It's not hard for me to believe that it was already forty years ago because what happened way back then doesn't seem at all like yesterday to me, more like a whole different lifetime. In a way, it was. And in another way, it wasn't.
That I got an education in college isn't news. That much of that learning came outside the classroom isn't news either--same is true, I'm sure, for many. But that some of what I consider to be the most fundamental lessons of my college years happened in opposition to the classroom, and in opposition to the ethos of the institution I attended--the very institution I've served now for thirty-plus years--is something I often think about but only rarely say.
But I said it last week, said it to one of my students who was writing an investigative journalism piece on campus housing. She'd followed up the complaints of some students and gone far, far beyond the limits most campus news reporters ever, ever go in research and sheer hard work; she'd done a terrific job, and I knew--as did she--that she'd stumbled into the neighborhood of trouble, trouble with the administration.
What I told her then was that when I was her age, exactly forty years ago, I caught all kinds of grief and anger because, in the school paper, I took a point of view that didn't register as righteous with the administration . Most students didn't buy my opinion either, and the administration wasn't pleased because they knew that kind of ink abroad--anti-Vietnam war views--would lead to complaints from a constituency unwavering, back then, in its support of the policies of Richard Nixon.
They didn't want me saying what I did in the campus newspaper because it would reflect badly on the institution. I don't doubt for a moment that it did. But I said them anyway.
I happen to be one of those people who believe in a free press. Calvinist that I am, I also believe that power corrupts, and that one of the great blessings of this culture is the opportunity all of us have to express our ideas and pursue stories even when those stores lead to places where those in power would rather not have us go. Without a free press, we'd live in a whole different world.
So I told my student something that I've believed throughout my life, throughout a writing life that spans all of those thirty years and more. I told her that one of the finest lessons I ever learned forty years ago, when I was here at the same college she attends, is something I was taught from people who let me know that they hated what I wrote.
From them, I came to understand that words mean something. In all those years since, I don't think I would ever have written a single story or essay if I hadn't learned that lesson from the resentment and criticism she's now taking. Even today, right at this moment, I honestly believe that these words I'm writing have power, and that's something I learned, firsthand, forty years ago.
Somewhere along the line, I'm sure some teacher of mine held forth on the beauty and bounty of the free press. I probably wrote down some notes on a lined tablet that's long gone. But I never learned that lesson as thoroughly as I did when I took the heat.
This morning, the teacher in me is both royally angry and smilingly content, angry especially at those who browbeat a kid for writing a story they don't like.
But then, another part of me is smiling because I couldn't have taught that student a lesson as successfully as those who are angry already have. It's from them--from their criticism, from their intimidation--that she's learning what I did, that words have power, that if you want to write, the heat sometimes simply comes with the territory.
That's an education.