burn-outs checking off days till retirement, March is that rare teacher who lives and breathes his subject 24/7.
He comes into every class session energized, laden with handouts and ready to spark another day’s discussion of the death penalty in Texas, children working in sweatshops in Asia, imprisoned rape victims in the Middle East and any of a thousand other examples of bruises on the soul of humanity.
Dr. March is a true believer in doing the right thing. And one of the right things he does is to expose his students (under- and grad) to the horrors human beings have inflicted on one another. The usual subjects come up—the Holocaust, Pol Pot, Chechnya, the Sudan—but he is careful to include events such as the Indian Removal Act and the Rape of Nanking that too often are left out of high school history books these days.
I remember the night in class that Dr. March screened footage of woman being stoned to death by a jeering crowd of men in a street in Jordan. It was so horrifying and graphic that a woman in our class vomited and then passed out at her desk. Every Monday night, we’d stagger out at 10 p.m., heads throbbing and stomachs churning from his description of what it’s like to die by lethal injection (he’s witnessed many) or from watching a documentary about Cambodia’s Killing Fields.
Every December, Dr. March takes a group of students on a tour of the Nazi death camps. Only someone this dedicated could celebrate Christmas by visiting Poland’s bleakest sites in the dead of winter. But it’s what he does to make sure new generations know what happened.
Year after year Dr. March has enjoyed a reputation as one of the toughest but finest professors in the history department. His classes on the Civil War, Civil Rights Era and “Struggle for Human Rights” fill up quickly, despite warnings that he requires mountains of reading, half a dozen research papers and up to 20 hours of outside volunteer work for a human rights organization (I volunteered to help a Somalian refugee earn legal immigrant status, which she eventually did).
The man is all business and no-nonsense in class. He doesn’t kibitz about anything trivial, which makes him something of a mystery. Only through the campus grapevine does one hear this or that about his private life—that he might have a girlfriend, that he lives in a house filled with books and legal papers. It all helps to bolster his image as enigmatic, slightly romantic hero.
One January, just before spring semester began, he left town to protest the death penalty on the steps of the Supreme Court, something he’s done many times. The Capitol cops arrested him and held him without food, water or requisite phone call for several days (or so the story went around school). In class, he talked very little about it, except to quote the cop who cuffed him as saying, “The First Amendment stops on these steps.”
When Henry Kissinger was welcomed to campus for a speaking engagement that paid a bundle, March and a few others occupied the campus’ tiny “free speech zone” to protest the presence of the man many from the Vietnam era still regard as a war criminal.
March talks the talk and walks the walk—but without ego and without bravado. Whether he’s visiting another Death Row prisoner in Huntsville or serving as head of Amnesty International, he’s quietly serious and sincere.
So why would a university try to oust such a role model? For his politics? Surprisingly, no.
Back in the day, during a protest, March was sprayed by police directly in the face with mace, nearly blinding him. He wears Mr. Magoo glasses and admits to being colorblind. So a few years ago when the school switched to a new computer program for entering students’ grades and other info, March realized he couldn’t make out the shaded areas on the screen, much less the tiny print.
For this he was out, he was told. Can’t get those grades in on the computer? Buh-bye.
Then someone in HR was reminded that you can’t fire an employee for a disability. Ouch. An assistant was provided to help Dr. March enter his grades—a solution so screamingly simple, it’s no shock that nobody thought of it earlier.
How do I know about this? March never mentioned it in class. He wouldn’t, probably, because he’d rather spend time on what he believes are bigger issues. But he shared it with writing students who interviewed him for class assignments. The first time I read about his almost-firing in an interview paper, I burst into tears. (March was so generous with his time for my writing students that I sometimes warned classes not to swarm him asking for interviews.)
Idiots, I thought. They’re idiots.
Dr. March likes to end the semester by telling his classes, “Now you can never say you didn’t know.” I tell you, it gets you right in the solar plexus.