Linda (Elovitz) Marshall
La plus ca change….It’s an aberrantly warm February day in a very strange winter as I write this. There’s barely been a day below freezing all year and then, suddenly, two feet of snow dumped onto the island of Manhattan. I’m sitting in a sidewalk café, Isola, writing this and I’m about 40 blocks down Columbus Avenue from where I was in the Spring of ’68.
Fittingly enough, this assignment is overdue; the deadline was yesterday and, well, I called in an excuse that I was busy exhibiting at the American International Toy Fair at Javits and, I guess, lost track of time…and reality. La plus ca change….
Anyway, let’s go up about forty blocks, a few steps west, and back about 35 years….
I was first in my family to go to college…well, really to go to college. My father got a college education courtesy of the G.I. bill; I was two when he graduated – my mother brought me to his graduation. My entrepreneurial father had financial ups and downs and, as the oldest child in my family, I experienced first-hand the pain of my father’s bankruptcy back in the days when bankruptcy was a shonda, which is a Yiddish word for “shame”. I knew what it was like to be a have-not when everyone around me was a “have”; I proudly wore my black-and-white Congress of Racial Equality button and I firmly opposed the war in Vietnam.
My social conscience, coupled with a wonderful high-school English teacher (as well as a boyfriend who went to Columbia), led me in the direction of Barnard. My parents, who had no money, two other children to educate (one of whom was a boy), an irrational fear of debt and far too much pride to consider scholarship assistance, would have preferred me to go to UMass. After all, they reasoned, I was going to college to get my MRS-degree.
However, UMass seemed far too boring for me; I refused to apply. I was thrilled when Barnard accepted me. I was, indeed, awestruck with the thrill of being at Columbia University; I considered myself one of the luckiest people I knew. I walked down college walk, beaming with pride, incredulous that it was me – Linda Elovitz, – who, through some amazing stroke of luck had been elected to walk the hallowed ground. Nevertheless I was often a bit late for class, although I rarely missed a class. I also rarely missed an SDS meeting, those vaunted meetings filled with savvy New Yorkers, urban geniuses who so deftly comprehended the mysteries of Marx and Lenin, Imperialism and the Military-Industrial Complex. These were subjects I added to my reading list.
One spring day, I scurried (a bit late, I must add) to class that met in Hamilton Hall. Outside the building, a huge crowd had gathered. I couldn’t get in. I pushed and wiggled and jiggled and tried my NYC-subway-best to ooze my way through the door. No way. No way at all could I get through.
“We’re on strike!”, they told me as I tried to wiggle through. “No class today. You can’t go”.
But I kept trying. I kept wiggling and jiggling and trying to meander through one hulking body after another. The mass was impenetrable. I gave up. Tearfully, I returned to 351 Hewitt. I had really wanted to go to school. My parents were paying a lot of money, a whole lot of money….and, well, I liked school.
Heading back to the dormitory, I passed people handing out leaflets. “On Strike”, the leaflets read. Other leaflets proclaimed, “No Gym”.
I’d known that the new gymnasium, planned for construction in nearby Morningside Park, was an issue. I sympathized with keeping public lands public; I could see that it might be wrong for Columbia to build a private facility in the midst of a public park. But, what did that have to do with my going to school? How come, if Columbia was going to build a gymnasium, I couldn’t go to school that day?
Something didn’t make sense.
Everyone else, though, seemed to get it. All those savvy New Yorkers, the ones who knew Marx and Lenin and the military-industrial complex, understood it perfectly well. They didn’t mind missing a day of school. In fact, they were quite proud of closing down the school. Maybe their parents had more money than mine….
Anyway, I didn’t go to school that day. Or the next. Everything was closed and it wasn’t summer vacation and it wasn’t a snow day. It was simply, “On STRIKE. SHUT IT DOWN”. But I was a freshman and it didn’t make sense to me.
That Friday, as previously planned, I flew home to Massachusetts for a family event. News of the students strike at Columbia had permeated the papers. Everyone I came into contact with wanted to know what was going on. I became both an instant celebrity (for being a Columbia University student) and an instant pariah (for being a Columbia University student).
“What’s going on?”, they asked.
I told them.
“That doesn’t make sense”, they replied, “Why shut down the school? These kids…”
“Well, you see,” and I launched into a discourse on Marx and Lenin and the military-industrial complex, sounding (at least to my 19-year old self) like those savvy New Yorkers. There I was, a freshman in college, and I’d suddenly become an EXPERT. I was thrilled. And very proud. And, the more I told the story of what was going on at Columbia, the more I was forced to defend their actions and the more I identified with the students who had called the strike. Over and over I told the story about the big, bad elitist university administration and the helpless, hapless humble people whose park was being stolen away from them.
Then, the weekend with family was over. I flew back to NYC. I went back to campus. Over the weekend, I’d become an expert; I learned that I belonged in the building .I climbed through a window and joined the striking students. And not for one moment have I ever regretted that decision.- by Linda (Elovitz) Marshall