First and foremost, he was a great teacher
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Beyond learning every lyric of “The Twelfth of Never,” I stepped out of my comfort zone in the Five Towns during the NYU years. Home was only 25 miles away, but it seemed like a thousand. For a protected kid from Long Island, taking the elevated Bronx trains into the city, learning the safe streets in a dicey neighborhood, even selecting my classes and registering were big deals. In those days we waited on lines to sign up for classes. You could wait an hour, but if the class closed out with the person in front of you, you had to move on to a different choice.
1964 was an iconic, defining year. The World’s Fair opened in Queens that summer. The Beatles came to town. The country began to fracture over the Vietnam War. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed.
For me, it was the year I began to grow up. I studied biology and chemistry at NYU Uptown. One odd memory: I struggled terribly in chemistry, but I knew the chem teacher (an old guy, about 40) liked me, so I got myself dolled up and went to ask for extra help. Nothing untoward happened except that I flirted, and he offered some lame advice on how to learn organic chemistry and I got an A. I still remember the baby blue wool dress I wore that afternoon. I suppose the same thing still happens, although the stakes are probably higher for the young women these days.
There was a boyfriend, of course, a college romance that flourished in the isolation and freedom of the campus. Both of us knew, on some level, that it wouldn’t work in the real world, but it counted.
I took classes in modern drama with a brilliant professor who opened my mind to O’Neill and Williams and Ibsen and Anderson. Does anyone besides me still love “Hedda Gabler”?
Phillip Zimbardo, a flamboyant psychology professor who later became quite famous at Stanford for his prisoner/student experiment, was my teacher in Psychology 101. During the Iraq War he was on TV quite often, explaining how an abusive environment can created abusive jailers.
All of this came flooding back to me when I saw Professor Oliva’s obituary in The New York Times. He was a part of my NYU years.