Robert Boyers describes how, long ago, his professor, at the cost of some social discomfort, summoned him to his office and did him a very great favor.
In my freshman year at Queens College, I had a strange awakeningâ€”strange in that the attendant, overmastering emotion was a combination of humiliation and pleasure. My English professor had called me to his desk and handed me the A+ paper I had written on Orwellâ€™s Homage to Catalonia and suggested that I make an appointment to see him. This was no ordinary suggestion at the City University of New York, where professors never scheduled regular office hours and only rarely invited students to private conferences.
I was uneasy about the meeting, though I imagined that Professor Stone wished simply to congratulate me further, perhaps even to recommend that I join the staff of the college literary magazine, or to enlist my assistance as a tutor. Delusions of grandeur. Modest grandeur.
Professor Stoneâ€™s office had been carved out of a warren of rooms in the fourth-floor attic of the English Department building, where I was greeted with a warm handshake and a â€œdelighted you could come.â€ Though the encounter took place almost 60 years ago, I remember everything about itâ€”the few books scattered on a small wooden table, the neatly combed silver hair on the professorâ€™s head, his amiable, ironic eyes. Most clearly I remember the surprising moment when another professor named Magalaner was called in and stood next to Professor Stone, both men smiling and looming ominously over me. It was then that I was asked to describeâ€”in a few sentences, or more, donâ€™t hesitateâ€”the paper Iâ€™d written on Orwell.
Which of course I did, picking up steam after the first few sentences of diffident preamble, until Professor Stone asked me to stop, thatâ€™s quite enough, and then turned to his colleague with the words â€œsee what I mean?â€ and Magalaner assented. The two men only now pulled over two chairs and sat down, close enough that our knees almost touched, and seemed to look me over, as if taking my measure. Both of them were smiling, so that again I speculated that I was to be offered a prize, a summer job, or who knew what else.
â€œIâ€™ve a feeling,â€ Professor Stone said, â€œthat you may be the first person in your family to go to college.â€
â€œItâ€™s true,â€ I replied.
â€œYou write very well,â€ he offered.
â€œVery well,â€ said Magalaner, who had apparently also read my paper.
â€œBut you know,â€ Stone went on, edging his chair just a bit closer to mine, â€œI didnâ€™t call you here to congratulate you, but to tell you something you need to hear, and of course I trust that youâ€™ll listen carefullyâ€”with Professor Magalaner here to back me upâ€”when I tell you, very plainly, that though you are a bright and gifted young fellow, your speech, I mean the sounds you make when you speak, are such that no one will ever take you seriously. I repeat, no one will ever take you seriously, if you donâ€™t at once do something about this. Do you understand me?â€
Iâ€™ve told this story over the years, starting on that very first night with my teenage sister, explaining what I understood: namely, that a man I admired, who had reason to admire me, thought that when I opened my mouth I sounded like someone by no means admirable. It was easy to accept that no one close to me would have mentioned this before, given that, presumably, we all shared this grave disability, and failed to think it a disability at all. Professor Stone didnâ€™t sound like anyone in our family, we may have thought, simply because, after all, he was an educated man and was not supposed to sound or think like us.
In any event, my teacher moved at once to extract from me a promise that I would enroll in remedial speech courses for as long as I was in college, and not â€œso much as consider giving them up, not even if you find them tedious.â€ The proposal left me feeling oddly consoled, if also somewhat ashamed. Consoled by the thought that there might be a cure for my coarse Brooklynese, as my teacher referred to it, and that the prescription was indisputably necessary. Unsure whether to thank my interlocutors or just stand up and slink ignominiously away, I agreed to enroll immediately in one of those speech courses, ending the meeting with an awkward, â€œIs that all?â€
A former student, hearing my story a few years ago at our dinner table, after telling her own tale of a recent humiliation, asked, â€œWho the fuck did that guy think he was?â€ and added that he was â€œlucky you didnâ€™t just kick his teeth out.â€ She was concerned, clearly, that even after so many years, my sense of self might still be at risk, the injury still alive within me. And yet, though Iâ€™ve often played out the whole encounter in my head, I had decided within hours of my escape that I had been offered a gift. An insult as well, to be sure, but delivered not with an intention to hurt but to save and uplift. It would have been easy to be offended by the attempt to impress upon someone so young the idea that he would undoubtedly want to become the sort of person whose class origins would henceforth be undetectable. But I had not been programmed to be offended, and was, in my innocent way, ambitious to be taken seriously, and though I rapidly came to loathe the speech exercises to which I was soon subjected, I thought it my duty and my privilege to be subjected to them. Night after night, standing before the mirror in my parentsâ€™ bathroom, I shaped the sounds I was taught to shape, and I imagined that one day Professor Stone would beam with satisfaction at the impeccably beautiful grace notes I would produce.
I arrived at Yale in 1966 from a working class background in an Appalachian coal town. I had probably already shed my indigenous regional accent, but I was still undoubtedly horribly unpolished and decidedly non-U in all sorts of social-mobility-limiting ways. Yale professors, to my knowledge at least, never stooped to help out in manner of Professor Stone, but at Yale we had lots of judgmental and intolerant peers, from the poshest families, straight out of the nation’s top prep schools.
If you showed up wearing an unsuitable jacket, were badly groomed, or otherwise failed to meet proper Yale standards, it did not take long for you to hear about it. Our upperclass lords and masters in student organizations were not in the least inhibited in colorfully denouncing all freshmen failures and deficiencies. If you wanted to go anywhere, or do anything, you got with the program.
Today, of course, all that has changed. Coats and ties have gone the way of Nineveh and Tyre. Yale has been coed fifty years. Today’s students are typically left-wing snowflakes, thoroughly indoctrinated in intersectionality and the politics of identity. The process of removing Cockney-Flower-Girl mobility-limiting speech habits, poor grooming, and inappropriate forms of dress must still go on, but the process of sanding down rough edges must take place highly diplomatically and with great care. The former devastating quip has, I expect, been replaced with a minutely raised eyebrow. In the case of the most protected castes of students, I suppose, that process may not go on at all.