As I was driving Leah to school this morning we were listening to the wildly inappropriate musical “Avenue Q” again and Leah played me her new favorite song. It’s called “I Wish I Could Go Back to College” and except for one line about fucking a T.A. (oy) it is a very sweet nostalgic song that begins:
I wish I could go back to college.
Life was so simple back then.
What would I give to go back
And live in a dorm with a meal plan again.
I wish I could go back to college.
In college you know who you are.
You sit in the quad, and think, "Oh my God!
I am totally gonna go far!"
I was stunned that I could not relate to this song in any way. I was so disengaged from my college experience that most of the memories I may have once had of those years at Northwestern University have been exiled to the cerebral junk heap. Part of the problem is that I did NOT live in a dorm with a meal plan but I lived at home for the duration, traveling to school on two buses and two trains. One of the few memories I still have of my college years is trudging to school in the dead of winter and waiting endlessly on frigid El platforms, tears of pain freezing on cheeks that were crunchy with pre-frostbite. To make matters worse I would hop in the shower just before heading out into the 20 below zero windchill. I’d then spend half my travel time pulling dozens of quick-forming icicles out of my wet hair. It's no wonder I’m bald today!
When I think back to that time I experience regret for not getting more out of those supposedly seminal years. The minute my last class was over for the day I hightailed it out of pristine Evanston and back to my pre-existing life in Chicago where nothing much had changed since my days as Surly High School Student. What a waste. Oh well, at least the experience didn’t break the bank. I was lucky enough to be in college during the Carter years (1976-80) and got generous grants (not loans) the whole time I was in school. Go, Jimmy! I think those grants disappeared the day Ronald Reagan took office.
I can count my memories of Northwestern on the fingers of one hand:
1. Entering my very first class freshman year, French Conversation, taught by beautiful Anne Moreau who looked younger than her students and was the nicest teacher I ever had. I also remember French literature classes with kind but authoritative Tilde Sankovitch, an expert on Simone de Beauvoir who also wrote books about the Middle Ages. I was a film major at Northwestern and repeatedly got yelled at for taking so many French classes.
2. Lugging home the “portable” video equipment which was housed in a huge trunk that weighed as much as a Volkswagen. I made a documentary about the inner workings of the Kennedy-owned Merchandise Mart (where my mother worked for decades) with my classmate Alisa Birnbaum who was George Burns’ niece. I remember us descending into the bowels of this massive structure (so big that it has its own zip code) and interviewing the folks who made it tick. The documentary was called “City Unto Itself” and I have no idea what happened to it. I remember taking Alisa to my grandparents’ for dinner and how thrilled they were about the “nice Jewish girl” whose family founded many Hebrew Schools. I just looked online and saw that Alisa is now Alisa Zucker and was surprised to learn that she still contributes generously to Northwestern. It has never occurred to me once to donate a cent to that school, I can barely register that I’m an alumni.
3. Taking an “interpretation” class taught by Frank Galati who later became a Tony Award-winning Broadway director. I was required to take this class for some reason even though I think I was the only non-acting student there. We had to perform passages from books and the only thing I remember doing is some scene from “Gone With the Wind,” acting out all the parts including the slave accents. “Oh, Miz Scarlett, what mens say and what dey do iz two diffren’ things, and I ain’ seen Mista Ashley askin’ ta marry ya.” Dear God. Forgive me, Mr. Galati! Am I the reason you left teaching?
4. Laughing hysterically at every college show that featured my classmate Julia Louis-Dreyfus, future star of “Seinfeld.” Her husband Brad Hall was also in several of my classes as was their comedy revue partner and one-time “Saturday Night Live” cast member Gary Kroeger and Michael Hitchcock who was so good in the Christopher Guest movies “Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show,” and “A Mighty Wind.” I mention these folks not to drop names (for once) but more to contrast their successful college lives with my total lack of involvement during those squandered years.
5. Being a member of the 1978-79 Sweet Briar College Junior Year in France program. This was the one big exception to my college apathy, and I loved every minute of it. I lived in an eighth floor walk-up in the swanky 16th arrondissement in Paris in a “chambre de bonne” or maid’s room. I got to take my meals in the first floor apartment of a faded aristocrat who took in American students to keep her country chateau running. I was warned that La Comtesse de Lasteyrie was not the warmest of people but she suited me just fine. For an extra 15 francs a week (about $3.00 then) her maid washed and pressed all my clothes, even ironing my underwear! Every night I descended my eight flights and joined the others for delicious meals of pheasant and snails and amazing cheeses, all washed down with her never-ending supply of Veuve Clicquot. I really lucked out since some of my classmates were stuck with mean French families who practically fed them gruel.
I attended school at the Sorbonne but again, can’t remember a thing about my classes. I do remember that it was a tumultuous time in Paris and that for a good part of the school year the STUDENTS were on strike! Almost everyone else on my program was majoring in French and I had to do a lot of convincing to get accepted as a film major. But what better place for a film buff than the City of Lights? Did you know that there are more films showing in Paris on a given day than any other city in the world (including New York and Los Angeles combined)? I saw 108 films during my time there (yes, I kept track!). I was still pathologically anti-social, but the allure of living in Paris more than compensated. I remember leaving my room every morning and feeling so happy and excited to be there. I explored every corner of that city which I still think is the most beautiful in the world. But I made no French friends that year and only a few American ones which is sad to admit. I never could have guessed that I’d return 14 years later to marry a Frenchwoman in the Bois de Boulogne and that my wedding would be officiated by the Chief Rabbi of France. Oy, but that’s another story.
Paris was also a great jumping off point for traveling. That December I went to Moscow and Leningrad which was still part of the Soviet Union. They were having one of the coldest winters on record and from the broken-down Aeroflot plane that almost crashed to the Moscow hotel room that was so cold a glass of water on my bedstand froze during the night, it wasn’t hard to see that the doomed Soviet system was not working. I loved the Russian people, though. One night when I got hopelessly lost trying to take the bus to the brilliant Moscow Circus (how the hell do you read the cyrillic alphabet full of 3s and backward Rs?), a woman took me by the hand and walked me several blocks out of her way in the frigid cold to the right bus stop, rubbing my nose to keep me from getting frostbite.
I also went to Munich that year with my friend Kathy which was a little scary considering we were accosted by a shady character on our way to Dachau who stalked us for the rest of the trip and we were almost arrested in the middle of the night because someone mistook us for a pair of Palestinian truck smugglers (again, another story!).
I graduated from Northwestern’s School of Speech 25 years ago next month. While most of Northwestern's commencement ceremonies featured celebrity alumni such as Warren Beatty, Cloris Leachman, Sheldon Harnick, Karen Black, Dick Benjamin and Paula Prentiss, or Ann-Margret, the only person they could dredge up in 1980 was Charlton Heston’s sister Lila. My main concern that day was surviving my parents—it was one of the first times since their divorce that we were all in the same room together.
I looked on the website just now and saw that Northwestern is busy preparing for the Class of 1980’s 25th Reunion this fall. I can’t even imagine attending and it saddens me that I seem so disconnected from that part of my life. I hope that when Leah makes it to college (if anyone on the planet besides Donald Trump’s children can afford it by then) she can immerse herself more in the experience. But maybe my own regret is misplaced. I probably learned more from living in another culture during that year in France than I ever could have picked up in some lecture hall on the Evanston lakefront. Kendall wrote “The Day I Became an Autodidact” about her decision not to go to college and she has never regretted it for a second. I know that going to college doesn't have to be such a major benchmark in our lives. I think it was Mark Twain who wisely said, “I have never let schooling interfere with my education.”
Maybe I’m luckier than those characters in that song from “Avenue Q.” They had such a great college experience that everything that came after that seemed like a letdown. I was so out of it during my college years that everything that followed seemed fantastic by comparison.