In 1983, I was a senior at what I called at the time a "left-wing commie pinko college" in New England working on a "left-wing commie pinko major" of a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Creative Writing and Theatre. My minor was American Studies. Perfect! I should be a left-wing commie pinko myself. For heaven's sake, I was Episcopalian.
So what happened?
In the first semester of my freshman year, I sat in my dorm room and watched a speech:
That was that. I was fired up. I joined the Reagan Revolution.
There were many times during college where I did feel like some lonely little petunia in a giant onion patch. This was despite the fact that even though many of my college profs were obviously children of the 60s, my classmates seemed to resemble Alex P. Keaton far more than Abbie Hoffman. Politics was not on the front burner for my classmates. For my progressive profs, it was a different matter.
I recall looking out the windows of my American studies class waiting for the professor to arrive only to see the majority of the college profs congregating on the college green below protesting loudly, while up in our classroom our tuition clocks were ticking. We packed up our books and went home.
It was true, this was probably not the most hospitable environment for a young member of the Reagan Revolution. I listened, I learned. I learned up close and personal a counter vision of America through the writings of great 20th century American writers as well as through the cultural history of my American studies classes. It was not a pretty picture.
I also had a picture of where that counter cultural vision could look like when I went to London to study theatre in my junior year and saw the world as it was in that time in a land that the new Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was taking on by the antlers. London was in many ways a dark place and crumbling place then, in the depths of a deep recession. You could still see evidence of the ruin of World War II and the hideous attempts to rebuild the city with Utopian monstrosities made out of cement.
In the theatre world that I inhabited in London, Thatcher was indeed Enemy #1, as Reagan was back home. There was a General Strike while I was there, something I had never experienced in the United States. The whole city stopped cold and thousands filled Hyde Park in protest.
The theatres, however, did not go dark. Instead, we were treated to left-wing political speeches following the performance. Many in the audience walked out shouting back at the stage - and I remember thinking as they walked out, so, could it be true that not everyone dislikes Margaret Thatcher after all?
By the time my senior year came along I was doing more speaking out, frustrated by the outlandish opinions I kept hearing from many of my profs. I remember one time one of my profs sat on his desk dangling his legs lecturing us in his jeans about the heyday of the 1960s and the cultural explosion after President John F. Kennedy was killed. "You remember when Kennedy was killed," he said, waiting for us all to agree with him.
"Actually, no," I said. I remembered I was only two years old when Kennedy was killed. "To me Kennedy's always been dead, like Abraham Lincoln."
The prof stared at me for a long time in the silently uncomfortable classroom. I kept thinking, okay, did I say something wrong? He must have been looking around the classroom, made up of too many bow-tied preppies for comfort and wondering what happened. He must have wondered when he got old.
But my resolve was firm. I took a political science class in the midst of writing my senior thesis. My prof was provocative and I spoke up as though provoked. I'd sometimes regret it later but I had just about had it - I was ready to be done with college and get on with it. This time, in my Political Science class, I was told by the prof to come see him at his office. "Uh oh," I thought.
I was familiar with the offices of my Fine Arts profs, I had spent many hours with my profs there - but it was filled with writers and actors and directors, it was sparsely decorated with the interior decor consisting primarily of posters announcing coming readings by poets and short story writers and student plays with props from shows done and yet to be done lying about the halls. Walking into the Social Sciences offices was quite a different story. It was a hotbed of radical slogans and hipness. It had potted plants. It was where it was happening. It was intimidating. I braced myself as I approached my political science professor's office. I was in for it, this Reaganite, this conservative, this Republican.
I approached the door and saw him, sitting with his hands folded, waiting for me behind his desk that was pointed right toward the door. No one who went by would miss his attention, and no one who went by would miss what was boldly displayed on the wall behind his desk. I stood there stunned.
On the wall behind him, as though looking approvingly over his shoulder were two towering portraits. One was Ronald Reagan. The other was Margaret Thatcher.
"Come in," my professor said to me with a smile, as I sat down across from his desk, still stunned, "I'd like to recommend you to a stipend internship in journalism in Washington this summer. Would you be interested?" He showed me an article about the internship in the current issue of The National Review.
I said okay, he did, and I went to Washington.
When I heard of Margaret Thatcher's passing this past week, I remembered that portrait on the wall of my professor's office. He knew, even then, that these two towering figures would change the world. And he was right. They did. And they changed my world too.
And now like Kennedy and Lincoln, they are gone. There is a generation now that sits in the classroom as I did, who will think of these people as people of the past, long dead. But while they are gone, their ideas and ideals, their hopes, their dreams remain again in a world not unlike the one they once knew. Even now.