"If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren't really there.".... .... Paul Kantner.
Commentary of the Day - September 13, 2006: Running Into a Former Student at the Beach. Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.
I pass along the following story in the hope that it will do a bit of heavy uplifting just at the beginning of a new term when a whole new crop of eager "freshpersons" are pounding on classroom doors.
Let me call him "David," a student I presumably met when, in 1967, he showed up in my Introduction to Literature class. I say "presumably" because I don't remember David, but he certainly remembers me: I gave him a C- for the course.
Truth to tell, I was as new to Franklin and Marshall College as was David. We were both brand spanking new, trying hard to find our way around the campus and trying even harder to fit in. Granted, I had an advantage: I was a professor, David was a student.
Flash forward twenty-five years, when I ran into David at the South Jersey shore. And not just at a small shore community just outside of Atlantic City but on the street where both of us had summer homes. In the years after graduation, David had become a cardiologist (a good one, I'm told), and he was clearly making good money. He was living large, one house from the beach; I had to trek five blocks.
As it turned out, one of my beach friends lives next door to David and when I stopped in to say "Hello," there was David sitting in a lounge chair on the adjacent porch. He recognized me; I didn't remember him. But he re-introduced himself and we made the usual pleasantries. Later, my friend told me that David was still pissed off about his C-, and in the weeks that followed David make it clear, face to my face, that he still harbored what might charitably be called a semi-grudge.
Still, we continued to talk, especially when the subject was not the grade I gave him and at this late date could not change. David hardly looked like the cardiologist one sees on television. He needed to lose at least fifty pounds to be merely roly-poly. In truth, he was fat, and slovenly in the bargain. He simply didn't care what he wore, and most of what he wore -- at least during the summers -- turned out to be torn tee-shirts and grubby shorts.
Over the years David shared some thoughts about his time in college. Two of them stuck. The first took place during the late Spring of l970 when campuses across the country raged about the war in Vietnam and at Kent State, National Guard troops fired into a group of students with fatal results.
At an emergency faculty meeting, called in the immediate aftermath of the Kent State killings, a visibly shaken president told us that we should consider ways of dealing with the trauma and despair many of our students were experiencing.
The result of our heartfelt deliberations was a complicated plan in which students could (a) take the grade they had earned up to this point and leave the campus if they so desired, (b) write the term papers and take the final exams in courses where such efforts might raise their grades, or (c) take a W (withdrawn) in the semester's courses, retaking them at a later date at no charge.
As David told me one late afternoon on the beach, this was his best moment at the college, and the one he thought best reflected its character. Why so? Because David's father had promised him a new car if he ever got on the Dean's list, and David had figured out that he would just barely make it if he took his present grades and vamoosed.
And so he did -- heading his spanking new car toward Miami where he spent the rest of the semester on the beach with some of his fraternity brothers. Some of our students were clearly traumatized by the events at Kent State, but not David and his beer-guzzling buddies. I was so upset by David's story and his seemingly bottomless insensitivity (no wonder he couldn't handle literature) that I briefly considered seeing if I could lower his grade.
I'm not sure that his triumphant "Kent State semester" was the sole reason, but, years later, I ran into David on campus as he was showing his son around before the lad's all-important campus interview. Obviously David had other warm memories of the place where he spent his college days. As he told me -- and here is the second anecdote -- he felt proud to have attended a college during the most interesting time in recent history. Not only because everybody, including David, seemed to be on pot and there was virtually nothing that the school could do about it but also because the years between l967 and l971 changed the landscape of American culture, probably forever.
I took a very different view of the late l960s but admitted that David might be right. At the same time, the years had changed David in ways that were both funny and revealing. For example, he told me about a course he recently took at Penn and the A he earned. "You know," he remarked, "you can learn, and retain a lot more when you're not high." Then David quickly added, with a half wink, "Being clean-and-sober probably wouldn't have worked in your course, though. I was just over my head that first semester, and you were a tough grader."
Which, at last, brings me to a very different David from the one who drove off to Miami many spring semesters ago. Deeply concerned about the mounting casualties in the Israel-Hezbollah war, David flew to Jerusalem for as two-week stint as a hospital volunteer. He was prepared to do whatever was asked of him, be it checking monitors or doing other chores that might free up stretched-thin doctors.
David did not make a big deal about his decision to put himself in what might well have been harm's way (he returned safely, I hasten to add), nor did he expect people on our beach to make a fuss. They, of course, did -- including me, although David reminds me, again with a half-wink, that I had not yet changed his grade. I told him I'm thinking about it. That seemed enough for David, and for me.
© 2006 Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin & Marshall College. Sanford divides his time between the New Jersey shore and the Florida shore -- what a life! He is a frequent contributor to The Irascible Professor.
The IP comments: It's truly remarkable how some students manage to grow up in spite of college.
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