27 May 2010
What Did We, And Will They, Graduate Into?
As you may have noticed, I haven't had a whole lot to tell over the past few days. I haven't had much of a life outside of work: I have just barely had any time to post anything, and when I have, I've been ready to go horizontal.
Commencement (what most people call "graduation") is tomorrow. The first time I attended one, it was rather exciting: I was still relatively new at the college and was still meeting various faculty and staff members for the first time. It was also the first time I was present for any graduation since I walked up to the podium to shake hands with some administrator I had never before met and to take my degree out of the hand of some other administrator whose name I didn't know (and who didn't know my name, I'm sure). I think it was more exciting for my family than it was for me: By that time, I'd spent sixteen years in school and wanted out. The last things I wanted to do were to enroll in another school and enter another classroom. I'm sure a lot of students who are graduating tomorrow feel the same way.
Three years ago, I told a prof who was sitting next to me, "They're lucky. They're the last lucky graduates we're going to see for a long time." Now, I don't claim to be clairvoyant or anything like that. Truth be told, I'm not so sure that I'd want to be. But I knew then--in 2007--that within a couple of years the world was going to be a very different place. I had some inkling of what changes were going to take place, but I couldn't describe the specifics.
The Class of 2007 was probably the last class of this generation, and possibly for some time to come, that could count on getting a job that paid well, or at least one that offered them some sort of opportunity for growth and advancement. I don't know when another class will be able to enter the wider world with such confidence.
But that is not the only sea-change that I could foresee. In some way, that class reminded me a bit of my own. The funny thing about history is that it doesn't always proceed and change according to the labels and boundaries we place on periods of time. As an example, some (like Paul Fussell, who was one of my professors at Rutgers) have said or implied that the Twentieth Century--at least, as most people think of it--really didn't begin until 1914. I would say that what most people mean when they say "The Seventies" began around 1973 and lasted until 1982 or 1983. So, while some would argue that I graduated at the end of the Seventies or the beginning of the Eighties, I would say that we were still in the thick of the former decade.
What was it like to be young in the Seventies? Well, you grew up with less lofty expectations than what young people would have in the Eighties or Nineties: You knew that no matter what your major was or how well you did in school, there was a good chance that you weren't going to get a job, much less a good one. On the other hand, you didn't have as much fear about basic survival: It really didn't take very much money to get a roof over your head and something to eat. And, even if you weren't making much, you still had something--however little--left over. So, something as simple as a night at the movies and something to eat (or drink!) afterwards wasn't a budget-buster or debt-builder. In contrast, people who graduated a few years after I did wouldn't have that same fall-back. Sure, they could make more money than we ever could ever dream of making. But they also needed to make all of that money: It seems as if money-making had become an "all or nothing" proposition in a way that it never was for me or my peers.
In a sense, the Seventies that I've described were an extension of the Sixties, or what people have heard about that decade. We may not have had our Woodstock, but we liked our trippy music just as much as the hippies did. And we got high--well, some of us, anyway--and had as much commitment-free sex as they did. Well, at least the males of our generation did. Someone, I forget who, once said that in the so-called Sexual Revolution, men got their freedom but women got screwed.
Just a few years after I graduated, all of that changed. The music got louder, faster and--at least to my ears--more repetitive. Our favorite band members had long hair; the new bands had big hair or dyed manes. And, while males still were under the same pressure to gain sexual experience, both they and the females were admonished to "be careful." As the years went on, more of them were: I noticed that in the first freshman students I taught, in 1991. At least, it seemed that way from their talk.
Plus, it seemed that women were leading the way in everything from class discussions to starting new enterprises in ways that I never saw during my formative years. Some say this was a result of enlightenment about gender roles and oppression; I believe that it had more to do with the expectation, at least in some communities, that men wouldn't be there to head households or corporations. I think now of the seventh-grade class in East New York with whom I conducted poetry workshops back in 1989. One boy asked, "Mr. Nick (That's what they called me.) how old are you?" After I revealed that information (something I would never do now!), he exclaimed, "Then you're the oldest man I know." His teacher pointed out that he was probably right: Many males in that neighborhood, at that time, weren't making it past 18, much less 29. I understand things are still that way in some parts of this city, and other American cities.
By that time, a man didn't have to live in a place like East New York to have a shorter life expectancy than a man in Bangladesh or Somalia. He could also have been around the intersection of West 12th Street and Greenwich Avenue, just a block away from St. Vincent's. I knew four people who lived within a couple of blocks of that junction and died from AIDS-related illnesses. And I knew others--and women--who died that way in the East Village, on the Upper West Side and in Connecticut.
I doubt that any of my classmates could have foreseen any of that. I didn't. Neither did two classmates whom I knew--and who died the same way.
Then again, I didn't foresee the changes I've made and the fulfillment I've experienced from them. Back then, I could only hope and wish for them, to the extent that I could envision them at all. At least I have the results of them now.