On Campus
Sep 05, 2023, 06:26AM

Another Dumb Thing I Said

In the dean’s waiting room.

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As a college boy, I sat outside a dean’s office and chatted with a young man who was sitting there. I’d come in because of the wind, which was blowing strong. I didn’t know the building but it belonged to the university, and I had a habit of dodging into quiet, tasteful waiting rooms that belonged to the university. My dorm room was crowded and a mess, since unfortunately those are my habits.

The other fellow was waiting to be interviewed. A door stood there, I think, and our row of chairs was along the wall opposite. I slid into a chair that was a couple of chairs down from him and let my face de-flush and my body unbrace. The weather had really been going at me.

The other fellow asked why I was there, and I said the wind, and there was a hitch in his face. I hastened to say that I was serious, really it was the wind.

Maybe I asked why he was there, I don’t remember. But he told me. He wanted to go to the university, he was being interviewed for that, and I think a grant or a scholarship was involved. The odd thing: I told the truth and encouraged him, yet I feel like a crumb about how I did it. I just had to be cute, that’s all. After listening to him—he’d done poverty work in Atlanta and the suffering he’d seen had hit him—I said the people at the university were looking for candidates with a social conscience, so he should do well with them. All true, but what a consciously chintzy way of saying things. I had to be too cool for school; no enthusiasm from me, no belief.

What I might have said: “The students here are a mixed bunch. Most of us live in the playpen, but there are students with an idea of what’s going on outside, over the walls. The larger world and how we fit in with it. The university wants to have people like that and they’re good for the rest of us. So I think you’re a good bet and I hope you get in.”

But back then I didn’t know I lived in a playpen. So I behaved in a playpen way. I acted like concern for poverty was a style choice and he’d picked correctly for his audience. Many people treat this concern as a style choice. That doesn’t mean it is, and in his case it wasn’t. From my brief acquaintanceship, he seemed like somebody with zero concern for making an impression or cutting a swash. He was a straightforward type who’d run face-first into some disturbing facts and reacted accordingly. But I wanted to show I was above that.

In the end, not much harm was done. His face hitched again, but it unhitched because he saw I was encouraging him. We shook hands, I left. He had his interview. Honest guess? He did fine, I didn’t throw him off too much. But it would be nice if I could’ve said the right thing, not something that passes if you give it some leeway. I just had to maintain my brand, He Who Keeps It Real.

I went on to continue living in the playpen, which is something you can carry around with yourself. I suppose the other guy went on to live a life. If so, good for him.


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