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It was the McCarthy era. Attorney General Tom Clark had just announced a list of fifty-six “subversive” organizations that were supposedly part of the communist crusade. My grandfather, vice president of the History Society at Tilden Senior High in Brooklyn, thought it would be a good idea to invite a few of these alleged communists to speak before the Society. The principal heard of his free speech series and shut it down. Grandpa admits now he was intending to be provocative. Nevertheless, he wrote a letter to the Daily Compass denouncing the censorship by his school. The next day, Grandpa and his father were summoned to the principal’s office.
My grandfather defended his position and his right to state it publicly. That’s when the principal told him that he knew the president of Brooklyn College, the only affordable option inner-city kids had at the time. The principal assured my grandfather that there was little chance he would get into the college unless a second letter was written to the Daily Compass recanting his charges of censorship at Tilden High.
My grandfather was torn. With a thick Yiddish accent, his father had always emphasized education. He’d barely let my grandfather do manual labor for fear he would like it and not go to college. His father said, “Enough! Do what the principal says!” But my grandfather knew that caving to the pressure would cost him. There was a cogent duty my grandfather assumed as VP of the History Society and as a young man to be courageous.
Grandpa did end up going to Brooklyn College where he became a front-line Freudian, extensively studying psychodynamic techniques. He met and married my grandmother there. Later, he became a professor, wrote a well-regarded textbook, and taught thousands of University of Michigan students. All of this was possible because he did write that second letter retracting his charge of censorship. In spite of all of these successes that college made possible, he still regrets writing that letter. He says it is his biggest regret.
That my grandfather even has regrets shocked me at first. He is so full of wisdom and grace in the way he speaks and moves about this world; it’s hard to see him as a boy my age with flaws and teenage angst. It makes me realize that I, too, will have regrets.
As I enter adulthood, I want to keep this story of Grandpa in the forefront of my mind so I remember to listen to myself. I want to learn to trust my gut when making big decisions. I may not make the most courageous decision every time, but I will be able to live with what happens, regrets and all.
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