Susan Merrifield (formerly Susan Mullins): Downtown Campus Memories, 1968-1971

It was the fall after the summer of love. It was late autumn 1967, and I was bored to tears with my job as a file clerk at New England Life Insurance Company. I tried to get into a new computer-training program that the company was offering, but they had decided to not accept female applicants. They could do that then. Remember the “male” and “female” employment columns in the newspaper? Remember? It’s late 1967 and we’re at war in Vietnam and I decided not to take a college seat away from a boy who might get drafted so I’m sitting in an office every day rewarding myself with candy bars from the vending machine and I’m getting chubby and more unhappy. The insurance company is in the Back Bay so I can go to anti-war demonstrations on my lunch hour, a big radical in my second hand Villager skirt. Some one tells me about the new “downtown” campus of UMass. On one lunch break, I run down Arlington Street, straight into the Director of Admissions, Mr. Costello’s, office and I tell him that he has to help me; I’m trapped inside of an insurance office. Or maybe I said, “I’m trapped inside of Memphis with the Mobile Blues again.” I probably just asked him to accept me. I know he told me that I was just the sort of student that UMB was looking for.  I turned in my resignation. They gave me a party when I told them that I was going to college to become a writer. For a long time, I keep the fancy pens with feathers on them that the  “girls” gave me.

What I found out when I showed up at “UGas” in the winter of 1968 was that I was not as smart as I thought I was. The first professor I met, my advisor, told me that because I did not do very well at a not very good local high school, I might not make it through my first semester of the required and rigorous introductory courses that I had to take before I could get to the exciting literature classes that I had circled in the catalog. That first semester I took English 101 (Virgil, Homer, Dante, etc.), an introductory math course, French and Western Civilization. I survived with 3 Cs and one B. It’s probably impossible to remember now but the majority of our classmates from the 1960’s actually flunked or dropped out of UMB. Some of the smartest people I have ever known, Rasma Kirkums, Helene Davis, Steve Finn, Mike Pingree, Paul Atwood and Jack Beatty, flourished at the Park Square Campus; but many of those who left with their tails between their legs were pretty bright too. I can still see one quiet fragile woman who became my friend during the few semesters she was at UMass. She lived in a housing project with her father and brothers and was basically self-educated; a brilliant reader, but she did not have the stamina to run the gauntlet that was on-site registration and always started each semester with less than full-time status. Years later, I thought of her when I read Tillie Olsen’s “Silences.” I tried to help her, but she slipped away.

After spending two years in the traditional core curriculum (which was eliminated in my senior year), I managed to take many of the literature courses that had first lured me away from my clerk’s desk with aspirations of becoming a writer. But, I never got into the most alluring course, Post World War II Comic Fiction, because it was always full before I could register. Maybe it was enrolled in perpetuity before I ever got to UMass.

I had a studio apartment in the Back Bay. I loved the taste of the coffee I bought at Brigham’s on the way to my 8 o’clock classes in the Sawyer Building. I had a work-study job in the Science Library (bless you Brenda Gardner). My state scholarship paid my tuition, books and part of my rent. To my twenty-first century students, this sounds like unimaginable luxury. But, it was my life, our life in the 1960’s. I studied, worked at UMB and clerked at local hospitals and waitressed at Howard Johnson; I joined Female Liberation, walked out of class on strike after Kent State and Jackson State and demonstrated almost weekly for either women’s rights, the end of the war or day care at UMB. I imagined that I would be part of a social revolution, but I never imagined an America in which the president would be an African-American. (For that matter, I never thought I’d own a car, never mind a GPS unit.)

There’s no denying it. It’s not just nostalgia; even then, I felt it.

Those were heady days. It was terrifying and exhilarating to be 19. By the late 60’s, classes were terminated frequently by bomb threats. After many months of almost daily empty threats, the braver (or foolhardy?) faculty and students remained in classrooms voluntarily to continue instruction. Other times, we moved to nearby bars  (remember Jacques?) or faculty apartments to study poetry, literature and the history of the French Revolution. I actually remember a class of about 20 students gathered around the bedside of one professor as she lectured about Joyce’s Ulysses. In the days before cellphones, I can no longer remember how we knew to go to her apartment.

During 1968-70, classes were taught to the tune of sledgehammers and constant construction as offices and classrooms were renovated or created. The noise and the clamor seemed part of the times—a time of an unpopular, undeclared war and rapid and sometimes radical social change. To me the noise and constant haze of cigarette smoke was sometimes grating and at other times it seemed like a new kind of university in a new kind of community was emerging from the heart of the city.

After eking through the required math and science courses, I loved going to class. My professors were role models who shook up my world and made me into an adult woman. I can still see Mary Anne Ferguson as she assigned some writing by Eleanor Roosevelt. After several snickers, Dr. Ferguson stood back and glared at us, asking the teacher’s timeless question, “What’s so funny?”  “ She’s so ugly, “ one student replied. “With any luck,” Dr. Ferguson said to the all female class in Women and Literature, “you’ll live long enough to be considered old and ugly in this society, but you will not have contributed a fraction of what Eleanor Roosevelt gave to this country!” I thought about that for a long time. I think we all did.

I graduated in 1971. My best friend Rasma and I decided not to wear robes but to wear mini-skirts instead. I no longer remember why we chose to make that particular statement. Ted Kennedy stood on the stage in the Prudential Center and gave me my degree in English. He also gave the graduation speech, saying that most of us would not get jobs worthy of our degrees, but that we would always have our education. That made me and Rasma angry. We doubted that Kennedy was told the same thing when he graduated from Harvard. We both needed and wanted interesting work. After all, I had a boring job before I went to UMB.

Susan Merrifield (formerly Susan Mullins)
Class of 1971
(Professor Emeritus in English Education, Lesley University)

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