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Blue Jeans and White Sneakers in New York

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We rarely have the opportunity to meet our students like this. The simultaneity of it all strikes me as the key ingredient in this powerful learning process.

by Michael Abbott ’85

Every time I travel to New York I remember my very first visit. I was a Wabash junior, and the College paid for my trip.

In 1984 that was a big deal. In those days, it was very unusual for a student to travel on College funds. Off-campus study was possible, but money for a trip to see Broadway theater?


A special request was made to Dean Norman Moore, heaven and earth were moved, and the money was found.

"I expect a report!" Moore told me before I left.

"You’ll get one," I replied, and off I went, accompanying Professor of Theater Jim Fisher on a whirlwind tour of Manhattan theaters, bookstores, and delis.

I was never the same.

Spring came, the semester ended, and after 25 years as dean, Norman Moore left Wabash.

I never submitted that report.

Twenty years later, I think it’s time I turned in that paper. I’ll report on a more recent trip to New York, also made possible by the College, this time with Warren Rosenberg’s New York in Film and Literature class.

I met up with Warren and the students in the Center Hall parking lot at 4:45 a.m. to catch a van to the airport. In my pre-coffee haze I was struck by the size of our group: a sleepy-eyed assembly of 15 students and two professors. It hit me for the first time that we would soon be roaming Manhattan as a herd of out-of-towners. It wouldn’t matter that some of the students had studied abroad. It wouldn’t matter that Warren is a Brooklyn native or that I went to grad school in Manhattan. We were out-of-towners, and we would be out-of-towners for the next seven days. New York City was about to experience a sudden influx of blue jeans and white sneakers.

If our trip were a video game, the final boss battle would occur right after the title screen. By 9 a.m. we had used up all the airsick bags on the plane, and LaGuardia was still 30 minutes away. It was the most tumultuous flight anyone could remember, including the pilot. It turns out that heavy turbulence and roller coaster altitude fluctuations are wickedly efficient at bonding travelers and erasing social distinctions. We did say it would be a learning trip, didn’t we?

Our rough ride produced another unexpected outcome: our "Fear Factor" experience forcibly separated us from our comfort zones before we even arrived in New York. I wouldn’t recommend this method, but I believe immersion learning should produce a certain vitalizing jolt to the system. It’s why Thoreau went to Walden, after all. When we intercept our familiar unreflective routines, we see and experience the world in a different way. The students, Warren, and I didn’t realize it at the time—nausea rarely produces enlightenment—but our bumpy ride woke us up, brought us together, and reminded us that leaving our comfortable places can be at once scary and exhilarating. Just like New York.

Warren Rosenberg is a subversive educator. Within an hour of arriving at our hostel, we embarked on a walking tour of Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen. This is not Dick Clark’s New York. Chelsea has the largest gay population in the city. Lily Langtry lived here. So did Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, and Sid Vicious. It’s a thriving neighborhood full of art galleries, nightclubs, and, um, "specialty stores." It would be our home for the next week. I feared the students would do a lot of gawking, pointing, and smirking, but I was wrong. They took it all in. They asked lots of questions. When we came upon the legendary Chelsea Hotel, one student read aloud some of the names of its famous inhabitants: O. Henry, Thomas Wolfe, William Burroughs, Dylan Thomas, Claus Oldenburg. Warren prepared them well. Their enthusiasm was real and infectious. As we continued our tour, one of them pulled me aside and said, "You know who also lived at the Chelsea? Dee Dee Ramone! How far is it from here to CBGB?"

Later we all ate at John’s Pizzeria in Greenwich Village. I hadn’t been there since Ed Koch was mayor. The pizza is still the best on the planet, but even more memorable to me was the student sitting next to me who still couldn’t believe we were in New York City. He got out his cell phone and called his girlfriend. Then his mother. Then somebody else.

"I’m in New York City. Capital of the world!" He had never been farther east than Ohio.

That evening we all went to the Angelica, a multiscreen Mecca of independent film. I took a small contingent to see Errol Morris’ Fog of War, a documentary about Robert McNamara. I was apprehensive about the potentially narcotic effect of two hours of Vietnam and American foreign policy on the students, but once again I underestimated them. Afterwards we had a vigorous conversation about documentary filmmaking and objectivity and national guilt and patriotism and the war in Iraq. The fact that this conversation happened is cool. The fact that it happened strolling through Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan is way cool. It was like living in a Woody Allen movie, but without the whining.

We rarely have the opportunity to meet our students like this. We speak and relate to each other so differently in such an environment. We’re all full participants. My "expertise" extends only so far, and they know it. We explore and experience things together in "real-time, first-person," as gamers say. The simultaneity of it all strikes me as the key ingredient in this powerful learning process. Reading assignments and term papers are useful and important, but if you’re really interested in the American immigrant experience, can anything beat a morning tour of Ellis Island followed by an afternoon visit to a preserved 19th century Lower East Side tenement?

We always hope that we will continue to learn with our students as we teach them. I confess that after 15 years of teaching, I often find it difficult to reach that goal in the classroom, particularly in my introductory courses. Certain roads can be traveled only so many times. But things are very different when you’re on your feet with a pack of students and the world is unfolding around you. Could it ever be the same experience twice? How often are you likely to meet Sylvia, owner of the legendary Sylvia’s barbecue restaurant in Harlem, because she happens to be sitting one table away eating lunch at her own establishment? Was that Norman Mailer walking near the Guggenheim? Did we really see two puppets having sex in a Broadway theater? Jack Kerouac pledged FIJI. Central Park is like a movie. Katz’s Deli has spicy pickles and surly servers. Jon Stewart is a mensch. New York, New York—a city so nice they named it twice.

Thanks to Warren, who invited me to accompany his class and did so much to assure the success of the trip, I saw the city anew through the wide, curious eyes of 15 remarkable young men. It was an enormously revitalizing experience for me. Thanks for sending me again, Uncle Wally. And thanks for the extension, Dean Moore . . . wherever you are.

Michael Abbott is associate professor of theater and a recipient of the McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Excellence in Teaching Award.

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