Terrifying and Exhilarating

Susan Merrifield



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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. The insurance company was in the Back Bay so I could go to anti-war demonstrations on my lunch hour, a big radical in my second hand Villager skirt. Someone told me about the new “downtown” campus of UMass. On one lunch break, I ran down Arlington Street, straight into the Director of Admissions, Mr. Costello’s, office and I told him that he had 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 UMass Boston was looking for. I turned in my resignation.

It was terrifying and exhilarating to be 19. By the late 60s, 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. 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.