Journal of the Plague No. 10: Commencement

From the official Grinnell student newspaper, the Scarlet & Black, May 15, 1970. My apologies to the photographer, who is not identified, for not giving them credit.

Fifty years ago today, Grinnell College, like most colleges and universities across the United States, was closed in the aftermath of the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State. When Grinnell announced in March that it would be closing the campus after spring break, I wrote to the archivist there to confirm that 1970 was the last time the school had closed before the end of the academic year. It was, he said, and still a sore point that they hadn’t gotten a commencement until their 20th reunion—and likely to worsen, as there was a good chance their 50th reunion would be canceled as well—as has indeed come to pass.

My heart goes out to them, and to the class of 2020. If I was raised on anything, it was the sacredness of academia. I was too young to attend my mother’s PhD graduation, I clearly recall her MD graduation some years later, sitting in the balcony at Hancher Auditorium with my whole family, who had come from Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Illinois to watch my mother cross a stage, receive another diploma, and become yet another kind of doctor. A few years after that, we all gathered in Ohio for my cousin Felicity’s law school graduation. To this day, if you invite me to your graduation and I can make it, I will—I prefer them to weddings, baptisms, and almost any other civic or religious ceremony marking a rite of passage I can think of. I recognize that my fondness for commencements is a peculiarity of mine, but I think it has a reason.

As pictured above, although Grinnell did not have a formal or real commencement in 1970, my father (in perhaps his final act on the campus) and three other professors, including his good friend Hip Apostle, a math and philosophy professor who dedicated his free time to translating the works of Aristotle with a consistent English vocabulary, held a symbolic commencement for the few students left on campus who wished to attend. They even got the notoriously stingy campus bookstore owner to get them some caps and gowns. My dad is the one in the paler colored gown up above—Harvard, in its pretentiousness, makes its PhD gowns in a dark red color (crimson, no doubt).

There are no real parallels between 1970 and the present aside from the closing of campuses and the general sense of paranoia and doom (I should note that I was not alive in 1970, but I have read so much about that era, and talked to so many people about it, that I often start to feel that I was, though I wasn’t born till the last American troops left Vietnam five years later.) But this photo of the symbolic commencement at Grinnell has nonetheless been haunting my mind these past two months, ever since Grinnell was the first college in Iowa, and one of the first in the country, to shut down its campus.

A year before, in April 1969, my father, already a notorious and not always popular figure on the Grinnell campus, became briefly famous statewide for what we call the flagpole incident. I’ve written extensively* about the history of those days, but in short, a group of students turned the American flag on campus upside down as a protest against the Vietnam War and, after it was righted (and turned upside down and righted again—leading to the excellent Scarlet & Black headline “Flag flip flops, flap follows”), my father held a vigil beneath the flagpole for several days to prevent anyone from turning it upside down again, an action that made the front page of the Des Moines Register and led to a job offer at Cornell College, where my father taught for the remaining eleven years of his life.

The flagpole incident, as we call it, is so well known to this day that last summer, in the Before Times, my son and I were at the Farmers Market in Iowa City, and he was wearing a Grinnell tshirt. “I like your shirt!” a young woman yelled over at us. “Thanks!” I said. “My mom went there and my dad taught there.”

“What was your dad’s name?” she asked. “Oh, this was a million years ago,” I said, “but he was sort of well-known—John Crossett.”

“Oh yeah,” she said. “I grew up there, went to school there, know all about.” And this was forty-nine years since the man taught there.

At the same time, though, I still get emails regularly from people who tell me my father was the best teacher they ever had. “He really taught me how to write,” said one I got just a few weeks ago.

My father began his teaching career in 1958 at Hamilton College in New York state, continued it briefly at Parsons College here in Iowa, then went to Grinnell from 1962-1970 and then to Cornell College from 1970 to his death in 1981. He was a conservative who taught through some of the biggest upheavals in academia and in the world, and yet despite his difficulties is still remembered by innumerable students today. My hope for the class of 2020–and for all of those studying at this time—is that you, too will find a teacher like that—one willing, as my father was, to keep the spirit and ritual of education alive even when the circumstances, be they fear of riots or of global pandemic, alive.

*See the title essay in my MFA thesis if you are really curious.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s