Five Freshman: A Story of the Sixties is an intriguing, mesmerizing book that follows the lives of five freshmen from orientation at Cornell to graduation. Inspired by the experiences of the author, Steven Kussin, this book looks at these five men from diverse backgrounds.
What sparked my interest was the timeline. The students begin at Cornell in the late 60s before campus uprisings were a thing and were there until the 1968 uprising at Cornell that divided the students and the faculty. I have always been fascinated by the 1960s as an era of change so I decided to give this book, looking at life during that period from the perspective of students in colleges, dealing with the Vietnam draft and campus unrest, a try and I’m glad I did.
Kussin has said what sparked this book was when he brought his son to orientation at Cornell in 1999. It made him think back. Kussin has worked as an English teacher and a high school principal. He is currently an education reporter for a radio station, teachers Radio-Television-Film-New Media at Hofstra University, writes a weekly column about education and serves as a consultant to school system.
Kussin is working on turning this book into a screenplay and film. He let me interview him by email.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I teach Radio-Television-Film-New Media at Hofstra University. Whenever we talked about the l960s, you could hear a pin drop; the students were fascinated with the decade: the War in Vietnam, Civil Rights, Women’s Lib.
Why did you choose to write it as a novel versus a memoir?
Actually, I tried it three different vehicles: a textbook… a memoir… and a novel. I found the novel was the best one for depicting and dramatizing that turbulent era.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
For older readers who lived through the 60s, my novel is a trip down memory lane and a chance to relive all the experiences. (I’ve already been told that a number of times!) For younger readers for whom this decade is “history,” it’s a chance to see what this turbulent time was all about.
Would you summarize what the book is about?
The novel follows five incoming freshmen at Cornell University from orientation to graduation as the clouds of the War in Vietnam start to gather over campus and affect everyone. As a student from 1965-69, I had a front row seat to an evolution… actually, a revolution.
How would you describe Cornell, the university which the five freshmen attend? How did it compare to other colleges when it came to campus unrest and protests?
There were protests and demonstrations at many American colleges and universities. But Cornell was different: guns appeared for the first time in a building takeover. We were lucky that the siege ended peacefully. It was at Kent State when the guns were used.
Can you help your readers discern what parts are fact vs fiction?
I’ve been asked this question many times. The events were real: the draft, the lottery, the army physicals, the takeover. I embedded the “five freshmen” into the story to humanize and personalize it.
Your bio says you, among other jobs, “serve as a consultant to school systems.” What does that entail?
I have another life! I was a high school principal for 21 years. School scheduling was my specialty. Districts hire me to train administrators or to actually build their master schedules. Five Freshmen is my second book. I wrote a manual entitled How To Build the Master Schedule in Ten Easy Steps.
I see that you are an education reporter. How did that help inform your work with this book?
I try to stay on top of any and all trends which affect education.
As someone who was part of campus protests in the 60s and today advises school systems and an education reporter what’s your take on the issue of colleges these days turning free speech on its head, restricting speech from unpopular speakers, having safe spaces and trigger warnings?
I have my students write a reaction paper on precisely the same subject: namely, unpopular speakers. It’s a tough question. Of course, I treasure the freedom of speech. I want to see students actively involved, and not passive observers. One difference I’ve observed is that political activism (e.g., anti-War movement in the 1960s) has transitioned into more social concerns, such as poverty and the environment. I want students to speak out when they see something is unjust and wrong.
You’re trying to turn the book into a movie? What’s your second novel going to be about?
Yes. I’ve just begun work on converting the novel into a screenplay. At the same time, I’m planning my second novel—which stems from my 21 years as a high school principle.