Nelson Mandela’s Death Makes Me Think of That One Time I Got an A+

I was sitting right here cracking my knuckles, rolling my shoulders, licking my chops, and generally getting ready to write what was no doubt going to be a witty and incisive response to Lorde Sounds Like Teen Spirit when the news that Nelson Mandela had died blipped across my Twitter feed.

Wow, I thought. Damn. And just like that the thought of writing about Lorde and pop music seemed silly and petty. It will probably not be silly and petty tomorrow. Tomorrow, it will go back to being the thing that I love to do.

As I mentioned on Twitter, Nelson Mandela was an influential figure in my political coming of age. His release from prison and the end of Apartheid loomed large on the international landscapes I was just beginning to discover.

Until the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 my knowledge of international politics was pretty limited to vague memories of the Iran Hostage Crisis, a short war in the Falkland Island, some sort of shenanigans in Nicaragua, and, of course, the overwhelming, all-consuming fear that Russia would launch a nuclear attack against the US because Ronald Reagan was an asshole.

But it was seeing that man stand up to that tank in Bejing that opened my eyes, by the time I reached college I was pretty obsessed with International Relations, as they were called back then. I have very fond memories of meeting with my college advisor for the first time on the very same day that we started air strikes on Iraq and Kuwait during the first Gulf War. We talked a lot about President Bush and the start of the war, intermingled with my goals for college and my plans to major in Journalism and minor in Creative Writing or English.

“You should look into political science,” Professor Fields said. “It sounds like something you might like.”
I dismissed him with a breathy, “I just want to write.”

A year later I was declaring Political Science as a second major and taking every single class in foreign politics I could cram into my schedule. A few of those classes were taught by a Polish dissident named Zbigniew Czubinski or as we called him, Ziggy.

Ziggy was super dreamy, tall and accented and the kind of smart that made your head hurt. He taught a lot of classes about political dissidents and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe though he hated that term, “Eastern Europe.”

“Americans don’t realize that a large part of the Soviet Union is in Europe,” he’d say and shake his head. “Europe doesn’t end at West Germany.”

Dreamy Ziggy was the one who lectured about South Africa and Nelson Mandela, speaking eloquently about the injustice and what the end of institutionalized, governmental racism would mean for South Africa. He was also the only professor to ever give me an A+ on a paper, one I wrote about Apartheid and what democratic elections could mean for South Africa (this was before they actually happened). Yeah, it was like a for real A+ and not just a generic A. I learned my brain off for that A+ and it was the only one I ever got in college (at least that I can remember).

None of this really has anything to do with the great things Nelson Mandela did in his life, the impact he had on the world, or his role in history, but is more about what his passing made me remember about my own life.

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