As part of a monthly column, Remy Ferber ’14 reaches out to admins about their college experiences and more. This week she interviewed Jim Reische, Vice President for Communications, who attended University of Michigan for his undergraduate and Harvard University for his graduate degree.
What was the biggest issue on your campus?
Divestment from South Africa. Protesters built an entire shantytown in the center of Michigan’s campus and lived there as long as they could get away with it. It was a huge deal. Some skaters even built a shanty skate ramp and skated against apartheid.
What was your favorite class you took at Michigan?
A small seminar course in historical writing, jointly taught by Walter Clark, a creative writing teacher, and John V.A. Fine, an outstanding historian of the Balkans.
I was a bit of a wild-eyed radical at the time, so I chose to write about John Sinclair, a poet and revolutionary who’d led the White Panther Party, a group of white Detroit-area radicals working in sympathy with the Black Panthers. Walter and John were brilliant teachers who pushed me to go beyond my echt-hippie hero worship and do serious, critical historical analysis. It was one of the most challenging and memorable intellectual experiences of my life and greatly contributed to my later development as a historian.
What was your best spontaneous decision?
About a year after I graduated from Michigan I was floundering around trying to figure out what to do with myself. This was right around the time the Soviet Union was falling apart, and opportunities were opening up for Americans to travel to the former Eastern Bloc.
I had zero teaching experience, but they didn’t care: I later discovered my students mainly just wanted to hang out with an American and talk about MTV. I was told I’d be teaching intermediate English speakers in Prague, so I naively pulled together readings from my favorite novels: Toni Morrison, etc.
A few days before I left they told me I wouldn’t be going to Prague. My new instructions were to fly into Vienna and take an overnight train to Bratislava, where I was met by two guys, Vaso and Mišo, who spoke no English.
The Berlin Wall hadn’t been down very long at that point, and the whole country was in the throes of this delirious cross-cultural frenzy. You would see old ladies looking at pornographic magazines on the street. Men were selling exotic vegetables like broccoli on the sidewalks. I hadn’t slept in more than 24 hours, but my new companions wanted to show off. They took me to a lecture by an American Hare Krishna recruiter, and then we went to see Police Academy 5 dubbed in German with Slovak subtitles. It was like one long hallucination.
The next day we piled onto a train. Eight hours later they hustled me off the train in Trebišov, a tiny industrial city near the Ukrainian border. No one there was really prepared for me to show up. Luckily, the whole town adopted me. My arrival was covered in the local paper. I was the first American to stay there in living memory and wound up being a celebrity.
I lived in Trebišov for most of a year. In one way or another, everything I’ve done since then has been informed by that spontaneous decision to go East.
What was your biggest regret?
For most of my teens and twenties I was really angry. I grew up in a well-off family in N. H. and went to boarding school at Andover. That was where my rage started: I was alienated and irrationally hated the privileged kids I was in school with. Something about my time in high school sparked a determination to reject my upbringing.
On the positive side, this anger fueled me to do a lot of things. I dropped out of college and worked as a movie theater projectionist in the West Village; I worked as a roadie alongside some very scary outlaw types and fugitives; I slept in Riverside Park; I drove a cab and wound up looking down the barrel of a crack dealer’s gun when my passenger tried to buy drugs in my backseat. I expended years of my life trying to prove that I could be anyone I wanted to be and that birth wasn’t destiny.
It took me a long time to stop living my life as if it was a childish temper tantrum. Years to realize that the world didn’t really care about my personal drama one way or another. Years to repair my relationship with my parents. There are some ways in which I still struggle with the aftereffects of that period of my life. But I’m also very fortunate that I was able to learn from my mistakes.
This is the reason, in a nutshell, why I believe fiercely in the liberal arts philosophy: it showed me that there is literally no experience you can have in life that you can’t derive a lesson from if you pay attention. Those 10 or 15 years taught me to get along with people completely unlike me, including people who in other circumstances might have wanted to hurt me.
Anyway, I think that, in an era of technology and high-speed communications and a focus on personalized marketing, it’s way too easy to lose track of the common elements of humanity and just obsess about our own unique circumstances. If we allowed that to happen, it would be my biggest regret of all.
If you went to Grinnell today…
I would literally just stay here and keep taking different classes until they kicked me out. Students, if I can be allowed one old-guy piece of advice for you: you will never, ever in your life again have the opportunity to gorge yourself on knowledge like you do now. It’s just a reality of adult life that work, family and life take over. But the smartest people are the ones who figure out ways to keep learning. Be one of the smart ones!