Forty summers ago, a first-ever trip to NYC
Forty summers ago around this time, I was packing a small suitcase in preparation for a first-ever trip to New York City. This was to be a reconnaissance mission of sorts, an initial exploration of what would be my new home for at least the next three years. (It turned out to be more like twelve.)
After having grown up in Northwest Indiana and attended college at Valparaiso University, located in the region’s outskirts, I yearned to spend time in another part of the country. This desire was fueled by a final collegiate semester at VU’s overseas study center in Cambridge, England, which greatly expanded my horizons.
Plans to attend law school provided an opportunity to satisfy that exploratory vibe, and initially I was looking very intently at the West Coast. Back then, I harbored great ambitions of having a career in politics, and I figured that California might be a good launching pad for that. But when New York University extended an offer to attend its well-regarded law school, located in the heart of a Manhattan neighborhood called Greenwich Village, I opted to go in the opposite direction.
My impressions of NYU and New York City in general were mostly on paper, supplemented by images drawn from television shows and movies set in the city. You see, I had never been to New York. The meager state of my finances was such that I had done all of my research about potential law schools by poring over admissions brochures and published commercial guidebooks. I had accepted NYU’s offer of admission sight unseen.
With my first year of law school beckoning in the fall, I figured I should check out what I had gotten myself into. So I planned a short summer trip to New York.
I booked a tiny room at the Vanderbilt YMCA on 47th Street in Manhattan. The bathroom was down the hall. The guest rent was $18 a night. At least it was an upgrade from my youth hostel travels during my semester abroad.
I’ve kept the guidebook I used to help plan my trip. In Frommer’s 1981-82 Guide to New York, author Faye Hammel writes:
You should be advised that there is one dangerous aspect of coming to New York for the first time: not of getting lost, mobbed, or caught in a blackout, but of falling so desperately in love with the city that you may not want to go home again. Or, if you do, it may be just to pack your bags.
Well, that’s pretty much what happened. My short visit didn’t allay all of my anxieties about moving to another part of the country to experience the rigors of law school, but the city immediately started to work its magic on me. I did some of the standard tourist stuff, including visits to the Empire State Building, the United Nations, and the wonderful Strand bookstore. And I spent time at NYU, checking out Vanderbilt Hall (the main law school building) and Hayden Hall (the residence hall where most first-year law students lived), both located on historic Washington Square.
I returned from my brief sojourn believing that I had made the right choice. This first impression would prove to be correct. New York and NYU were the right matches for me.
Later that summer, I used my little portable cassette player to tape this classic Sinatra number from the radio, and I would play it over and again. The lyrics spoke to me, as they have for countless others who have found their way to New York, for stays short and long.
I now live in Boston, and this city is home for me, quite possibly for the duration. Its smaller scale, slightly slower pace, and bookish, “thinky” vibe are more in line with who I am today. But New York will always be a part of me as well, starting with that summer 1982 visit.
Pandemic Chronicles #26: Old postcards as time travel experiences
The pandemic has prompted me to revive a boyhood hobby of stamp collecting, as I’ve shared in my new blog on lifelong learning and adult education (here and here). It has been an enjoyable and relaxing pastime, and I’m sure I’ll be sticking with it for the longer run.
Among other things, I’m creating an album of postal covers and postcards that represent places and themes of my life. Toward that end, I’ve been searching eBay for old postcards of Valparaiso University (my undergraduate alma mater) and New York University (my law school alma mater), and I’ve scored several good deals averaging a few dollars a piece.
One postcard pictures VU’s Lembke Hall, opened in 1902 as a dormitory. By the time I arrived in 1977, it housed faculty offices, including those of the political science professors, my major. Perhaps my memory exaggerates, but I recall it as being quite the ramshackle building, a model of what real estate folks and contractors might call deferred maintenance. It felt like the whole thing might simply collapse. I don’t know when VU tore it down, but the equivalent of a strong wind may have been sufficient.
Anyway, this postcard is especially cool because it is postally used. The back reveals a quick little note penned by one Elsie to her friend Edith in Pennsylvania. It was postmarked from Valparaiso on August 7, 1910. What a neat snapshot of everyday life over a century ago!
Below is a postcard depicting the Hotel Holley on Washington Square West, in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. There’s no date on it, but from the automobiles in the illustration and its overall design, it’s clearly from the early 1900s. Also pictured is the northwest corner of Washington Square Park. Alas, this postcard was never used, so I can only imagine who purchased it and why.
In the early fifties, NYU would buy the hotel and convert it to a residence hall for law students. It was designed to complement the opening of Vanderbilt Hall, the main law school building occupying the southwest corner of the Square. The new dorm was named Hayden Hall. Some 30 years later, I would live in it during my first year at NYU. The rooms were quite plain, shared with a roommate. But each room had a bathroom, and most had small study nooks to enable an early riser or a night owl to work without disturbing their roommate. Hayden Hall also had a cafeteria and group TV room on the ground floor, and it is via gatherings there with my classmates that I made many new friends.
Unless I win the lottery, Hayden Hall also happened to be the fanciest address that I will ever claim: 33 Washington Square West. (The ghost of Henry James must approve!) Here’s a shot of the building from one of my NYC visits several years ago.
It struck me the other day that during the pandemic, I have returned to a hobby that allows me to travel over distance and time. My years at both VU and NYU yielded many good memories and planted seeds of future endeavors, cultural interests, and lifelong friendships. I’m glad that I can capture some of these memories in a stamp album.
Pandemic Chronicles #25: Monet, London fog, and memory at the Museum of Fine Arts
A greater appreciation for the cultural amenities of my home town of Boston and its surroundings has been an unintended but welcomed benefit of this otherwise awful pandemic. Yesterday this manifested in a short visit to the city’s venerable Museum of Fine Arts, which reopened for visitors earlier this year.
I spent most of my time at a special exhibition celebrating the work of impressionist painter Claude Monet. Among my favorites was his 1900 oil painting of the Charing Cross bridge in London. You can check out the photo above and the story behind the painting below.
It was an exceedingly pleasant visit, including lunch at one of the museum’s cafés and a stop in its bookshop. I’ll be back for more visits during the months to come. Among other things, later this year, MFA is reopening its redesigned galleries covering Ancient Greece and Rome, two historical periods of interest to me.
Monet’s Charing Cross painting triggered a bout of nostalgia, for London has long been one of my favorite cities, a huge yet walkable metropolis steeped in history, tradition, culture, and entertainment. I first discovered it during my 1981 semester overseas as part of Valparaiso University’s Cambridge, England study abroad program. My grainy, first-ever photo of London is below.
That semester would draw me to city life forever. No doubt those days spent in London would pave the way for my decision to go to law school at New York University, located in the heart of Manhattan.
When I began teaching in the 1990s, a week-long, spring break visit to London was made affordable by $300 round trip tickets from the East Coast. My fascination with the city and the relative affordability of traveling there made for some great visits during my younger days. I haven’t been to London in some time, but it’s definitely on my bucket list for a return trip.
(I will save for another writing the explanation behind the once extremely unlikely prospect that I would ever write with affection about a visit to an art museum. For now, let me say that the backstory also traces its origins to my semester abroad and what was, by far, my lowest grade in any college course!)
“Have I not enough without your mountains?”
In 1801, Charles Lamb, essayist, poet, and lifelong Londoner, declined an invitation from friend and fellow poet William Wordsworth to visit him in England’s northwest countryside, explaining:
The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, wagons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the Town; the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes – London itself a pantomime and a masquerade – all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me, without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fullness of joy at so much life.
Ultimately, Lamb asked, “Have I not enough without your mountains?” (You may read the full letter here).
Now, unlike Charles Lamb, I’m not so totally stuck on cities that I cannot appreciate a beautiful countryside. But I get where he’s coming from in terms of being stimulated by city life. I’ve lived in cities my whole adult life, first New York (1982-94), then Boston (1994-present). And if New York has been my stateside London, then Greater Boston has been my stateside version of the historic university city of Cambridge (UK variety).
In short, I’ll probably be a city dweller for the duration.
A Foggy Day
Because I’ll use any excuse to listen to Sinatra, I will close with his perfect rendition of Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day (in London Town).” Enjoy.
Pandemic Chronicles #21: Migrating
Have you ever moved to another part of your city, state/province, or country? Have you ever relocated to another nation? Why did you do it, and how did you get there?
NPR’s TED Radio Hour had me contemplating this topic during a feature on migration (link here), exploring why and how people have uprooted themselves from their original surroundings to less familiar ones. If you’ve made a big move or two during your life, or are contemplating doing so, this hour offers an interesting set of reflections and insights.
Location and the pandemic
Of course, the idea that location matters has become very significant during the coronavirus pandemic. One’s experience of this pandemic and public responses to it are based in part on where we live. Infection rates, medical and public health resources, population density, and beliefs in science and prevention vary widely by location.
Here in Boston, after a brutal year we are allowing ourselves to take literal and figurative breaths of relief. Our vaccination rates are trending upward, our infection rates and fatalities are in decline, and we’re gradually moving towards some resumption of living more normally.
Yesterday, however, I was on a webinar with law students and lawyers in India. I knew very well that they are reeling from a terrible surge in infections that, for now, shows no signs of abating. We may have been in the same virtual room together, but our experiences of that event were no doubt shaped by our respective perceptions of safety and health.
During my lifetime, I’ve made two bigger moves, a temporary move abroad, and a smaller move that felt like a huge one.
Going in reverse order, the small move that felt very big was leaving my hometown of Hammond, Indiana to attend Valparaiso University, all of one county and a 45-minute drive away. To an 18-year-old young man who wasn’t very worldly, it felt like I had moved halfway across the country, even though I remained squarely in northwest Indiana.
The temporary move abroad was in the form of a collegiate semester spent in England. As I’ve written before on this blog, those five months opened the world to me. Even before that study abroad experience, I had aspirations of moving to the West Coast or East Coast for law school. My semester abroad basically cemented that intention.
A year after returning from England, I would pack my bags for a much longer stay — twelve years in New York City — starting with law school at New York University. In 1994, an opportunity for a tenure-track teaching appointment at my current affiliation, Suffolk University Law School in downtown Boston, prompted a move to my current hometown.
With New York City and me, it was love at first sight. I will never again be as taken with a sense of place in the way that New York captivated me. With Boston, it has been more of an evolving affection, marked by the city’s insularity and parochialism slowly giving way (uh, sometimes kicking and screaming) to a growing cosmopolitan culture. It also helps that Greater Boston remains a place where ideas, invention, creativity, and books still matter. (Two years ago, I reflected on a quarter century of living in Boston. You may go here to read that.)
Many academics, even tenured ones, opt to be somewhat nomadic, moving from university to university as perceived greener pastures present themselves. While I’ve received periodic invitations to apply for teaching jobs elsewhere, I’ve opted to remain in Boston. Whether or not any more big moves remain for me, I cannot guess. But over the years, I’ve also taken countless plane and train trips to places far and near, and I expect that I’ll resume doing so as public health circumstances permit.
Pandemic Chronicles #20: Witnessing “The Troubles” 40 years ago
With vaccinations on the increase and safer travel becoming a realistic possibility during the months to come, memories of past sojourns have become prominent in my nostalgic mind. Chief among them is my final undergraduate semester in 1981, spent at Valparaiso University’s study abroad centre in Cambridge, England. I have written with great affection about this formative time on this blog (e.g., “First-time sojourn across the pond,” here) and highlighted that experience in a reflective essay on my college years published in the university’s literary journal (“Homecoming at Middle Age,” The Cresset, here). Suffice it to say that seeds planted during that semester took hold in so many ways, shaping my sense of vocation and personal culture for a lifetime.
This writing finds myself contemplating a specific set of memories about that semester. Forty years ago this week, I was spending a part of our spring break in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which at the time were marked by “The Troubles,” a span of great and violent political and nationalistic discord over the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. My brief visit occurred during a period of hunger strikes by Irish prisoners being held at Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, known as “H-Block” because of its physical configuration. Ten of these prisoners would die of starvation.
Upon arriving in Belfast by bus, I felt very lost as I gazed around, with map in hand, wondering how to find the youth hostel where I planned to stay for a couple of days. Apparently I looked very lost as well, because a man approached me and asked if he could direct me somewhere. I explained that I was looking for the hostel, and he offered to give me a ride there. I readily accepted his offer. (Keep in mind that hitchhiking was a common practice for students studying abroad back then.)
In the car, I introduced myself and added that I had become interested in the political strife surrounding Northern Ireland. Well, that opened up a conversation. It turns out that this fellow was a BBC reporter, and he explained that he had just finished interviewing members of the Irish Republican Army, the paramilitary organization that was challenging British rule in Northern Ireland. He then asked if I had a few minutes to spare, offering to take me on a quick driving tour through parts of working class Belfast where he had talked to IRA members. Being a college newspaper scribe and fancying myself as a sort of foreign correspondent, of course I said yes.
I took the two snapshots above during that impromptu tour. To this day, I understand that this chance meeting gave me an opportunity to see parts of Belfast that I never would’ve ventured into on my own, during a violent and painful time in the city’s history.
Belfast felt like a proverbial war zone during my visit. Security checkpoints screened entry into the city centre. Stores and movie theaters employed guards to search bags. One afternoon, as I walked back to the youth hostel, I saw a British troop car ahead of me. Soldiers were exiting it quickly, while their leader was focused on looking across the street. As I passed by, I asked what was going on, and they told me in a terse tone to just keep walking. I followed orders, briskly so. I have no idea what, if anything, happened later. However, I did manage to snap the photo above.
From Belfast I traveled south to Dublin, via three hitchhiked rides. It was Easter weekend, and this marked the 65th anniversary of the historic Easter rising, an armed insurrection by Irish nationalists challenging British rule. Dublin was at the center of the insurrection, which led to nearly 500 fatalities and some 2,600 wounded.
Obviously, the current H-Block hunger strikes gave this anniversary considerable meaning. I took these photos of the Easter weekend protest march and rally. Above, the young man pictured struck a pose for me. (Note also the titles of movies playing at the city cinema!)
The Old Post Office and Bank of Ireland buildings, both of which were occupied by Irish nationalists during the Easter Rising, were prominent sites for this rally as well. I got snapshots of both.
Looking back, I now grasp how I had dropped myself into places that could’ve made for dangerous situations. At the time, I was sufficiently young and ignorant to assume that if any bullets flew in my direction, they would simply miss me.
That I visited Belfast and Dublin during this tumultuous time was a bit of a twist. You see, among our student cohort, I was not the most adventurous of travelers, often preferring to spend weekends remaining in Cambridge, while many of my fellow Valparaiso U students traveled around the UK.
Happily, though, the days spent traipsing around Cambridge did stick with me. I did not have plans to pursue a career in academe at the time, as I intended to go to law school as a prelude to entering the bloody world of politics. But the time I spent drinking in this historic, medieval university city worked its magic on me and contributed to my opting for the bloody world of academe instead.
In any event, my ongoing gratitude for that study abroad experience leads me to dearly hope that international study programs will recover and revive as we get through the worst of this pandemic. As I wrote last May (here), “(o)ne of the great sadnesses of the current coronavirus pandemic is how many thousands of college students may be denied similar opportunities.” We need to restore these chances to have life-shaping experiences.
Pandemic Chronicles #16: “May you live in interesting times” (Umm, on second thought…)
Many years ago, when I was easily inspired by catchy phrases, the expression “may you live in interesting times” first sounded waaaay cool to me. As a late Baby Boomer (i.e., a member of Generation Jones), I had missed out on all of the drama and tumult of the 1960s. As a history buff, I was fascinated by the Second World War (and remain so). Now those were times that mattered, I thought to myself.
In stark contrast, my formative years included watching lots of bad TV, being amazed at the culinary convenience of Stouffer’s French bread pizza, and wearing clothes that threatened to melt if I got too close to a radiator.
I would later learn that “may you live in interesting times” was thought to be an old Chinese curse, not a blessing! And now we know that its allegedly ancient provenance is apocryphal. Heh, perhaps the whole tale was invented by someone who knew that impressionable fellows like me would fall for it.
Anyway, I thought about the expression as I prepared to make one of my occasional trips to my university office yesterday, in order to pick up some materials to help me prep for the coming semester. You see, this decision involved a bit of personal calculus that directly reflects our current situation.
First, for me at least, every trip on the Boston subway now involves a standard risk assessment. If I catch COVID-19, I’m at moderate risk to develop a severe case of it. So, I wear a KN-95 mask, put on gloves (once our infection rate started to surge again), and liberally use my bottle of hand sanitizer. When I enter a subway car, I do a quick scan for folks not wearing masks. I will try to transfer cars at the next stop if there appear to be blatant violators.
Second, I decided to go in yesterday, even though classes don’t begin for another two weeks. According to credible news reports, the same insurrectionist cells that stoked the violent occupation of the U.S. Capitol last week are threatening similar events in both Washington D.C. and all 50 state capitals for next week. Boston is the capital of Massachusetts, and the State House building is a short walk up the street from my university office. I plan to avoid the area. (In fact, a few days ago, I wrote senior university administrators at my school to suggest that all buildings be closed for most of next week, out of an abundance of caution.)
Interesting times, indeed. The coronavirus has changed the way we live, while an ugly and deeply divisive election and its aftermath have been playing out before us. Although I sincerely believe that 2021 will be better than its predecessor, the next few months will be dire in terms of our public and civic health. This time will be remembered as one of the most challenging periods in our history.
I’ve always been a news junkie, but I’m following daily developments like never before. I guess you could say that I got what my younger self wanted. But that younger self was not always very wise or perceptive. In a 2017 remembrance published in The Cresset, the literary journal of Valparaiso University (my undergraduate alma mater), I opened with an observation that I had long regarded my collegiate years as covering a rather dull, uneventful stretch of America’s history. Subsequent events, however, would prove otherwise, revealing that a lot of important developments were occurring during that time.
In reality, the ebb and flow of history suggest that there are no truly uneventful times. Something is always going on, even if its significances are not always evident in that snapshot moment. Moreover, we can live meaningful and interesting lives under virtually any general set of circumstances. I think that’s the more important consideration to keep in mind.
Pandemic Chronicles #7: Adventures lost
A couple of weeks ago, our study abroad group from college met for a Zoom-enabled happy hour/mini-reunion. It was the latest gathering of our spring 1981 semester abroad cohort from Valparaiso University’s program in Cambridge, England.
I can think of no other chapter in my life that so instantly flips on my personal nostalgia channel. I’ve written about that special semester many times on this blog (such as here, “First-time sojourn across the pond”). Here’s a snippet of what I wrote in 2016:
I was embarking on the most formative educational experience of my life. The semester would create enduring memories, new perspectives, and lifelong friendships. The seeds it planted permeate my life today, ranging from the way I live, to my choice of vocation, to how I spend my typical day.
One of the great sadnesses of the current coronavirus pandemic is how many thousands of college students may be denied similar opportunities. Right now, it’s highly questionable whether their main campuses will even be open for residential classes in the fall, much less offering study abroad options. Even when those possibilities begin manifesting themselves again, a lot of students (and their parents) may understandably be hesitant to take the plunge.
I dearly hope that a combination of smart public health practices and new developments in medicine will control the ravages of this virus sooner than later. Saving lives, preserving health, and re-opening our economic and civic society are, of course, our main priorities. The return of life-changing opportunities to spend meaningful time in other parts of the world would be welcomed, too, along with a renewed sense of adventure to take advantage of them.
Pandemic Chronicles #3: Carless in Boston
It has taken a global pandemic to get me to a point where I feel limited by not owning a car.
Here in Boston, we’re experiencing a predicted surge in COVID-19 cases. Sheltering-in-place and social distancing remain the recommended best practices for those of us not working in essential businesses, and I’m taking these directives seriously. Thank goodness that my local grocery store and a number of area eateries continue to offer reliable delivery. But a car would make it easier to take occasional trips for other goods.
It has been over a month since I’ve taken the subway, which during 26 years in Boston and 12 years in New York City has been my primary way of getting around besides walking. I haven’t ordered a taxi or Uber since then, either.
As for having a car, well, I haven’t had a car of my own since 1982, when I left my home state of Indiana to attend law school at New York University, in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. During college, I owned a 1968 Buick LeSabre, a hand-me-down from my parents. A quick visit to New York during the summer before starting law school easily persuaded me that keeping a car there was neither practical nor affordable. I decided that the gas guzzling Buick would remain in Indiana.
The seeds of my new lifestyle had been deeply planted a year before, during a formative semester abroad in England through Valparaiso University, my undergraduate alma mater, which included a post-term sojourn to the European continent. Walking, buses, subways, trains, and the occasional boat trip became my modes of transportation, fueled by a sense of adventure. In addition, I didn’t have to worry about stuff like parking, upkeep, and insurance.
So, upon moving to New York, I became a happy city dweller and a creature of public transportation. I’ve never lamented a lack of wheels to take a quick trip to the country. In fact, since relocating to Boston, I’ve never traveled to Cape Cod or Nantucket, and I don’t have a burning curiosity to visit either.
In other words, for well over three decades, I’ve felt quite free bopping around cities without a car.
Until now, that is.
This afternoon, I left the immediate area of my home for the first time in a couple of weeks, to walk over to the drugstore for various provisions. Donning safety mask and gloves, I walked up the street, maintaining distance from the handful of others on the sidewalk. With a car, I could’ve completed a more ambitious shopping trip, and maybe hunted around a few other places for those elusive rolls of toilet paper and paper towels.
Honestly, though, I wasn’t unhappy about that. I did, however, feel genuine sadness at the eerie quiet in my neighborhood and the occasional sight of other masked pedestrians on what normally would’ve been a livelier Friday afternoon.
Okay, I’m not about to buy or lease a car because of this. I just hope that between various delivery options and occasional short walks to shop for necessities, I can continue to obtain the goods and supplies I need during this shutdown and any similar stretches, as we wrestle down this damnable virus.
Music as time machine: 1979
At my go-to karaoke place in Boston, the main stage DJ is fond of playing clips of late 70s pop music in between numbers selected for performance. When things are a bit slow, he’ll even get up and croon a tune himself, and often he chooses songs from the late 70s. For me, naturally, this music sets off immediate bouts of nostalgia — in this case zeroing in on the year 1979.
Why 1979? Maybe it’s simply easy to think in terms of 20/30/40 years ago. But for me it’s more than that. Until recently, I never regarded that year as being a particularly momentous one in my life. Forty summers ago, I was a rising junior at Valparaiso University. Much of that summer was spent working as a retail clerk for a local drugstore chain, unloading trucks and stocking shelves with merchandise. In keeping with my proclaimed career goal of entering politics, I was very active in student government and local political campaigns. My plan was to finish up my B.A. (political science major, of course) and then to go to law school, a tried-and-true path to a political career.
Well, I would graduate with that poli sci major and head off to law school, but another set of significant experiences would come into play as well. In the spring of 1979, I interviewed for and obtained a departmental editor position with The Torch, VU’s student newspaper. Starting in the fall, I would be the paper’s academic affairs editor, responsible for the internal higher education beat at the university. That meant writing my own news and opinion articles, as well as assigning and editing articles for staff reporters.
I’ve actually saved the summer 1979 letter that our editor-in-chief sent to incoming department editors and staffers, in anticipation of our work that fall. A snapshot of it appears below. There’s a reason why I’ve held onto it for so long, and it’s not simply my pack rat mentality. You see, I vividly recall how much I was looking forward to that experience. I had never before worked on a student newspaper, but I had the writing bug. The Torch was a very good undergraduate student newspaper and was taken seriously by the faculty and administration. I was psyched to be a part of it.
Working on The Torch turned out to be a great, immersive experience, intellectually and personally. To the degree that I write clearly and cogently today, I credit the many dozens of articles I wrote and edited as helping to build that foundation. I spent many hours in the newspaper’s offices, and that time helped to forge a cadre of lifelong friendships. In addition, I now realize how covering VU’s higher ed scene helped to plant the seeds for my eventual pursuit of an academic career.
And of course, whether in The Torch offices or driving around in my beat-up 1968 Buick, the a.m. radio played those Top 40 pop songs, over and again. So yes, they do a number on me. In fact, I’m now feeding the nostalgia beast, having assembled a little play list of some of those songs from 1979 for my iPad. They’re like musical time machines.
Two years ago, I wrote a retrospective essay looking back at my college years for The Cresset, Valparaiso University’s journal of the arts, humanities, and public affairs. Titled “Homecoming at Middle Age,” you may freely access it here.
Two memorable semester breaks
Even though I’ve been teaching for some 27 years, I don’t get overly enthused about semester breaks. They usually involve a fair amount of grading exams and papers, followed by catching up on other work tasks and getting ready for the next term’s classes. They’re all good, but they’re more of a respite from teaching than a break.
Nevertheless, as the weather gets colder here in Boston and classes come to an end, I do get especially nostalgic about two semester breaks that date back to my own student days.
The first was during my senior year (1980-81) at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana. Had I planned to spend my final semester of college on campus, I would’ve been at serious risk for developing a bad case of “senioritis” — i.e., playing out the home stretch of my undergraduate career without a lot of enthusiasm. However, I was about to spend my last collegiate semester at VU’s Cambridge, England study center. As I’ve written on this blog, it turned out to be a deeply formative experience.
Of course, I didn’t anticipate how life-changing that semester abroad would be as I completed my fall semester papers and final exams and then left my Brandt Hall dorm room for home. The nostalgia trip for me today is recalling how totally, utterly, completely clueless I was about the experience that awaited me.
In keeping with my procrastinating nature back then (less so today), my preparations for the trip were last minute and minimal. Honestly, I wasn’t even all that curious about England and Europe. I had signed up for the Cambridge semester largely because friends with whom I worked on the VU student newspaper were going. I also welcomed a change of scenery from our small town Indiana campus. (Of course, today I also get nostalgic about those days in Valparaiso. Click here for an essay I wrote, “Homecoming at Middle Age,” published in The Cresset, VU’s journal of the arts, literature, and public affairs.)
As a collegian, although I managed to maintain a certain confident front, in reality I was a jumble of ambition, insecurity, immaturity, and uncertainty over the future. I wouldn’t trade my current level of wisdom (umm, still a work in progress!) for said jumble of that stage of my life. However, it’s kind of neat to look back at that time with the gift of hindsight. As I pondered what to stuff into a suitcase and a backpack, I had no idea that the next five months would shape my personal culture, worldview, way of living, and base of friendships for a lifetime.
The second memorable semester break was during my third and final year of law school (1984-85) at New York University. I was in the job hunt, and my hope was to secure a public interest legal position in New York City for after graduation. During my short time in NYC, I had fallen in love with the city. New York of the 80s was a much grittier and affordable place than it is today. It was possible to enjoy the city on a tight budget. I badly wished to stay.
In addition, I was committed to working in the public interest field. During the previous summer, I was a summer associate at a large commercial law firm in Chicago. The money was great, and the firm treated its lawyers and staff with respect. But my heart wasn’t into corporate legal work, and so I would end up turning down the firm’s offer of a full-time associate attorney position for after graduation. Instead, I returned to the reasons that attracted me to law school in the first place, doing some type of public interest work in the non-profit or public sector.
I interviewed with a wide variety of public interest employers during the fall, and things started to develop during the semester break. During the break I received and accepted an offer for an attorney position from the New York City Legal Aid Society in downtown Manhattan. I was going to be a public interest lawyer in New York City, and I couldn’t have been happier about it! (The realities of paying rent and repaying student loans on a $20,000 salary would come later.) I recall spending a chunk of that break diving into my growing little collection of books about New York City, delighted that I would be staying in my adopted hometown.
Major junctures and events in our lives often don’t appear significant until we can look back at them via the rear-view mirror. Then they become part of our personal narratives. As mythologist Joseph Campbell observed, “when you look back on your life, it looks as though it were a plot, but when you are into it, it’s a mess: just one surprise after another” (Diana K. Osbon, ed., A Joseph Campbell Companion, 1991). That’s how these two semester breaks fit into my story.
Both of these remembrances embrace a post-Second World War, American middle class ideal that has valued higher education as a stepping stone to a better life. I was not fully appreciative of these gifts back then, but I certainly am grateful for them today.
For middle class and working class folks in the U.S., the path to upward mobility that I enjoyed is narrowing sharply. The “college experience” of going away to school, while cobbling together enough money from financial aid, summer and part-time jobs, and parental assistance to make it relatively affordable, has too often given way to sky-high tuition and costs subsidized by significant student loan debt. Many students and their families are pursuing less pricey alternatives as a result, such as two-year colleges and distance learning programs.
Indeed, it may be that Generation Jones (born 1954 through 1965) was the last major cohort to have higher education opportunities that didn’t come with enormous price tags. That reality should inform our potential choices for charitable giving and at the ballot box. Those of us who work in higher education should also be advocates for reducing student debt. We need to ease the financial burdens of higher learning, so that more may have such life-changing experiences.