616, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Acid, Acting, Atheism, Balance, CIS, Computer and Information System, Evolution, Falcon Crest, Fringe, History Major, Intolerance, John Noble, LSD, Neal Galpern, Pitt, Religion, Robert Foxworth, Sexual Harassment, University of Pittsburgh, Walter Bishop, Yin and Yang
As those high schools students I taught through JSA at Princeton in the summers of ’08 and ’09 either have come to realize or are realizing now, finding balance between school, full-time or part-time work, family and some semblance of a social life is just a tad difficult. Sometimes, it’s even impossible. So it was for me the spring of ’89, the last spring before I’d put together what I came to call my “16-week strategy for success and a social life.”
It was the semester where in which I worked 36 hours a week over a seven-week period and faced sexual harassment from a co-worker who was the BFF of my supervisor of Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning labs for Computer and Information Services (CIS) (see my post “On People and Stress” from February ’09). It was the last semester in which I had to worry about my mother and my younger siblings from afar because of the possibility of domestic violence, as my idiot stepfather Maurice still lived with them at 616.
This was my first set of classes as a History major, but I also had some general ed requirements to fulfill (see my post “Major Change” from October ’10). It would’ve been a tough semester even if I hadn’t worked, but with the CIS schedule the way it was, I was in for an interesting ride. For Macro, the chair of the Economics department was our professor. The class was at nine o’clock in the morning on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with a discussion section at 8 am on Tuesday to boot. It was almost as if he wanted folks to fail. With my schedule the way it was, I rarely made it to class on Tuesdays, and I only made it to one discussion section all semester long. To make up for that, I never missed the class on Thursdays, and often participated in the lecture discussions, such as they were.
Shakespeare was later in the day on Tuesdays and Thursdays, taught by Wion, who looked like the actor Robert Foxworth from the CBS show Falcon Crest, only not quite as handsome. He delivered lines from Taming of The Shrew and Othello like he’d been a wannabe actor in a previous career but realized teaching was more of his shtick. Wion often used Freudian pop psychology to explain the motives of characters in Shakespeare’s plays, and as he did, all of our eyes glazed over. This analysis for us was so ’70s, especially for the second-wave feminists in the class.
My Bio and Philosophy classes seemed to fit under the theme of “questioning God,” as there were students in both who had an ax to grind against “dumb Christians.” Bio in some ways was easier, at least because we had a professor who understood why some of us who were Christian might find evolution difficult to swallow. After several yelps from students during one of his lectures on evolution, mutation and reproduction, he said, “just because there’s evolution doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist. Who’s to say that evolution isn’t a higher being’s method for the creation of life?” I appreciated that answer very much.
In existentialism class, especially the discussion section, no reconciliation was possible. My discussion section instructor was an Australian man in his late-twenties, with curly hair like the lead singer from Simply Red, except my instructor’s hair was a dirty blonde. He spent discussion after discussion railing on Christians as “people who refuse to believe that God doesn’t exist.” One of our discussions was so anti-anything other than atheism that I found it just as bigoted as anything I’d heard from Hebrew-Israelites or out of a televangelist’s mouth, and said as much. I was ignored.
No class that semester drove me nuts like my History majors writing seminar with Neal Galpern. We met on Monday and Wednesday afternoons for about an hour and a half, and it was the most boring hour and a half on my schedule. Galpern was an aging hippie complete with comb-over who graduated with doctorate in hand from Berkeley in ’75. He sometimes acted like he was still dropping acid. His stuttering starts and stops and numerous “Um”s could stop his lectures and our discussions cold. He wanted each of us to write a research-based paper of no less than twenty papers on any comparative topic in history that we could come up with, as vague as the man himself.
I couldn’t stand Galpern and his constant skipping over my hand in class and his snarky comments to all of us as if we were all dense and he was clearer than Antarctic ice melt. I didn’t challenge Galpern in class, at least not directly. I challenged him with my project. I decided to do a paper that compared the main features of the Civil Rights Movement in the US to the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa. Admittedly it was too big a project, but it was Galpern’s job to help me narrow the topic into a doable chunk.
Instead all the advice he gave me consisted of “You need to find another topic, um . . . because, um . . . I’m afraid . . . I don’t, um . . . know much . . . about this.” I refused to budge. I wasn’t about to do a stupid paper on medieval Europe just because that happened to be his area of alleged expertise. After a meeting where Galpern finally gave in to me, I went across the hall to our classroom on the third floor of Forbes Quad and imitated my professor’s halting style of conversation. Galpern walked in, and I just kept going until I finished my, um, sentence. Yeah, it would be safe to say that he didn’t like me too much either!
I finished that semester with two A-‘s in my writing seminar and in existential philosophy, a B+ in Shakespeare, a B in Biology, and even pulled out a C+ in Macro, despite my lack of attendance. It was a difficult time. Yet it was also the start of my growth into early adulthood, and understanding that finding balance would be the key to sustained success.