On May 5, 1970, I sat in Jack Carter’s office wondering what to do with my future. He was my freshman advisor, and I loved studying botany with him. But on that day we were not talking plants. We were talking about my dismal first year (grade-wise) at CC, and the wrenching events of the day before – the murder of four students at Kent State University by the National Guard. I was angry, scared, heartbroken for our country, and a bit worried about my grades. Jack said, “Pat, I think you should do something else next year.” And so I did. I joined VISTA (now Americorps) and spent 13 months working in Philadelphia PA as housing organizer. I loved the city, and learned some of the deepest, most humbling lessons one could learn about privilege and white supremacy.
I returned to CC determined to deepen that experience with a major in Political Science. All my peers had enjoyed the first year of the Block Plan, and could tell me what to expect. What I didn’t expect was the discovery of a love of learning. School had been obligatory and dreadful in the past. I navigated high school without developing good study and learning skills.
Back at CC I understood that I’d need to learn how to study, and with the absence of the distraction of three or four other courses, I became a reasonably good student.
I had great teachers. Tim Fuller taught me how to explore and value different perspectives. Fred Sondermann taught me to question American political dogma. Robert Lee taught me to go behind the headlines and consider terrorism from the perspective of those marginalized and excluded from power. Ruth Carter persuaded (or conned) me into editing the Catalyst for a year, and I learned the value of clear, concise writing from the skilled student staff who joined me. Each of their gifts helped me commit to a life of activism and social change that continues to this day.
I also learned about what I didn’t want to learn. At first, a film course sounded like great fun! The first day of class we watched three full length films, ending with Jean Luc Godard’s Weekend, a comedy full of violent car accidents. I didn’t have the stamina for it, and to the horror of my movie-loving friends, I transferred that day into Spanish 101.
And what about Botany? What about Jack Carter? The love of plant science has stayed with me. During a block course in Environmental Chemistry, I collected and tested plants from a mountain moonscape left after a few years of oil shale mining. They’d absorbed a lot of cadmium. I’ve been a lifelong gardener, and directed the education department at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. I am now a Master Gardener, and manage a 400-person community garden in Western Massachusetts, and continue my activism in racial justice and ending food and land apartheid.
How did the block plan figure into all those next steps? It was where I learned how to learn. A few years ago I started piano lessons. I’m still learning how to learn.