I recently enjoyed the honor of a lifetime: addressing the University of Arizona’s Class of ’60 with my take on our times at our alma mater. [Editor: see our report here.]
My classmates and I showed up brimming with youth and Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll, more than ready to “Go! Go! Wildcats! Go!” and the school welcomed us with open arms.
In the background, besides the up tempo music, the likes of I Love Lucy had us laughing crazily and we relied on Ed Sullivan giving us a “Really good show” every Sunday but the world, at large, was in no way like a picnic on a carefree sunny day.
The Korean War had ended just a few years before we arrived. The Little Rock Nine, black students in Little Rock, were escorted to school by federal troops because of Jim Crow’s racist approach to human relations at the time.
The Soviets released Sputnik and our country launched Explorer I and the space race was on along with a cold war wherein one day one of our U-2 spy planes was downed in Soviet air space and the possibility of the world being blown away popped up in the conversations of the day.
It was all a bit frightening and enormously exciting to me and I wanted to learn as much about this complex and troubled world as was possible. But what was happening in reality wasn’t explored enough in our daily studies it didn’t seem to me. That bothered me but at the same time it was okay because I learned early on that the university had as much to learn as we students did and it was the role of each to bring the other along.
I mean I wasn’t on the campus a day before a coach said to me: “Wow, you don’t have to take English X?” as though something must have been wrong with the test that decided where in English I would fit best. After the first semester, when I told him I had passed English, he practically needed CPR on his chest. But he kept his eyes on me and when I graduated he had put his notions to rest. And I let him out of the place where I held my prejudices. At best he and I learned something about humanity, about how we can set our biases free. You can’t ask more than that of co-learners.
While working with a number of community activists to end Tucson’s discriminatory Laws I brought up our struggles in a Political Science class where we were learning how a bill passes through Congress and the prof said it wasn’t relevant to what we were doing. I heard that kind of sentiment a few other times related to other issues but somehow the prospective teacher in me felt that making lessons relevant to a student’s life was a must in creating a dynamic learning environment. Working as an educator, over time, I know that now to be true.
In spite of such instances, pursuing a degree at the University of Arizona was a rich experience for me. Both through what it provided that was good and through what it needed to improve on, it was instrumental in creating within me a keen curiosity about the world that hasn’t diminished with age.
And I am so proud that my school, in its 125th year, is aging in the same way and is highly respected in the world of higher learning today. I’m stoked that although it once looked the other way when it came to the diversity at play on its grounds, it now stands its ground for justice and fair play, with ethnic and gender studies and a desire to reach out to the global community. It now works diligently to make everyone feel that they have a vital role to play in our world – no matter their color or ethnicity or whether they choose to or not to worship or pray or no matter whether they’re straight or gay or questioning their sexuality in any way.
My beloved U of A now stands as a beacon of enlightenment for a society that still, too often, when it comes to human understanding, loses its way. I will love it and cherish it for the rest of my days, for it has stayed true to the spirit of “Bear! Down!” in all its advancements as it has aged along the way. It is a 125 year old beauty.