Clarissa Allen: Student

I was born on Martha’s Vineyard and grew up in Chilmark on the western end of the island, when it was still a mostly small and rural community. In those days there were only a smattering of summer people and they were mostly artists, writers, and academics . My father, from an old line of New England yankees, milked our cows, cut hay, kept sheep and ran our town, being Selectmen, Assessor, the Bd. of Health, and inspector of animals. Along with all of this, he designed and built houses for the summer people. Among his customers were Max Eastman who had accompanied John Reed to Russia to write Ten Days that shock the world and Leo Huberman, a founding editor of The Monthly Review. My mother was originally from the rural west of Ireland, by way of Greenwich Village. After many years in NYC, she moved to the Vineyard, married my father and had me. She soon started her own real estate business, catering to these “up-island” types. My parents had an easy rapport with their clients, admiring their values and ways of thinking. My mother was spirited, independent minded and forward thinking. I was their only child, my father being sixty when I was born, and my mother forty-four. Through my parents, I gained an early exposure to non-conventional ways of thinking.

I attended the Vineyard schools through 9th grade. In 1966 I decided to go to boarding school outside of Boston, at The Cambridge School of Weston. When away at Cambridge School, my father died. Before attending Marlboro College, in southern Vermont, I spent a year living in Cambridge and working at a school in Boston. The years following my father’s death were very difficult for my mother and me. While back on the Vineyard, I worked as a baby-sitter for a professor and his large family from Boston. I took care of the children and before very long, I became a part of their extended and interesting household in the South End.

At his urging, I started UMB. I began UMB in September 1971, when I was twenty years old. Although it was very different from the small, progressive schools I had attended, it very quickly felt like home to me. The professors were welcoming, encouraging, and deeply committed. Many of my classmates were older. Some were Vietnam vets and others had young families. Nearly everyone was trying to fit college into the fabric of busy working lives. Taking many of the same classes together and being drawn to a socially conscious way of thinking, I found a group of very good friends: John Clifford and his brothers, Joe Power and John Hopkins. My best friend during those was Ruth Matson. I helped take care of her children on the Vineyard and in Boston. She too, came along to UMB and eventually married my advisor, Michael Feldberg. For me, these were really very amazing times, full of energy, vibrancy, and immediacy.

Beginning UMB was a pretty discombobulating experience: there were no dorms, so I had to find an apartment. Our classes seemed to be all over the place. In the Salada Building, one floor might house old and somewhat shabby offices, while the next would be home to some of our classrooms. Our campus was Park Square, bounded on one side by the beautiful Boston Common and on the other by the far reaches of the combat zone. Although it actually bore no resemblance to a campus, it really was totally exciting going to college in this part of Boston. At one end of Arlingtom Sreet, you walked past the old elegance of Shreve, Crump and Low and then a few blocks along, you might have lunch at Flash’s. At first I rented in Charlestown. After getting lost apartment hunting in a rainstorm, I found myself on Monument square. Thinking it looked just like Beacon Hill, I rented a beautiful apartment with two working marble fireplaces for strangely little money! I rode my bike everywhere, to and from Park Square, shopped at the old Haymarket and after a year, moved to the South End. Because there were no dorms, I had the experience of living in NEIGHBORHOODS, and by no means were these places representative of Boston’s long established student neighborhoods. At this time, “gentrification” was just beginning. Unaware of the far-reaching and polarizing consequences of this fundamental shift, we simply looked at the beauty and affordability of some of Boston’s older urban neighborhoods. My favorite home was the top floor apartment of a house on Appleton Street in the South End. My housemates were a very gentlemanly older fellow who cooked at Wheelock College, and Mrs. Louise Cody, and her boyfriend, Eddy, who visited her on weekends. Louise, probably about sixty at the time, claimed she had been “slinin’ hash” most of her life. These housemates, neither of whom had ever had children of their own, assumed responsibility for me. Louise would fling her fist floor door open and yell ” your suppa’s on the table”. She would monitor the comings and goings of my guests and keep a very watchful eye on everyone, especially John Clifford! Piles of rotting wood and a few struggling weeds filled our back yard. I cleaned it all out, and fought with the city garbage truck drivers to take the stuff away, piece by piece. I planted grass, flowers, tomatoes and then went home to the Vineyard for the summer. When I returned for school in the autumn, my housemates had a couple of “yard” chairs set up. Everything was perfectly tended and thriving and they had throughly enjoyed the summer in our South End backyard garden. It was this easy kind of interchange with people that made my life seem so interesting. I volunteered in the neighborhood schools; we unbolted the desks from the floors and created “open classroom”, I scrounged the junk yards and second hand stores for amazing household finds. It was a very special treat in those days to eat once in awhile at our neighborhood restaurants. Charlie’s, The Red Fez, Nadia’s Eastern Star, and Bob the Chiefs were favorites.. I think being from the country somehow gave me a sense of security in this clearly defined urban neighborhood. Quickly I knew all the neighborhood regulars. In those days there were a lot of semi homeless and transient people around. In my naivety, I wondered what a “light housekeeping room” might be and I soon learned who to avoid on the streets. In those days, the South End was still a pretty poor neighborhood, with only a very few of us students in residence.

So, for me, those Park Square years were not really about major strikes and shutdowns, (I had come to the university after the big strike), but very much about expanding who I was and finding my way in Boston. Perhaps most profoundly for me, my experiences at UMB helped banish any vestiges of personal snobbery still remaining from my years at boarding school and from my time at a small private college. I learned to recognize and confront the trappings of being from some privilege. Being at UMB, I found I was part of something really exciting: the opportunity for an outstanding education, taught by very talented and committed professors and seemingly affordable and available to all. During those Park Square years I learned about “diversity”; real diversity‚Ķage,race,gender and class. Great changes were happening, a war had to be stopped, independence movements were being fought and supported, Native people’s, women and minorities were struggling for their rights. UMB seemed to be at the vanguard of these movements. We believed it to be the REAL university, proudly the poor cousin of the elite colleges.

Of course with much respect and fondness, I remember my professors. To just name a few, David Hunt, Lee Grove, Rene Watkins, Susan Schnieder, Keitha Fine, Linda Gordon, Michael Feldberg, Paul Faler and the most amazing Russian history and literature course taught by Easter Kingston-Mann. To this day, I remember her glorious and very special Russian dessert. George Saltzman’s Science for the Survival furthered my environmental awareness. During my time at UMB I met my lifelong friend, John Clifford who seemed to know everybody in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. He was on a personal mission to enroll every Vietnam vet in all of Boston at UMB! He believed that the university should be accountable to the community, and he taught that lesson well. He practiced activism and got things done. Our school was a hot bed of enlightened thinking and political commitment. Tilly Olsen and Allen Ginsburg gave readings and after hearing Cesar Chavez speak of the farmworker’s struggles, we ate no commercially grown lettuce for years. I always felt I was on the cutting edge of great possibilities for profound social change, and I certainly benefited personally from the amazing people I met.

In the history department, it was emphasized that “history is a way of learning”. At UMB, I learned a way of thinking and questioning, of looking into sources and motives. I often think, in many ways, it prepared me well for life in agriculture and community. Back then we were mostly unaware of the awful consequences big industrial agriculture would bring to our health and the environment, and who would have thought corporations would be granted the same rights as individuals?

After graduating, I came home to the Vineyard, taught history in a public alternative high school, fought a long and difficult battle in the Land Court to secure my farm from a dubious title challenge dating back over one hundred years. I won in the Land Court and then won the opposition’s appeal at the state Supreme Judicial Court. Along the way, I got married and raised a son. Ever since I came home to the Vineyard, I have always been involved in local government, education and conservation work. We have farmed organically for nearly the last forty years on land that has been in my family since the 1760’s. On this cold, wet and somewhat dreary late afternoon, I am listening to the wind blow and I can hear the surf in the distance. Our spring lambs will soon be born. On a farm, there are many early mornings and late nights. It is a life full of hard work and promise. Looking back, I see how my UMB years honed a way of being and looking at the world through a lens of involvement and commitment to community.

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