In the 1950s, being cool was for the chosen few: those who could swim with the popular culture but somehow remain detached, watching from the sidelines with ironic disdain. In the late 1960s, coolness became much less exclusive, morphing into a zeitgeist of immersion as vast numbers of young adults chose to live in a counterculture of music, psychoactive drugs, free sex, and idealistic antimaterialism.
If there is a distinguishing mark of the Baby Boom generation that came of age during these times, it is that they have always lived with the strong need to be “cool”; first at the expense of their parents, now at the expense of their children. Nevertheless, as the clock ticks and the middle-aged cohort of the 1950s and 1960s increasingly struggles for relevance, a new generation is redefining what it means to be young and important. As their parents worship supplements, exercise, and local organic food, the children are giving birth to a whole new style of “cool” right in front of their parents’ eyes but beyond their awareness. It is the anti-cool coolness of young adults who quietly go about the business of reshaping the world, one small action at a time, flying under the radar so artfully that they are noticed only in the aggregate.
Such a heroine is Leigh Conner. Leigh (pronounced “Lee”) is a diminutive, elfish, 24-year-old, inner-city Los Angeles school teacher. She has undistinguished long brown hair and, when I met her, was dressed conservatively in a white blouse, a blue sweater, navy pants, and sensible blue shoes. Leigh was nothing if not polite. She was slightly self-effacing, the epitome of sweetness, someone you would expect to find sitting quietly on a park bench reading Tom Wolfe just for fun. And yet, for three weeks, Leigh, along with several hundred other protesters, has been living in a tent at the Occupy Los Angeles camp in front of the L.A. City Hall. Moreover, when you look closely, it’s not Tom Wolfe she and her friends are reading, but Gene Sharp (Waging Nonviolent Struggle) and Pema Chodron (Dealing With Uncertainty).
Leigh is one of many who have established an indefinite residency outside the L.A. City Hall. When we met, on October 24, 2011, it was clear that Leigh was there for the long run, sharing her tent with two roommates: Sarah, 25, an old friend from college; and a brand new acquaintance with the unlikely name of “Blade of Grass,” a polite, respectful 20-year-old young man. At first, Leigh, Sarah, and Blade (if I may call him that) lived on the South Side of the City Hall. But as the population increased, along with noisy nocturnal distractions, the trio become upwardly mobile, moving to the smaller but more sedate community on the North Side of the building.
Leigh, like many of the Occupy L.A. residents, demonstrates a commitment to her ideals that would be difficult to overpraise. Most nights she sleeps in her tent, waking up at 5 a.m. so as to have time to take the bus to her apartment, where she showers, changes her clothes, and gets ready for work. She then rides another bus 40 minutes to the school at which she teaches, located in a decidedly low-income neighborhood, the type of place that is euphemistically described as “the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder.” There, Leigh works all day, patiently teaching English to 11th and 12th grade students who can barely read but who, somehow, have managed to stay in school long enough to end up in her class. Several nights a week, she takes graduate classes in special education at Loyola Marymount University.
This is a quiet young lady, one who seems to slip into the background effortlessly. And yet, when she talks about her ideals, Leigh becomes sedately animated. She is composed and sure of herself as she explains how the problems she sees every day have inspired her to protest and to occupy. She talks of her students, all of whom have been left behind because of bad luck and ignorance. She describes the unskilled teenagers she sees, helplessly pushed from one grade to the next via “social promotion.” She realizes that they have no idea how the world works and are all likely to fail as adults.
She thinks back to her childhood in Florida, where she and her family lived in a safe, upwardly mobile middle-class neighborhood, and where she had a better life than she understood at the time. Later, she attended Northern Arizona University, where she majored in Women’s Studies. As she came to see more of life, especially in the inner-city schools of Los Angeles, she learned to appreciate what she had taken for granted growing up. And now, in her own way, at 24 years old, Leigh Conner is fighting and articulating, hoping to create the same type of opportunity for her students.
Where many on the outside see a protest, Leigh and her fellows see a movement. She knows that the changes she wants would come under the heading of a miracle, and yet, whenever there is a way for Leigh to speak her piece, she will do so, quietly and effectively. To her, the daily effort and sacrifice she makes is a baby step that just might move her culture a tiny bit in the right direction.
I ask Leigh, “Why are you here?”
“I am here,” she explains, “to make an immediate effort to create awareness of the inequities I see.”
And so Leigh is cool. The new cool. The cool that comes to her so effortlessly, as she thinks beyond herself, understanding and acting upon the needs of others. That is why I found her living hopefully in a tent in front of the L.A. City Hall. Like many people her age, Leigh is willing to dedicate her time and her ideals, in her case, to help the inhabitants of an underclass who find themselves at the mercy of a brutal, uncaring system.
As the sun sets and the dark shadow of the evening begins to swallow the occupiers and their tents, the air becomes decidedly cooler. I feel a chill and pull on my sweater. It is time to leave, time to go back to a hot meal, a shower, and the comfort of a warm house.
“Leigh,” I ask, “how long are you here for?”
“Indefinitely,” she replies.
“But what happens in a few weeks when it begins to get cold?”
She looks at me calmly, with quiet determination and compassionate eyes.
“I have a really warm sleeping bag.”