Monsieur had all the varieties of incapacity which such a post required.
–Balzac, Lost Illusions
I almost thought that I began when it began, at Zirconium U., a county college dubbed by legislators, who had free miles on clichés, as the county’s “jewel in the crown,” which I had always thought means the Raj, but who knew? Not me. I didn’t know much thirty-eight years ago when I was hired full time as an instructor in the English Department, and where I realized the building I was interviewed and hired in was the building that housed almost all departments, administrative offices, and where the art studios were located in the attic of what was originally the Alms House for the county’s elderly and infirm poor; those considered “mad” were shackled in single, windowless cells, and shut in by a solid door with a single slot. Here, then, was the cafeteria–three snack and soda dispensers—a few steps from the mailroom and the college’s two duplicating machines. From the outside, the not-overly-large, mid-nineteenth-century, brick building looked as if it had been teleported out of Dickens’ Coketown. (The bricks were some of the last manufactured before the county’s largest industrial accident—a massive brick slide that drove workers, townspeople, the bricks forming the factory, straight into the Hudson River.)
This was county land that had been largely agricultural, orchards and pastures (the only remaining produce were fields of healthful herbs secreted away in the woods, whose location was known only to senior humanities faculty). Thus the theater, The Barn, had acquired its name from its original use. It burned down in my third year and was replaced with large cultural arts building, with art studios, the art department and a 450-seat theater—some twenty years later.
Buildings appear slowly at Zirconium, the land of the lowest bid, resulting in new buildings soon become incontinent and resistant to repair, some have also been contaminated by rich varieties of mold, and one cracked from roof to foundation in a corkscrew spiral.
One temporary building kept its status for a good twenty-five years, phys.ed. was in an orphaned bubble, the library was house what appeared to be a double-wide, and the floor of new field house slowly cracked length-wise like a glacier. When the academic building cracked classes were held in the field house; when the field house split open we were returned to the bounded corkscrew building. Every classroom has lots of ash trays.
Still and all, it was a good place, largely, despite being administered by visionaries or near megalomaniacs (and I’ll examine these more fully another day)—one who proclaimed that the college’s buildings—spiraling, leaking, cracked—shouldn’t be identified by name but, rather, by numbers: Academic I, Academic II…..Of course, everyone continued to call the Alms House just that. Almost every president was besotted with technology, a trend begun with a already instantly obsolete “dial axis”—check your notes for “low bid”–system that connected all the classrooms in the spiraling building and whose key pad that turned on various channels in the tv’s in the classrooms. The key pad if the combination was touched played Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First,” which delighted students and turned out to be the only consistent programming available.
Still and all, despite leaks and spectacularly low pay, everyone was in this venture together, especially in the Alms House where departments intermingled, students regularly visited faculty, everyone talked about teaching, and if you wished to see the president all you had to do was walk up the hall (topping his bookcase were Calvin’s institutes and his desk clock was full of Liberty half dollars (he’s once been a magician). Despite the Vietnam War, students seemed more submissive than rebellious, possibly stunned the fact that they had access to higher education in the county. Not too many seemed concerned by the, and Attica, where prison rioters in 1971, my third week into teaching, were cut down by marksmen on the order of Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, who also massively expanded and reigned over the state-wide university system.
Stay tuned for my becoming advisor to the Newspaper (and signing up Liberation News Service)!,to the Feminist club!, the Vietnam Veterans Club!, The Gay Club!…. And in another installment, Presidents Who Fire at Will, and what may have become worse than that over the years
Reamy Jansen is a Board member of Radical Teacher and co-editor with Susan O’Malley in the early days. He is Contributing Editor to The Bloomsbury Review of Books and initiated its short prose section, “The Out of Bounds Essay.” He is Nonfiction Editor of The Hamilton Stone Review. He is a reviewer, poet and essayist and his memoir, Available Light, Recollections and Reflections of a Sonhas just been published by Hamilton Stone Editions. He is also a poet and reviewer.