Looking Back a Bit on Education
It’s weird looking back after having spent so many decades only looking forward, but education issues have been on my mind so much for the past year.
My Dad read to us a lot as little kids from great books like Hemmingway’s Old Man and the Sea, Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, and Robert’s Northwest Passage. He took us to museums often, and I got hooked on rocks and geology at the Natural History Museum. My grandparents had shelves and shelves of books from mysteries to history and biography and lots of magazines like National Geographic and Outdoor Life to fascinate young boys. They took us frequently to Music Hall.
Our kindergarten was a short walk away at the end of our block. I remember only a few of my classmate’s names, but a few memories like my girl friend’s move to Arizona with her family are indelible.
I began elementary school at a neighborhood parochial school a block away from our home. The teachers were good, and we played lots of baseball, football and basketball with the large Catholic families from our neighborhood. I remember passing out in the third grade while listening to the Stations of the Cross, the Crown of Thorns and the Crucifixion. If pressed I can probably remember about half of my classmates and a few of my teachers (Mr. Holmes and Mr. Kane). The teachers paid really personal attention to each one of us both in academic and athletics. I’ve seen none of my teachers or classmates since heading off to college and leaving my hometown behind. As I struggled learning to write, I remember my mom saying “you talk a lot, so just write as if you are talking”. My mom was a well-educated college graduate, but by about fourth or fifth grade, my elementary school math problems were way over her head. I remember standing on a step to be able to kiss my sixth grade girl friend.
I left the familiar confines of my neighborhood school after sixth grade and went to Walnut Hills High School. As best as I remember there were about 300+ kids in my class and maybe about 25 or 30 in the homeroom. It was a public school for neighborhood students and for kids from all over Cincinnati who took a test to get in. In retrospect, it had what I now value most in public education – diversity and excellence. I took two city buses to get there, and then walked down a long street to and from the campus.
I can only remember one of my teachers, Ms. Menzies in biology; we dissected frogs and earthworms, learned the phylum. There was a white maned teacher who’d taught my Dad – maybe history or English. There was a good Latin teacher, and someone who did a very good job teaching us Ohio history. The literature and books we read in our English classes were not particularly good, nor particularly interesting to me, and I was someone who loved to read. I remember feeling anonymous to the teachers except in that biology class – not such a good thing; some were just not that passionate about teaching and students I think, and I may not have been worth their time.
Mostly I remember a few of my fellow students – Jimmy, Barry, Cliff, Knox, Bob, Chuck, Danny, Mike, Nelson, John, Marshall, Eric, Marcel, Karen, Betty, Helen, Sue, Betty, Karen and Margo. I knew no one when I started there, and I’ve never seen most of them again and wondered often and fondly what they all did in their lives.
We played lots of intramural sports together, and some began to date – my only memory is of Nelson and Helen together for a while.
AJ came into our lives about this time and started our education about modern art, psychology and the intricacies of the game of bridge.
Afterwards, I headed off to St. George’s where my dad, granddad and uncles attended. It was the antithesis of Walnut Hills – only 50 students per class and about 10-12 per classroom. I loved the academics, particularly the good literature, the sports, the camaraderie, the discussions, and the friendly daily competition. It was great to get out of the house and far away from the Mom and Dad discord. My height shot up from one of the shortest to one of the tallest. The teachers I still remember most were Vermillion who taught Latin and integrity and Corkery who taught me Asian history and coached football and gave me friendly hip checks into the bricks walking into dinner. I’ll always remember the late afternoon’s winter walk from the gym to the chapel with wet hair frozen to our scalps and then the off key singing of old hymns.
I was way behind academically when I entered, and my first report cards were a 50, three 60s and a 70. It took me several years to catch up to where I aspired to be. My fellow students, and our teachers are etched deeply in my memory, that’s what happens when you’re together 24, 7 for nine months of the year. I’ve stayed in very little touch.
I remain appalled to this day by the casual racism, anti-Semitism and classism that some of my fellow students displayed at the time and still cannot reconcile their intellectual gifts and uber-privileged upbringing with that small-minded prep school sense of superiority. I hope and imagine it was short-lived for those so afflicted.
I wanted a small college experience and went to Trinity College. It was in too many familiar ways a repeat of St. George’s, and while I later on regretted the recycled choice I had made, it turned out to be incredibly formative for the rest of my life, which is what college is for after all. An older school-mate, Ralph Allen, went South as a freedom rider and gave a lecture on his return whose emotional impact has stayed with me always. Ivanhoe Donaldson from SNCC came to campus and spoke to us in four languages – academese, hipster, urban ghetto and southern rural black – of his experiences and insights. Ralph Nader came to speak, shortly after his publication of “Unsafe at Any Speed”, and during dinner he opened my eyes to the opportunities of a career as a public interest lawyer. I was hooked and changed my graduate school plans accordingly. Phil Bankwitz taught our four-person seminar and wove together the history, economics, culture, technology and art of Europe between the wars; I’ve never forgotten that class and that broad and deep level of erudition he displayed and shared. Another taught African History, and still another the lead-up to the Vietnam War.
My best college year was spent in Paris at the Ecole des Sciences Politiques where I learned nearly everything that had been missing in my small New England college experience. In the theater class, we read the play, then saw it in live theater and discussed it afterwards with guest critics and directors. In a class in International Relations, we learned from practitioners at the Quai d’Orsay about NATO, South East Asia, the Middle East and Russia where the French had lived-experience and deep and painful insights. And I fell deeply in love while learning all about French night-life and art history. There’s lots of learning through osmosis in large, capital cities that one completely misses in small college communities.
When I came back to Trinity, the student revolt engendered in part by the Vietnam War was in full swing, and I was fortunate to live next door to one of its campus leaders who opened brand new areas of activism merged with intellectual debate and discourse. So it was on to law school with at least a sense that I was passionate about public interest law and changing the political direction of our nation. U Va was not exactly at the center of social change. I remember meeting an acquaintance from home and asked what the perception of the law school was. He responded, “they think you are a bunch of commies at the law school”; I replied, “sounds like my kind of people, in what way are we ‘commies’”; he said “well at the law school you and the Professors believe in integration, most of the rest of the campus is still stuck in segregation”. That would change pretty dramatically during the three years I was there.
Law school was a brand new language and a new way of thinking and analysis with an incredibly smart and committed bunch of fellow students. It was the opposite of Trinity where many were there for drinking in the fine party life. Quite a few had enrolled in law school to avoid the draft and dropped out fairly quickly due to the daily grind. Many were headed to big city corporate law; a handful of us were headed towards public interest law. A group of older students from the Legal Aid Society were my model.
I fell deeply in love and yet pulled back when it came time to make a marriage commitment. We saw Janis Joplin, James Brown, Richie Havens, Dylan, Baez, Judy Collins, Coretta Scott King and William Kunstler and Abbie Hoffman. This was the high point for civil rights, anti-war, youth transformation, and incredible progress in the American law and our civil society; we were close enough to the capital for front row seats on the great debates of our time – Medicare, Medicaid, the War on Poverty, Civil Rights, Vietnam. This was the time of political assassinations of our finest leaders and the political show trials of our generation. This was the beginning of a backlash that still plagues some of our baby boom, Vietnam-haunted generation.
The law school teachers I remember most were Charley Whitebread who could make both trusts and estates fun and our full-on weekend parties even more memorable; Walter Wadlington who introduced me to poverty law and legal services, and Tom Bergin who encouraged my creative thinking about the law and social policy. Elaine opened up opportunities for me in Legal Services; I went for it; I loved it; I taught it and was hooked for the rest of my legal career. Law school ended not long after the Nixon invasion of Cambodia, and the campuses had erupted in protest, even staid tradition-bound U Va. Because of our leadership in law student organizations, we were each allowed to drop one final exam tho’ I’m still not quite sure why. I chose federal taxation and regret it now since adequate balanced revenues are the flip side of strong and effective public benefits. I’ve only been back to campus (now replaced) once since, but the memories of the murals and the Socratic dialogues sustain. Some ten or eleven years later I was at a convention for Legal Services Executive Directors in San Juan, and about six of our law school contemporaries were there; I was so proud that U Va Law had produced us all.
Prepared by: Lucien Wulsin