The following is a true story. I haven’t thought about it for a long time.
An obituary in the The New York Times of June 25, 2016 of Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham reminded me of it, indirectly.
One paragraph of the very interesting and well written obit struck me particularly:
As a teenager, [Cunningham] got a part-time job at the department store Bonwit Teller, then received a scholarship to Harvard, only to drop out after two months. “They thought I was an illiterate,” he said. “I was hopeless, but I was a visual person.”
I immediately thought that this was on an on target comment, a bit of perceptive self-analysis. And, I thought about myself.
Cunningham, the fashion photographer, was obviously right brained. He was not equipped — mentally, so to speak — for the Harvard curriculum. (Which does not mean he was stupid; intelligence is complex and multi-faceted.)
I am just the opposite. I am totally left brained. I can read and write very well, but at right brain tasks, I am hopeless. A complete idiot.
At Brandeis University, a liberal arts school which I attended, most of the work involved reading and writing. Heavy reading loads. Term papers. Essay exams.
At the end of the semester, there would be a three hour final exam. You were given a blue book and a few essay questions. It was like pulling teeth. You would scribble and scribble and hope to get a good grade or at least pass. I would usually fill up two or three blue books, would hand them in exhausted, would usually not finish until the three hours were up.
I tended to do well, often with very little preparation. The reason: I could write an essay on particularly any topic and spin it like a spider weaving a web, if given just a few facts, a grain of knowledge, to work with.
I also knew how to “protect” myself. Be clear, be succinct, don’t make wild statements you can’t back up, don’t stray off topic, answer the question.
In the spring of 1968, in my senior year, I took a course, Psych 132b, “Psychology of Emotions,” with Professor James B. Klee, who was a colleague of the famed psychologist Abraham Maslow.
Professor Klee was the typical psychology prof, it seemed – almost like a parody of one. He spoke in a high pitched, squeaky voice. He wore a bolo tie and causal sport jackets. He had a beard, of course.
He seemed like a nice guy, but I got nothing out of the course. Professor Klee would ramble on and on about various topics, theories, and books. I had absolutely no idea what the was talking about — he might as well have been lecturing in German. The only thing I can recall is that he spent a lot of time talking about ectomorphs and endomorphs. I could not for the life of me ascertain what the difference between the two types was, how it pertained to the lectures, or why it was important.
He worked into his lectures all sorts of theories that mystified me: religious thought as it pertained to human psychology, for example.
I never did the required reading.
The course came to an end, mercifully; the day for the final came.
As it so happened, I had no time to study. I was up all night writing a term paper for another course. I barely finished in time to pass it in and to get to campus in time for the Psych 132b final, which was at an early morning hour.
An important factor relative to all this was that three of my roommates – Ron Ratner, Tony Camilli, and John Ferris – were also taking the course. They thought it would be gut course. They had encouraged me to take it.
Ratner, Camilli, and Ferris spent the night before the final preparing for it in a joint “cramfest.” They had not done most of the reading, either. But, they did some last minute studying and pooled their slight knowledge.
We lived together in a house in Newton Highlands, MA, about twenty or thirty minutes away by car from campus.
Ratner drove me and the other roommates to campus. They told me just before leaving, “don’t worry, we’ll tell you all you need to know.”
They coached me in the car. They enumerated the books on the reading list and gave me capsule summaries of their content. I forget what most of the books were. But, one that I do recall that we had been assigned was a book by theologian Paul Tillich.
“Tillich,” they said (words to that effect). “All you have to know are three things: being vs. non-being, the concept of absolute faith, courage as an affirmation of being.” That’s not what they actually said, but their mini-lecture in the car went something like this.
I took the exam, scribbling furiously in my blue book, trying to remember what my roommates had told me. I had only that to work with. A kernel or two. A few concepts, buzzwords. But it was enough.
The grades came back. My roommates were disappointed. They all got worse grades than I did: a couple of C’s, a B minus.
I got the highest grade of the four of us: a B on the final exam and a B for the course.
— Roger W. Smith
June 26, 2016
Thanks for this wonderful recollection, Roger. Having had the pleasure, indeed the privilege, of sharing that now-mythic Bowdoin Street house that we shared in Newton Highlands (so many remarkable personalities, such amazing camaraderie), your recollection took me right back there — nearly half a century ago, all that time instantly eclipsed by your evocative vignette.