NYUmanta. Robert Roth

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Mayqe mayqempi wayki Roberth Rothwan imayna millay yachaywasi NYU kasqanmanta. Payqa Health Proxy librunpim isakay uya NYUmanta kaychata qellqaykusqa.

“Emotional pain is so much more searing than physical pain,” the young Chinese woman told me as she spoke to me about a speech she was preparing on euthanasia for a class she was taking.

Last night I went to Christina’s graduation at NYU. She received her PhD. in Media Ecology. The graduation felt unusually listless. Occasionally there would be a small eruption of excitement from one section or another of the auditorium. The speakers for the most part seemed like they were just going through the motions. Yet the motions they were going through were more than a little upsetting.
There was jocular talk, for example, about what the graduates had to endure. The tone of which was that the family sacrifices, the economic hardships, the disappointing and ego threatening experience of having to do revision upon revision each time work was returned as deficient, would all be looked back upon with laughter and fondness. The reality of course is much more hideous than that. The pressures on the students more intense and humiliating. The ugly process of socialization that being a graduate student entails was in this way being obscured. And hardly anyone was laughing. Carletta has said that for each year a person of color attends college they probably will need three years of therapy healing to undo the damage. The truth of that statement I suspect extends to almost everyone.
According to Christina, half the students in the graduate program were on anti-depressants. And the rash of suicides each year at NYU is simply horrifying. These silly little jokes about sacrifice and stress reveal the lack of grasp on the magnitude of the school’s culpability in creating an atmosphere where tragedies such as these are likely to happen.

The President of the school then spoke. A former law clerk for Chief Justice Warren Burger, he asked with a tired, coy flirtatiousness whether anyone knew the historic significance of this year. It was one question I could answer. I knew it was the 50th anniversary of the Brooklyn Dodgers winning the 1955 World Series against the New York Yankees. He talked with delight about the magical moment when Pee Wee Reese threw to Gil Hodges for the final out and how after decades of frustration the Brooklyn Dodgers were finally the World Champs. He then expressed his lifelong rage at Walter O’Malley. The president spoke as if he thought the image of a young boy’s excitement and subsequent sense of betrayal when Walter O’Malley moved the Dodgers to LA to make more money, could actually trump the reality of a middle aged man’s complicity in all that is distasteful and destructive about NYU.
Another speaker echoed this when she said she has never attended another baseball game since the Dodgers left. The truth is Walter O’Malley’s greed spirit is what infuses NYU. We see it in how the workers are treated. In the anti-union activity. In the gobbling up of property. In the driving out of small businesses. All this done with a liberal veneer that even progressive academics who teach there buy into and propagate until they themselves or people close to them become its target.

To mark their rite of passage, each student just after receiving their diploma, would kneel down and have a professor place the hood of their graduation gown over their head. This is the moment where family and friends race madcap to the front of the auditorium flashing cameras like crazy.
One of the speakers earlier had said that there was another “hood” he wanted to speak about. Not just the “hooding” of those getting their PhD. The other hood this professor was speaking about was the neighborhood. Greenwich Village. Particularly Washington Square Park right outside the building where the graduation was taking place. He spoke about the bohemian and anarchist history of the Village, mentioning the great anarchist poets and artists who infused the neighborhood with insurgent and creative energy. He spoke specifically of Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and Judith Malina hanging in the park. The occupying power speaking about the vitality of a now colonized indigenous population. I sat throughout the whole fucking ceremony fuming, fire coming out of my eyes, doing everything in my power not to start muttering out loud.

Twelve years earlier I attended Arlene’s graduation from Hunter, a public college with a strong working class, immigrant, largely dark skinned student body.
Students sashayed and danced across the stage. Some walked with their bodies proudly erect. Parents and relatives and friends whistling and applauding each student, their voices raised louder when a loved one got their diploma. Unlike NYU, Hunter actually seemed committed to doing some good. There was also unfortunately a definite and I think conscious anti-radical, anti-counter-cultural feel to the event. There was no mention of a Gregory Corso. No celebration of anarchist poets. No corporate monstrosity trying to appropriate the passions of real resistance.
The valedictorian spoke of how she found her way after years of smoking dope and fucking her life away. Carl McCall, the New York State Comptroller, spoke of his mother working as a domestic to help buy clothes for him to attend school. He clearly was not going to betray her sacrifices for bullshit pie-in-the-sky politics. Here were people very conscious of the hurts the system can inflict and were going to do something about it. I felt deeply challenged by the graduation. Respectful but also angry. Murray Kempton once wrote that welfare workers have to reject nine out of every ten people who come to them in desperate need of help. In my mind the graduation was designed to obscure that most significant part of the truth. So clearly there was a real argument to be had. There was nothing ambivalent though about my feelings for Arlene. I was bursting with pride as she stepped forward to get her diploma.
Before the ceremony started, I scanned the sea of robes and caps below. I immediately was able to identify Arlene. She was the only one voraciously reading every word on the program.
When she was five and maybe the smallest five year old in all of Barbados, her brother said to their mother, “How can someone so small have such big words come out of her mouth.”
Her last year at Hunter, Arlene went to Judith Malina to interview her about the Living Theatre. One of the great moments of Judith’s remarkable life was Spring 1968 when she was among those who occupied the Eiffel Tower. Judith referring to 1968 as if what happened that year is emblazoned on everyone’s consciousness, looked shocked and a bit disdainful when Arlene asked her what happened that year. Arlene who feels insecure if she doesn’t know everything, is still not afraid to reveal her ignorance about something by asking a question; she was a bit thrown by Judith’s response. I said to Arlene with some hurt in my own voice, “Okay, you didn’t know where she was. But I bet Judith didn’t know what a young girl in Barbados was doing that year either.”

From Health Proxy (Yuganta Press), 2007

 

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