Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Being 18 and a freshman in university....then (1960) and now (2018)

It is virtually impossible to imagine what it must be like to be eighteen today, for this septaguinarian. And yet, the stretch it takes is more than worth the time and effort. The differences between arriving at this age in 1960 and in 2018 are, at the same time, momentous and miniscule.

The obvious momentous differences focus on technology, the world wide web, the instant real time 24-7-365 news coverage from every corner of the globe. In 1960, we wrote letters home from college, or phoned occasionally but not too often, just to avoid the long-distance charges. We went to listen to Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker debate the relevance and danger of harbouring U.S. missiles on Canadian soil, while the American hands were on the trigger. The missiles, it was alleged, were to protect Canada from invasion through the Arctic by the dreaded Soviet Union. We had just acquired our first “credit card” booklet, a series of coupons we submitted to the British-American oil company if and when we bought gas for our vehicles.
We watched John F. Kennedy debate Richard Nixon, in the first televised political debate in history and could not help comment on the “dark shadows” crawling across Nixon’s face, with his “afternoon shadow” and his obvious need for a shave. Kennedy, on the other hand, looked actually  youthful, in his early forties, well quaffed and Churchillian in his delivery and McLuhanesque in his charismatic “cool”.

We visited our first radio station, after midnight, courtesy of the all-night host on CKSL Radio 1290 in London ( I think it was, and the disc-jockey’s on-air name was Stephens). The trip was organized by a freshman from Windsor named Bogle who, himself was a radio-fanatic, and his enthusiasm was catching. The “morning man” was a fellow named Bill Brady, whose friendly, cheerful chatter wakened us each morning before class at Western. (Incidentally, Brady later moved to a major station in Toronto, as his career found an even wider audience.) We took buses, dozens of them, to the frosh dance party at Port Stanley where Johnny Downs’ orchestra provided the dance music. We had “left home” from “small town Ontario” (dozens of those towns) to step into another world of a “city” and something called a university.

Most of us were the first in our family to enrol in “higher learning” and while we were proud and honoured to be there, we were also more than a little over-awed at the sheer dimension of the numbers, the alacrity of the movement of people, ideas, musical trends, fashion trends like dessert boots, cords, paisley shirts and crew cuts. I recall thinking I had found a real bargain when, in Simpson’s at the corner of Dundas and Richmond, I found a burgundy corduroy jacket for $11. Of course, the new “college jacket” in royal purple and white, with “WESTERN’ emblazoned on the back, and “63” on the arm held the top rung in the wardrobe, at least for this very green freshman.

It all sounds corny and folksy and quaint and quite embarrassing now; yet at the time, it seemed very important and exhilarating. We had never heard of karaoke, cell phones, laptops, facebook, twitter, Utube, or any of the dozens, or hundreds of platforms that populate the software’s access to the internet. Nothing, literally nothing, was “wireless”….even our phones were still connected to the wall, and we certainly did not have one in our cars.

Our movies and pop tunes were clustered in tightly conforming categories like westerns, romances, thrillers and the occasional horror. Songs were mostly by single artists, with Elvis and Pat Boone, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, The Everley Brothers, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney. And the lyrics were primarily simple love ditties, held together by an easily remembered melody, and a simple rhythm. A few larger orchestras like Les and Larry Elgart, Les Brown, Glen Miller, Billy Vaughan, and Ray Conniff were touring and entertaining a select campus formal dances. The Brothers Fours, the Lettermen, The Kingston Trio were giving voice to the folk tunes like Greensleeves, and their songs were recorded on the “new” 33rpm albums. Singles were still recorded on 78’s and a few made it onto what were dubbed “45’s. All of these were “plastic” and were easily scratched or broken.

North America had emerged from the darkness of the Second War, and had moved through what was primarily an decade of economic prosperity, simple expectations and dreams, quiet confidence and what felt like a secure hope, potentially threatened by events like the the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs debacle and Nikita Khrushchev’s banging his shoe on the podium at the U.N. the Korean War was a distant memory if at all, for Canadian college kids and there was no imminent military conflict on the horizon. Civil rights, Martin Luther King and Jimmy Hoffa of Teamsters fame were dominant in the “appointment” nightly newscast from the three American networks, and from the CBC with historic names like Larry Henderson, Earl Cameron.

It was a much “smaller” world in the sense that there were far fewer external stimuli and few less information pouring out of a plethora of “sources” that remained in the TV room, not in our hands or ear-buds.

This year, in less than a month, “freshmen” will pour into university cities and towns across Ontario, and the world. Eager to learn, much less “wet behind the ears” in terms of their consciousness of the chaos in the world, clutching their cell phones, backpacking their tablets and laptops, they will hang posters of their “favourite” icon on their dorm room walls, try to find faces and eyes to welcome and be welcomed by.
 They will scan campus maps for the names of buildings they have never heard of, looking for classrooms and labs they will frequent over the next four years. Women will have their eyes peeled for the latest “hunk” a new class of male undergrads some of whose names and characters will become familiar, many of whom will remain anonymous, as will these women. The men will gravitate to some watering hole new and unfamiliar to them, with brands both familiar and foreign.

The more assertive will exhibit exuberance for every single “frosh” activity, while the shy ones will slink into the back of most group settings hoping whatever they are asked to do will be comfortable, not too embarrassing and potentially enabling the development of new friendships.

And then there will be that first day in class, where names from around the world (very different from 1960) and faces from many cultures and ethnicities, and technologies of various brand names and colours will greet them. Their professors will be more casually attired than were our’s, and the details of their unique scholarship will be so diverse, based on research from so many more easily accessible sources, comparisons and foundational premises.

Student clubs, hobbies, sports and other activities will have an opportunity to ‘sign up’ new recruits, for radio stations, political clubs, chess, and debating societies, hiking and personal training groups (never even though of in 1960). And the subject of “food” and where to get it, how much it will cost, whether or not a meal-plan makes sense (not even on the horizon in 1960) and where the best fast food outlets are located in relation to campus.

There will be orientation sessions for lab students, for library and internet access, for security protocols (not even contemplated in 1960) and dorm expectations.
 And while all of this hubbub is going on, the search for time and place for sleep, for relaxation and ‘down time’ will impact some more than others. Text messages will be sent back home (never even dreamt possible in 1960) and with previous classmates (now at other universities and colleges) as well as new names and contacts for each private list will be added. Bank accounts, now portable and accessible from ATM’s (another new wrinkle) will be checked, and new pin numbers acquired and entered into both memories (personal and digital).

And all the while parents back home, now many of whom will already have had their own “freshman” year, and long since graduated, will be reflecting back on their own experiences, drawing on them if and when asked by their freshly scrubbed and launched kids, who only recently graduated from their local high school.

No bifocal look at being eighteen and entering first year of university (1960 and 2018) would be remotely adequate without reference to the upcoming legalization of marijuana in October this fall. In 1960, it was only upon a rare occasion that we might witness an inebriated freshman, sometimes at the occasional football game and infrequently, late at night, after a night of pub-crawling, when someone would stagger up the stairs into the exclusively men’s residence. Being away from home is always an invitation to step out from behind (under) parental supervision and close scrutiny. That was true in 1960, as it will be next month.

However, we were never accosted by drug dealers trying to hook us into trying non-prescription drugs. And we certainly were not exposed to an invitation, whether in person or from some advertising, to experiment with “pot” whether in liquid, candy or joint format. Not only are today’s frosh living in a world fraught with geo-political tensions, trade tariffs, nuclear proliferation, global warming and climate change, for which little if anything is being done to counter-act these threats, they are also living in a culture in which character assassination can be routine, with impunity, on social media, photos posted without consent, and the pressure to conform, and to fit in is inordinate.

It is not surprising to hear of, or even to know, a seventeen-or-something adolescent who sees the whole panorama as existentially flawed, purposeless, and thereby hopeless. Research from many U.S. campuses demonstrates that undergrads are experiencing depression and mental anxiety at an alarming rate. And although the situation in Canada is not as extreme, (so far as we know) frosh here will be asking many of the same questions, faced as they are by a cultural template that stresses, if not idolizes “transactional” relationships…..”what have you done for me lately?” Our class in 1960 were almost silent about the political issues of the day; today we all hope that, in addition to the high school students from Florida who have made gun control legislation their shared mission (after the mass shooting of their classmate), groups of university students from the developed world will summon the courage, the energy and the determination to speak out, in any of the many “forums” available to them. We need your strident and optimistic voices to penetrate the corridors of political power to save the planet, and the people….quite literally, from ourselves and our insouciance.

Wishing you a very happy 18th, and an exciting and challenging first year, Jane!

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