When I started at Oberlin, with a scholarship, a loan and a job in the school laundry, I wasn’t sure whether I’d survive my freshman year. My first paper — for an English class — received the generous grade of D-plus. That fall, I thought seriously about dropping out and finding work at National Tube in Lorain, my nearby hometown. But my steelworker father, burdened with a bookish son whom he loved and couldn’t understand, urged me to stick it out. His advice was simple, “Just work harder than anyone else and you’ll do fine.”
So I became what we then called a grind. I studied relentlessly, audited art history lectures, checked out classical music LPs from the conservatory library, took courses in biology, European history and the Old Testament, nearly majored in French, and finally wrote a senior thesis on the poetry of William Empson. Not least, I absorbed the Oberlin ideal of a purpose-driven life.
On that sunshiny May morning in 1970, I was graduating with highest honors in English, but my father never saw me receive my diploma. Jackson’s remarks, intended to arouse passions and inspire action, incensed my dad, who had no use for such rhetoric or sentiments. He had expected a classic commencement, something like the Oscars but with colorful regalia and well-scrubbed graduates. Instead, here were all these scruffy hippies and this black rabble-rouser. Had they no respect? My father stalked off and sat out the ceremony under a shade tree until my mother finally calmed him down.
Passions ran high in those days and, like now, it was a time of great national division, suspicion and distrust. Yet, despite the forever war that was Vietnam, despite the still recent assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, despite the mockery directed at student political activism, it was a glorious time to be young and starting out in the world. The idealism and utopianism of the ’60s and ’70s have since come under fire, but there’s no denying the zeitgeist’s indelible hopefulness, its unforgettable euphoria.
The future didn’t quite work out as we envisioned it, though progress, slow if unstoppable, has been made in the struggle for African American, LGBTQ and women’s rights. Now, however, after 50 years, it suddenly feels as though a new generation is taking up the fight again. The graduates of 2020, throughout this country, carry the ’60s in their souls, even if they don’t know it.
With unhappy synchronicity, just as the Kent State shootings overturned the spring of 1970, so the coronavirus has upended all our lives. Yet during, during this time of social distancing, the pandemic has paradoxically confirmed what people should have long known: We are citizens of an interconnected world, not just Americans, and the world needs our care.
This month’s graduating seniors face a shattered job market and they know times will be tough. But so are they. During their school days they have been tried in the furnace, annealed and hardened by almost daily exposure to national stupidity, callousness and hate. Our children and grandchildren rightly find it incredible that their government ignores the deterioration of our environment, dismisses the findings of our best scientists, allows the proliferation of weapons good for nothing but killing many people quickly, and continues to reward the obscenely rich while exploiting nearly everyone else. The graduates of 2020 recognize that all this must change.
Oberlin, like most colleges and universities, canceled this May’s commencement activities. My fellow Obies and I will need to wait another year for our 50th class reunion, when we will fib that we all still look great, then retell old stories about the heady days of our youth. My guess is that, a half-century from now, the class of 2020, at Oberlin or elsewhere, won’t be much different — except in one regard: Its members will be living in a more just world, a world more in harmony with nature, a better world that they helped bring into being.
Will it happen — or am I indulging in some kind of retro ’60s-style daydream? Let’s just say that I trust those under 30. As Jesse Jackson might well have said back in 1970, “Keep the faith!”