Thursday, October 30, 2014

You Would Think


During the last several weeks, I have listened patiently to Natania’s daily rants about her on-going battles to register for school, deal with the government bureaucracy so that she will ultimately get the tuition refund she’s entitled to, and, last but not least, get her rav kav (transit card) validated with the student discount. You would think it wouldn’t be so difficult; after all, it’s all computerized; most of it you can do on-line. You would think. (Before you go any further, it would behoove you to get her account – all four parts – first hand by clicking here.)

I understood all too well. Forty-five years ago, I too was trying to register for college courses, not at Hebrew U., but City College (C.C.N.Y.), which in our time had as high a percentage of Jewish students as an Israeli institution does today. Of course, nothing back then was computerized, so the process was a bit complicated and somewhat harrowing.

It’s sometime in Sept.1958, and the freshman class will finally get its turn to register for classes – after the seniors, the juniors, and the sophomores have had their turns. We will have spent a considerable amount of time poring over the catalogue of classes (an item readily discarded after the fact, but I’d love to take a gander at one right now just to see). We know what we’ve got to take: freshman classes that are either mandatory for everyone or pre-requisites for the courses in what you suppose will be your major. My courses would include English, a foreign language (French), math for morons, European history (I think I also started Latin – then a required course for English majors – that year, but I’m not absolutely certain). Every student probably has it all worked out in theory so that the earliest class starts at 10AM and the last one at 3PM, with an hour for lunch. Nothing to it.

And then………….  To understand the heartache, you have to understand the process. In the middle of Shepard, the main building in the north campus (we’re talking about the uptown campus on 141st St.) is the Great Hall, a place where even the strongest of us could be reduced to tears – perhaps in keeping with its Gothic architecture. We enter and take a place at the back of a large throng of our fellow freshmen and other stragglers who haven’t yet finished registering. In the front of the hall are seated the registrars, noting on paper who has registered for what. There are also a series of movable blackboards with all the courses listed on it. If a student is able to register for a class (say History 101 with Prof. Goldstein, MWF at 10AM), someone will so note that on the board. When that session is filled, that someone will draw a line through it, telling everyone else that they are out of luck.

Of course, standing at the back of the line, you can’t begin to see the imminent danger lurking up front. It would be like sitting in the bleachers and trying to detect the pitcher putting some forbidden substance on the baseball. You might ask someone to save your spot so you can go up and get a peek at the blackboards, but you might not realize the depth of your dilemma until it’s too late.  Every class you planned to take is filled. Every attempt to revise your schedule is thwarted. You could be two feet away from the registration table, and that last place in English 101 gets taken and you have to start reconfiguring all over again. So much for your well thought out schedule; now what are you going to do? There are in theory enough spots in Freshman English for everyone, as there are in theory enough spots in math for morons.  But what happens when the only sessions remaining are at the same time? To make matters worse, some very frustrated young lady twenty feet ahead of you, who has been trying for three hours to come up with a workable schedule, is having a complete meltdown.

I would wind up with Mr. Nesselrode’s 8 AM French class (where he closes the door at exactly 8AM; so if you’re a minute late, you can’t get in – after you spent an hour getting there).  Math for morons was at 4PM, with everything else somewhere in the middle – leaving me much too much time to hang out on the south campus lawn.  Still, I was happy, no, ecstatic, because at least I got through, I got something, unlike Miss Meltdown, who could have gone to school seven days a week and still not be able to fit in her classes.

It would get better.  It did get easier the closer you were to graduating and your classes became more specialized.  You were pretty much assured a spot in third term Ancient Greek or first term Anglo-Saxon (I can show you my battered copy of “Beowulf and Judith, done in a normalized orthography and edited by Francis P. Magoun, Jr, Department of English, Harvard University, 1959, to prove I was there).  And there was always this hope. There has to be a better way and someday, somebody will figure it out. There’s no reason for students to have to go through all this torture just to register for classes. Had we known about computers back then, we would have understood how easy everything could be. You would think.