Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Emerson College - nearly 40 years ago...

WERS is the best and oldest college radio station. I have been listening since I  first discovered the left end of the radio dial.
39 years ago I was accepted to Emerson College as a freshman. I had already been accepted and registered at Boston University so I blew it off, albeit a bit wistfully. Back then BU was big, ugly, more expensive and just down the street from the family apartment in Brookline. Actually, BU is still big, ugly, more expensive and just down the street from our new family apartment in Brookline.

WW II War veteran and anti-war activist
Howard Zinn in front of BU's CLA circa 1970
Back then, I did not have enough money to go to school and live in a dorm. I never dreamed of loans and it seemed the only option was a state school.  But I had dithered and delayed enough to miss the application deadline for UMass, Amherst.  I was dejected to be at home and the start of my academic career was less than brilliant. My mother also had a major psychotic break just as my first semester started. This complicated life as our father was the navigator on a supply ship in the North Sea. Since my mother had seasonal bipolar disorder we were, in a weird way, accustomed to the every other year, chaos and culminating  hospitalizations. But that is another story. I would have been miserable anyway.  At a university, my BU admission counselor had told me, you can avail yourself of so many interesting electives.  BU was plenty artsy.  I wanted to be a film maker and BU's SPC was considered by many the best film school, after NYU, on the east coast. A family friend, who worked in the film industry convinced me that I should not study film but some other, unrelated discipline because, said he,  " Anyone can learn the technical part, but you need to have ideas and something to say to make a good film."  Besides, I did not have a have a portfolio that would get me into any film or art school.  BU  seemed a good compromise - I could study liberal arts and take courses in film and visual art. They don't tell you how little one could do at BU as a College of Liberal Arts freshman. No transferring between schools at the university, no taking classes with Anne Sexton and other celeb teachers. What a crock! I thought. My friends at U Mass Amherst were taking classes with Chinua Achebe as freshmen while I sat in huge lecture classes with 600 other freshman, waiting until we were seniors to see if we might be one of the lucky 12 to study with whoever might be the visiting author. I was so alienated and lonely. Academically, I was a wreck.  A very poor math student, I was also dismayed to be a philosophy major where the study of philosophy was largely focused on John Silber's homeboy, Immanuel Kant and symbolic logic. Boring, irrelevant and impossible stuff -  not a course of study for me.

When Silber tried to bring ROTC came back on campus during the second semester the students and faculty rose up in opposition. We felt the war was now at "home"  and we wanted to keep BU from any complicity with the military-industrial complex. We petitioned, we marched, we had teach-ins, we took over buildings and many students were arrested.  Once, at an early demo,  I was stranded behind a line of riot police and their dogs. There was no "riot". But there were a few hundred students rallying in front of the President's Office on Bay State Road. The order had been give to disperse and we often tested the strength of our "right to peaceful assembly"  and our convictions by  refusing to move.  I  looked to my left and realized that John Silber, was at my elbow. I still remember admiring the colors of his sienna, rust brown and maroon tweed jacket. Silber, then the new BU president didn't notice me. He had his attention on the approach of a TV news team.  Froth and spit flew from his lips as he directed their attention,  pointing out a young man who was being attacked by an off leash police dog.  "Look at him! Look at him!", said John Silber, gesturing emphatically with his good arm. " Why don't you film him? He is deliberately trying to incite a riot by teasing that dog". The terrified student was stumbling backwards, lifting  his arms upwards as the dog tried to bite him. The police had let the dogs off their leashes, put down their visors and were attacking hapless students with long brown batons.  Any normal person could read the fear in the student's face. Suddenly,  the lines of police and demonstrators surged, merged and separated  and I was on the right side of the police riot.  And running away. This picture of John Silber as a wild man and sociopath is still seared in my memory. Along with my shame at running away from the crack of the batons and the dogs, that memory has fueled my determination to fight John Silber's abusive, deranged authority with everything I had. But, worried about my mother's precarious mental state, I embraced the struggle with gusto and resolved not to get arrested because I might be needed at home. It was a pretty amazing conflict. I flunked quite a few of my courses but I got quite an education on justice, the legal system, and the nature of commitment to a struggle. I saw from front row court room seats that Lenny Bruce was right  “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls”.  These experiences made me wrestle with some essential and, as yet, unanswered, questions


What inspires people to fight against injustice, I wondered ? For us,  Howard Zinn's eloquent leadership was one reason. The recent murder of four students at an antiwar demonstration at Kent State still resonated. The escalation of a war that should have been ending?  Enlightened self interest is often posed as another impetus behind the anti -Vietnam war movement. Although, just like former veep Dick Cheney,  Dr. Evil clone, Karl Rove and former New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, all the students had deferred draft status. What inspires movements for justice and peace and, more puzzling, what made people give up, when they hadn't won yet ?  Justice was not served and the Vietnam War  dragged on. Our student movement fizzled and ROTC came to campus even after a long student and faculty strike. Political action was my major course of study but my dedication to it meant summer school to make up for all the credits I lost marching up and down Comm Ave. That summer, my mother was well again and she noticed how miserable I was. She  helped me make a plan to work part-time and create a portfolio so I could apply to art schools. In the fall I was delighted to drop out of BU. I never looked back.
Post demo, circa 1974,  the author holds a banner with some friends

Emerson College did not even have a film major back when I applied and was put on the waiting list. When they accepted me in May of 1971, I was nonplussed - even though I knew that smaller classes and a real community would be ideal. I don't know if they even had dorms back then. No matter. Lots of water + 39 years under that bridge and I have just applied and paid for a CAGS in Digital Media Studies at Emerson.  Very excited about all the possibilities. Emerson, strikes me now, as it did back then, as a human sized institution with a human face and soul. I will soon see.
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1 comment:

Lee-Ellen said...

Hi, Norah! I'm really enjoying your blog, making my way backwards ... and came to this one! I went to Emerson, graduating in 1977. Those small classes were my salvation! And the opportunities on WERS were wonderful. I worked with a team to create a news magazine, and produced a spoken word program on my own.