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 hadnâ€
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 motherâ€
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 aboveâ€”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 wasnâ€
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. Iâ€
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. â€œI like your shirt!â€ a young woman yelled over at us. â€œThanks!â€ I said. â€œMy mom went there and my dad taught there.â€
â€œWhat was your dadâ€
â€œOh yeah,â€ she said. â€œI grew up there, went to school there, know all about.â€ 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. â€œHe really taught me how to write,â€ 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 2020â€“and for all of those studying at this timeâ€”is that you, too will find a teacher like thatâ€”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.