Monday, June 16, 2008

Wesleyland



A couple of weeks ago one of the most important political figures in American history gave a speech in my backyard. Of course when I say my backyard, I don't mean that literally, since my current backyard is an alley in West Hollywood frequented by gay hustlers, vagrants and aluminum can collectors. What I am referring to is a place where I will always feel at home no matter how long I stay away, a place I feel connected to in many different ways, a place where I have a special history and which holds strong memories. It is a magical place, a mythical place, a place like no other. It is a place I call Wesleyland.

Officially, of course the name of this mythical land is Wesleyan University. It was founded in 1831 as a Methodist school for young men, but has since become known as one of the most prestigious and progressive universities in the world. It is physically located in Middletown, Connecticut which is the main reason I have such a strong connection to the place. My great-grandfather, Emmanuel "Manny" Eastman is buried in Pine Grove Cemetery in Middletown. My grandparents, Oscar and Agnes, met in Middletown. Oscar worked at the Wilcox-Crittenden factory in Middletown making marine hardware. My father, Warren and uncle Bob attended Middletown High School and both graduated from Wesleyan. I went to Wesleyan and so did my sister Susan. My nephew Chris was born in Middletown at the same hospital where my Dad was born. Susan has lived in Middletown for almost twenty years. My nephew John grew up there.

Even when I was a kid, back in Louisville, Wesleyan held a special place in my imagination. On Thanksgiving, we ate our turkey on a set of Wesleyan china, each plate featuring a different landmark from the Wesleyan campus, like Olin Library, Memorial Chapel or South College. In the summer we visited my Dad's relatives in Middletown. I still remember walking around campus in the early 70's when revolution was in the air. I knew the names of the buildings from our Thanksgiving plates. We toured the old science buildings where my Dad studied chemistry. We saw the pool where he swam on the swim team. The Wesleyan campus was an exciting mixture of old and new, familiar and strange, fantasy and reality.

But my favorite part of campus was the large open grassy field bounded by the administration buildings on the east, Fayerweather Gymnasium on the north, Olin library on the south and Foss Hill to the west. Known as Andrus Field, to me it will always be my "backyard" and the center of Wesleyland.

Back in the day, Andrus Field held an old cinder running track, a baseball diamond, and a football field with removable wooden bleachers. Students could sit on the terraced lawn behind Olin Library and watch an intramural softball game, play Frisbee on the football field, jog a few laps on the cinder track, or maybe just sit under the shade of one of the hundred year old maple trees on Foss Hill and enjoy the scenery. Nowadays the track and baseball diamond are gone, but the field still gets plenty of use. Like hosting the commencement ceremonies

When Barack Obama stood on the marble podium that rises from center of the terraced lawn, there were over 20,000 people gathered on Andrus field and Foss Hill to hear him speak. Including my parents and my sister. The biggest crowd ever recorded prior to that was 8,000 people for Wesleyan's 175th anniversary two years ago. Although I've heard that when the Grateful Dead played a free concert on Andrus Field in 1970, the place was pretty packed.

My first two years at Wesleyan, I lived in a dorm called West College which was nestled among a grove of trees on the north slope of Foss Hill. I crossed Andrus Field hundreds of times going to and from classes or over to Fayerweather Gymnasium. I ran numerous laps on the cinder track and did many a hill sprint up Foss Hill. Our cross country races began and ended at the foot of Foss Hill. Andrus Field was the scene of many official gatherings, such as Spring Fling and of course Commencement. But it was also the site of a lot of unofficial activities, like the legendary Communal Moan. In the winter we "borrowed" trays from the dining hall and used them as makeshift snowboards to slide down Foss Hill. This was years before any of us ever saw an actual snowboard.

It was during those carefree days of curiosity and experimentation that I first came up with the concept of "Wesleyland". The atmosphere at Wesleyan was so conducive to learning, growth, experimentation, and discovery that I began to see the campus less as an institution of higher learning and more like a kind of intellectual theme park. There were so many amazing things to learn, do, and experience. And as students, we were free to pick and choose whatever struck our interest. And the thing I noticed about so many of my fellow students was that they all had so many different interests and abilities. You might meet someone who was a pre-med and think of them as a "squid", a term applied to boring nerds who spent all their time studying. But the next time you saw the squid he might be playing mridungam in an avant-garde jazz ensemble. And then later the same squid might be covered with mud and tearing up the rugby field. You soon learned not to take anyone, or anything at face value.

It was not long before I realized that, although my classes were excellent and the professors of the highest caliber, I was learning as much from my fellow students as I was from my courses. There were specific examples, like my sophomore roommate Terry who introduced me to jazz, showed me how to play guitar and taught me calculus. But there were also the non-specific lessons, like my friend Andy who showed me how to take a negative situation and convert it into a positive one. Or Kevin, who taught me how to think like a writer. My friend Sindi taught me how to always be myself. Mitch taught me how to live in the moment. Nancy taught me about love.

Even after I left Wesleyan, I continued to learn from the people I met there. After graduation, during my year in Pacific Beach with Bob, I learned a lot about self-confidence. Dan has always been an example of professionalism and hard work. Dave has given me hope. Mark showed me about resilience and character. Joel was my healer and guru. Jon taught me how to feel.

When we all met each other at Wesleyan, we were students. But we were also something else. We were teachers, too. I think we will always be students, just as we will always be teachers. It's the primary function in life, to learn and to teach. I think that's what I found out at Wesleyland. And that's one of the reasons I found it so fitting to see Barack Obama speaking in my backyard two weeks ago. Obama is a great student of the human condition and he inspires people to learn more about themselves and each other. And he teaches by example that we can all continue to improve ourselves and the world around us through knowledge and understanding and passion for learning. A great leader is one who serves. And to serve is to learn.

I still have so much to learn. And the whole world is my Wesleyland.

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