EYEWITNESS TO HISTORY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

The time I was in college combined with the place where I went to college made my college experience truly unique. The time was 1967-1971, a dramatic period in national history. The place was Barnard College, the all-female school affiliated with Columbia University in New York City. I was at the epicenter of a major student movement that swept the country and ultimately affected university structure as well as government policy.

If you Goggle “Columbia University Riots of 1968, 1970 and 1971”, you’ll find tons of material documenting the world-famous, world-changing events that I experienced first hand – sort of. I was away on the sidelines of this epic battle between the campus Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the university administration.

I was a commuter student – I lived at home in New York City with my parents, a subway ride away, not in the dorms on campus. So the minute the SDS took over the Administration Building in April of 1968, I stopped going to the campus and stayed at home. I learned what was happening from the news and from my friends who lived on campus.

This protest had two major goals. One was to end the university’s academic support for the Vietnam War. The other was to stop the construction of a segregated gymnasium and swimming pool on university-owned property near the campus. As the protests continued, the protesters took over other buildings on campus and the Acting College Dean was taken hostage for twenty-four hours. The protest grew in numbers and intensity and attracted the attention and support of the national radical movement of the time, led by Tom Hayden, who was then married to Jane Fonda.

After a week of lead stories on every national newscast and in every newspaper, the police were called in to quash the protests once and for all. Which they did with a vengeance. I got a call from a friend saying that police on horseback were riding around campus clubbing students. They also used teargas and stormed the occupied buildings. 132 students, four faculty and twelve police were injured and 700 protesters were arrested after a day-long battle with the police. More protests occurred in May with more arrests and more students beaten.

I was incensed when I heard that the protesters had occupied a history professor’s office and burned years of his research in the days before we had computers and backups to everything. I was strongly against the Vietnam War but I hated the protestor’s methods and extreme ideology. I felt that the movement was intent on tearing down everything without any ideas for what to put in its place. And I’d seen the leader of the SDS, Mark Rudd, around campus and thought he was an arrogant asshole.

Mark Rudd on campus (far right)

My grandmother was a socialist who had fought against the Tzar in Russia in the early 1900s and she was mad at me for not joining the protesters on the barricades. She felt that if I didn’t try to change things for the better when I was young, when would I? I saw her point but didn’t feel that this was the right way to effect meaningful change or the right people to do it.

Police on campus

The protests of 1968 paralyzed the university and were considered the most powerful and effective student protests in American history to date. What was my personal takeaway from this iconic experience?

Classes were canceled for more than a week and final exams were also canceled. We got whatever grade we had earned up to that point in each class. So I didn’t have to take finals in my first year at college. I considered that a win!

A newly famous and influential SDS mounted strikes against the university again in 1970 and 1971 to protest the Vietnam War and the presence of ROTC and military recruiters on campus. I still objected to their radical rhetoric and violent tactics and took no part in their activities. However I did benefit, yet again, from another university-wide shut down around final exam time.

Another year without finals! I’m probably part of the only class in American College history that only had to take two sets of final exams out of four years in college. And, oh yes, had a front seat to history in the making.

REMEMBERING HIGH SCHOOL – Marilyn Armstrong

I had no choice about what high school I’d attend. In New York, unless you were going to one of the four or five special schools for performers (that’s where “Fame” came from, the New York School for Performing Arts) or the few for math and sciences and there were a couple of others, but I don’t remember them anymore, you went to your local high school.

In my case, Jamaica High School. Built to hold 1200 students, it housed nearly 3,000 when I was there. It’s closed now. I think they have turned it into some kind of museum.

Jamaica High School

It was five stories high with the choir loft at the top — five stories of stairs to climb and no elevators. I was in a cast my final (senior) year, so I had to be homeschooled for nine months. They sent an actual teacher to the house. I learned absolutely nothing at home but to be fair, there wasn’t much to learn that I didn’t already know, at least from a studies viewpoint. Most of the learning took place in earlier years. But homeschooling did let me meet some interesting and odd people.

Music was always with me. I was a serious piano student. It had nothing to do with high school since I studied privately. I was in the chorus, not the choir. I didn’t think my voice was good enough or strong enough for the choir. My alto voice was okay, but I would have had to study to make it better and stronger. I was so wrapped in piano, I didn’t have time.

That, and of course, writing.

I was always part of the “junior genius” crowd, but my grades didn’t reflect it. I coasted. I did well in things that I liked, not very well in others. I still won two national merit scholarship as well as the Westminster Scholarship (based exclusively on test results — NOT my grades).

They wouldn’t give me the money because my father earned too much. I never understood how they could do that. I thought I had earned it, but even after I got married, they STILL based it on my father’s (not my husband’s) income. Times have changed, but I was furious then and remarkably, I’m still annoyed.

High School, really

It didn’t make as much difference in 1963, though. Colleges were surprisingly inexpensive. Hofstra, where both Garry and I went, was for him just $17/credit and for me, just $42/credit. Now, it’s very expensive. Unimaginably expensive.

I wanted to study music. It wasn’t what I was best at. I was always a better writer, but I loved music. The piano also wasn’t the right instrument for me, but I didn’t know that until years later. I was tiny when I started studying and still tiny when I reached my “full” growth. The piano was big and my hands are little.

It never occurred to me until I was years into college that I could change instruments. By then, I was drifting back to what I was good at — writing. I never worked as a professional musician because I wasn’t good enough. I was good, but the difference between “good” and “good enough” in classical music is gigantic. Good gets you gigs at a piano bar. Good enough gets you concerts. Better than good enough and maybe — if you are lucky — the world is yours.

I didn’t want to teach piano and certainly didn’t want to play in local bars, but I thought maybe I’d write a great book. I sort of did, but I sort of didn’t. Define “great.”

They didn’t teach instruments in my high school. They didn’t even teach them in college. You still needed a private teacher and my teacher was miles away and I didn’t drive. I did what I could on my own, but I needed a teacher.

We didn’t have a senior prom in High School. It was canceled because no one signed up to go. Nor were there parties to celebrate unless they were small and private. The school was divided by race, class, where you lived, what your extracurricular activities were, and whether you were Jewish, well-to-do-white, poor white, Black, Hispanic or Something Else.

My grades weren’t great, but my IQ was ridiculously high. I’m still not sure what that means in terms of the life one lives. Most of the super smart people I knew, in the end, lived fairly normal lives. The people who made billions were not necessarily the ones with the highest IQs, either. They were the ones with the most determination and focus, something tests don’t measure.

Hofstra in 2014

Nonetheless, I won the two big merit scholarships. There was a ceremony in our auditorium where the Principal pointed out that MOST OF US deserved the award, with an evil eye sent to me and my best friend Heidi — another under-achieving winner.

I think the people who miss high school are people who had a special relationship with it or someone in it. For me, it was something I needed to survive until I got to college. I really enjoyed college, though. It wasn’t just studying. It was social and spiritual and the people I met there are still my friends today.

I admit I didn’t try terribly hard. Most things came to me easily. I had a great memory (unlike now). The hard work came after school. At work. When I had to learn Systems Analysis in two weeks. I needed to know them to do the work I did — so, I learned them. I thought my brain was going to explode.

Little Theater – WVHC 1963

Long after college days were done, one of my bosses was a Ph.D. in Higher Mathematics from M.I.T. I commented that I hadn’t really had to study in school. He laughed. He said that was the thing about M.I.T. Everyone there had been able to go through school without studying. At M.I.T., you studied or you dropped out. It turns out, there ARE schools where you really have to study. I suspect when you get into hard sciences and math, that was also a different story. History is a lot easier to remember than physics.

I was lucky insofar as not only did I grow up in an area full of every kind of person, but my mother urged me to get to know them. She wasn’t just a liberal in-name. She meant it. I don’t think she thought I’d marry someone of a different race, but doubt she’d be surprised.

She knew I dated men of various hues and aside from occasionally pointing out that babies from mixed marriages might have a hard time, she didn’t say anything else. It took me a long time to be comfortable as the only white person in a group of darker people — until I realized no one cared except me, after which it was much easier.

It’s funny looking back into the early sixties. All the things we were striving to do seem to be in the process of being undone. I’m not sure where we are going or with whom we are going. I’m hoping I live long enough to live the difference.

PRIVILEGE AND ALCOHOL ABUSE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Since Brett Kavanagh, the Supreme Court nominee, now Justice, has been in the news, so have discussions about excessive drinking among teenagers. Apparently, there are studies that show that rich, privileged teenagers are more likely to abuse alcohol. An article in the Washington Post on September 28, by Suniya S. Luthar, is subtitled “Affluence is a risk factor for dangerous behavior.”

Brett Kavanagh

Psychological research seems to support the premise that excessive drinking is more common with affluent teens, like Brett Kavanagh, who went to an élite boarding school in the 1980’s. In fact, students in high-achieving, élite schools are at higher risk for drug abuse, anxiety, and depression as well as casual sexual activity.

Substance abuse in high school is not an isolated phenomenon. It is linked to serious drug and alcohol abuse in later life. This is clearly not only a teenage problem.

The studies show that the key risk factor for these wealthy kids is not money. It’s the extreme pressure they feel to succeed, to be the best and to live up to very high standards of accomplishment. This extreme pressure to excel produces high levels of stress and anxiety.

Another factor in this toxic situation is the attitude of the parents. The parents seem to be more lenient when it comes to transgressions by their kids vis-à-vis drugs and alcohol. They are willing to pay for high-priced lawyers to get their kids out of any legal trouble. However, these same parents would come down hard on their kids if they indulged in behavior such as truancy, academic slacking or inappropriate social behavior to adults.

The article warns that “When adults are sanguine about drunkenness and associated reprehensible behaviors among kids, there are potentially serious consequences for … an entire generation of young people as they form their own values about what is decent, what is excusable and what will simply not be tolerated despite the power and prestige of their parents.”

I don’t believe that all of this is inevitable. But I am biased. I grew up affluent in New York City and went to a high achievement oriented high school in the 1960’s. My school was not residential so we had a different culture and social matrix than a residential boarding school. Dorm life can be a strong influence on kids. I succumbed to the academic pressure and suffered from both anxiety and depression. But neither I, nor anyone else in my class of 120, drank heavily or regularly. (Drugs were not yet readily available so they were not an issue.)

Unreal dormitory life

My school was 95% Jewish, and at the time, the stereotype of Jews not drinking much was basically true. My parents never drank. Not even wine at dinner. They only served alcohol at dinner parties. So my experience may have been atypical. The fact remains that teenagers under pressure don’t inevitably turn to alcohol or drugs.

I have a friend whose son now goes to a prestigious, rigorously academic, coed, residential prep school in Connecticut. There is plenty of tolerance and support for homosexuality, gender fluidity, and gender switching. But not for blackout drinking or drug abuse.

The students (at least in my friend’s experience) are serious students into healthy living. His friends are multi-ethnic and multi-cultural and racial and there are many kids from underprivileged backgrounds. This melting pot may explain the straight, clean lifestyles.

It’s not all rich, white males, like at Brett Kavanaugh’s single-sex school. The peer pressure there to drink excessively and misbehave may have partially been a cultural phenomenon.

We need to get parents to be vigilant about their privileged children’s drinking and drug habits in high school. If we can’t reach the kids directly, maybe we can reach the parents who tolerate and finance their children’s excesses.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Future Tense – Into the Light

This is the main hall of a university. It’s dark in the hall, but there’s a bright light ahead … literally the light at the end of the tunnel. It holds all the hope of the future.

Towards the Light

Living Mom’s Life

The other night, I was poking around the music section of Amazon. Since getting my cute little Kindle Fire HD, I have started to listen to music again. It’s been a while and I wasn’t aware how much I missed it, especially classical music. I often hear the melodies in my head, distant echoes of my younger self. I played the piano for a long time and was a music major in college, completing all the requirements except for 1 credit of chorus, at which point I changed majors. I didn’t want to graduate with a degree in music, already knowing it wouldn’t take me where I wanted to go professionally. I loved music and I was a pretty good pianist, but that’s not a career. It’s a hobby.

75-Pedals-HP-1

I was particularly good at Bach. The music fit my hands, something which could not be said of  my hands in context of Chopin, Grieg, or Beethoven. My hands are tiny. Child-sized hands on a full-grown body. It’s especially odd because I’m not petite. Short, yes, but not petite. I have big feet, broad shoulders. Solid peasant stock. So what’s with the tiny hands? Don’t say anything. It’s all been said before.

Anyone who tells you the size of hands doesn’t matter to a musician doesn’t play piano. Once you get past kiddy music, you need hands that can span at least a 10th, more if possible. You need full-size grown up hands and a good deal of physical strength. To put it simply, the piano was the wrong instrument for me. I needed an instrument for which the size of my hands would be irrelevant.

I wanted to play the drums.

“Girls don’t play drums,” my mother said.

“Why the hell not?”

“Watch your language.”

“Who says girls don’t play drums? Is there a rule written somewhere?”

I dragged in my high school band teacher into the argument. Still no go. GIRLS, said my mother, don’t play drums. There was nothing for it. I was a girl so no drums. It was a bit strange because my mother usually was a pretty strong feminist and frequently reminded me that I could be whatever I wanted to be. I didn’t need to be a nurse: I could be a doctor — except I wanted to be a nurse. Had Life not crashed into me when I had just started my MS in Nursing, I would have been, though I wonder if I would have wound up writing anyhow. I wanted to run public health clinics. It was my reformer persona taking charge. Life had other ideas.

75-Wurlitzer-HP-1

Meanwhile, on the music front, I suggested voice lessons. I had a decent enough voice and I was pretty sure girls were allowed to sing, but Mom always wanted to play the piano. It was too late for her, but her daughter was going to be a pianist. I was living my mom’s dream. It’s a pity her dreams and my hands were so incompatible. I had some talent, but I was studying the wrong instrument. After a great deal of effort, I achieved a high level of mediocrity as a pianist. If I’d been more dedicated, I could have achieved “almost good enough for concert work,” a special Hell exclusively for aspiring but unsuccessful classical musicians.

Getting stuck in your parents’ dreams happens in all kinds of families. It is not exclusive to any ethnic group, class, color, religion or even nationality. Wealthy parents want their kids to do what they weren’t able to do as much as poor parents. We all try to give our kids what we wanted, even when it’s not what they want. It’s almost a reflex.

I needed freedom as a child; even more as a teenager. I was self-disciplined. I merely wanted to go where I wanted to go and do what I wanted to do without being watched all the time. Since that was not going to happen, I became highly successful at sneaking around. I went where I wanted to go, with or without permission and I just didn’t tell my mother. It was one of the important lessons I learned about parenting: You can’t stop a determined kid, so you might as well help him or her do what they want to do safely.

I was never interested in hanging out at the mall or a movie. I snuck off to museums and libraries. My nerdy idea of adventure was a day trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a world-class museum and if you are ever in New York, it’s worth a day of your time. It isn’t just one museum, either. My favorite part of it is the medieval section, The Cloisters overlooking the Hudson River in Fort Tryon Park.

“Too dangerous,” said Mom. When I pointed out that she was going on ski trips to Bear Mountain when she was 14, she said she had been more mature than I was. I believe I chipped my first tooth during that conversation. I got to say classic lines like “How will you know I’m responsible until you let me have some responsibility?” and she got to give me the “As long as you live under my roof … ” line. Stalemate. I was going to live my mother’s dreams and be beholden to my mother’s fears.

If I were easily bullied, I’d have done the rest of my mother’s life for her and become a teacher. I have nothing against teaching as a career and believe it’s as important a job as you can do in this world. I simply didn’t want to be one.

My Geekscape

Despite sporadic side trips, deep down I knew I was going to be a writer. I toyed with other things: nursing, music, photography. But when I dreamed, I dreamed of being an author, seeing my name on book jackets, the smell of printer’s ink and the soft crack of the spine when you open a new book. A writer I became and remain, but my mother was always sure I would never be able to earn a living as a writer. I did well, but she never believed it was a “real” career. It was not substantial, like teaching.

It is hard to resist giving in to the pressure and doing what mom or dad always wanted to do because it makes them happy. Pressure to do their thing rather than your own can be very intense yet subtle. In the end, it doesn’t work, unless your dream happens to be the same as theirs. Everyone needs to do what he or she was born to do.

As a parent, it can be tricky to teaze apart the strands of what you want from what your kids want. It can be painful watching them fail and failure is always possible. You have to let them sink or swim on their own. It’s not a choice. Kids grow up to be who they need to be. The best we can offer is support, to help them find and follow their own paths.

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