“you really do know …”


I was miserable and lonely during my freshman orientation at Brandeis University. Recently, I read a newspaper article indicating that many college students, much more than would be expected, experience acute loneliness when they begin college.

I had been assigned to a dormitory with mostly upperclassmen. The dormitory was broken up into suites, considered innovative for its time, with six or seven rooms sharing a common area. My suitemates knew my new roommate to be B______. They kept saying, “Where’s B_____? He hasn’t shown up yet?”

The mysterious B______ hadn’t appeared.

Exhausted from a week of orientation activities, and depressed, I crawled into bed at 9 p.m. on Sunday night, at the end of orientation week, and went to sleep.

Within a half hour or so, I was awakened by someone entering my room. It was B______, my new roommate, moving in with all his stuff. (He had a lot.) I got up immediately, flustered and embarrassed. He apologized profusely, and kept apologizing, for waking me up.

I kept apologizing myself, in turn, telling him he hadn’t bothered me at all, that I rarely went to bed that early, but had happened to this time, and that it was nice to meet him.

I was sure he thought that I was a real square and loser for going to bed so early; hence my embarrassment.



My roommate was African American. No one had said anything to me about my new roommate’s race, but it was a matter of indifference to me and I barely noticed it. I was pro black and pro civil rights. I had had limited experience with African Americans, but what limited experience I had had had been very positive. Most of it was with African Americans, lay advisors and fellow youth group members, in my church youth group.



A few weeks before the start of the academic year, my freshman year, I received a questionnaire from the college housing office in the mail. The questionnaire concerned one’s choice of a roommate. Did I have a preference as to religion (my roommate’s)? Dining preferences (kosher or non-kosher)? Recreational interests? And so on.

It took me two minutes to fill out the form, as it were. I left all the lines blank and wrote on it, “I have no preference as to roommate.”

My reasoning, which is very consistent with the beliefs and practices I have always adhered to, was that one cannot, and should not, chose friends and associates based upon external criteria such as religion, national origin, political views, etc. How can one tell if one is going to like a person or click with them based on such ridiculous criteria, is what I thought. One should be open, in principle, to anyone, until such time as they prove to be not compatible with you, as far as you are concerned.



Let me tell you about B______.

He was highly intelligent, brilliant. I half realized this, but did not fully appreciate it at the time.

He could be witty. He had a sense of the ironic.

He was soft spoken and very polite, which seemed to reflect (as I am certain was the case) that he was well raised. At the same time, paradoxically, he could be a bit cocky, thinking, not without justification, that he was cool. He was kind of dapper and suave, but by no means a gladhander or a phony. We never talked about the opposite sex, but he had a way with the ladies.

He had grown up in Roxbury, Boston’s black ghetto. I have learned this and other things about his early years by Googling him, but at the time we attended college, we did not discuss our families or upbringing. In fact, we didn’t really have deep or serious discussions. He treated me with respect and, I realize, eventually, came to admire some things about me (including my intelligence and studiousness), but he wasn’t interested in getting to know me. I never asked him much about himself, which was unusual for me in relating to other people. This seemed to not be the case because we did not have this type of discussion. He sort of put up with me as a roommate, but it was clear he wasn’t thrilled with being stuck with a freshman for a roommate. It wasn’t in the cards for us to become close friends.

My mother said to me, when I told her about my new roommate, “You must invite B______ to dinner.” This never happened, meaning I never got around to inviting him. Somehow, I felt intuitively that B______ wouldn’t be thrilled to be invited by me (which was not an indication of disdain or dislike per se).

B______ used to say to me, “how do you feel about rooming with a spook?” Spook was a new word for me. I think he saw me as a typical white middle class suburban kid. In a way, he was stereotyping me.



I have learned things about B______ that I never knew. He wrote an autobiographical sketch of himself that was posted on line.

He grew up in Roxbury, as noted above, in the 1950’s; it wasn’t a nice neighborhood then. He was one of six children. His father was a mail carrier.

His intelligence was noticed early and he was admitted to Roxbury Latin School, Boston’s best high school. I found out only recently that a major influence on him, a teacher who provided great encouragement and steered B______ to college, probably Brandeis, was Sid Rosenthal, chairman of the English Department at Roxbury Latin.

What a fact! I didn’t know.

Sid Rosenthal, an outstanding teacher who was Jewish, lived in Newton, Massachusetts. My father, in those days, would spend a couple of days every week on the road, making “house calls” to respectable suburban communities as a piano teacher. He taught Sid’s children piano for many years, and my father and Sid became friendly.

And, Mr. Rosenthal, through in service summer courses for teachers, became acquainted with Robert Tighe, my and my two brothers’ English teacher at Canton High School in Canton, Massachusetts. Mr. Tighe was also a department chairman and outstanding teacher. The cliché “it’s a small world” seems to fit here.

As I have said, my roommate B______ and I never knew of or discussed these connections. I think it would have ameliorated our relationship.



I learned more about B______ by Googling him.

He got an 800 on his mathematics achievement test (administered by the College Board). He never bragged about this or told me.

He went on to have a distinguished academic career as a professor of computer science.

When I knew him, he did not seem to have much aptitude for languages (in contrast, as I viewed it, to myself). He hid his lamp under a bushel, as they say. In later years, I have learned, he has frequently traveled to China and learned Chinese, no mean feat.

With his high achievement test score, he would have seemed to be a very desirable applicant. He said in a blog post that he chose Brandeis because of the reputation of its mathematics department and also because it was regarded as being liberal. He made it clear that he was speaking, not only of the type of liberal mindedness that bespeaks openness and tolerance in the abstract, in general, but also, specifically, about a liberal stance on race.



B______, as I remember him, as seems to be true of many of the people we meet on life’s journey, was quite a character.

He had a squeaky, high pitched voice. He kept late hours. He was often absent from our room and would hang out with other students in a lounge on the ground floor. He would disappear, saying to me when exiting our dorm room: “Gotta grind.” To grind was a commonly used expression for studying that I first learned from him.

He hung out with math majors. They would study together and share class notes and assignments, as well as textbooks, late into the night. His math major friends were all white guys, which was not surprising. There were hardly any black students at Brandeis then. I also had the impression, feeling, that B______ was thrilled at just being in college. It had happened to him, the first member of his family to attend college, and it was to him a sort of miracle that he was there, and a thrill to be engaged in intellectual activity. He never said this. I just intuited it.



One way in which I clearly seemed to be superior, intellectually, to B______ was in the areas of culture, in depth and breadth of knowledge of the humanities. During the year I roomed with him, he took Music 1, music appreciation. He seemed to have had no prior acquaintance with classical music (which was true of most Brandeis students), unlike me. While preparing for a final exam, he kept playing Mozart’s symphony no. 35 (Hafner) over and over again on a portable record player. I would play it repeatedly when he wasn’t — it was a new piece to me that I liked. He was bemused. He didn’t mind it, but I think he was thinking, why is he so interested in the piece? He doesn’t have to take the final.

B______ was taking first year German. Because it was a language math majors were told it would be advantageous to take. I wanted to write a letter of reply to Joe, mentioned in my post at

International Religious Fellowship (IRF)-Student Religious Liberals (SRL) Conference

a guy from Germany whom I had met during high school at a religious youth group conference, and asked B______ if he could translate my letter for me.

B______ was at first amused and incredulous when I asked him — it was a simple letter. I think he was also flattered, surprised to be asked. He duly translated the letter into German for me.



As noted above, our suite in the dorm had a common area. Joe, the janitor (not to be confused with Joe, the guy from Germany), would take breaks there and talk with us students. On one occasion, we were talking about something of a historical nature concerning World War II. It was of a time representing Joe’s generation.

Joe made a factual statement or claim that I knew was wrong. I said something to him politely such as, “I don’t think that’s correct, Joe. I think it was …”

When we got back to our room,

B______ admonished me sternly. “Don’t you realize that he’s not educated? You hurt his feelings.” B______ must have had his own working class, non-college educated parents in mind.

I said nothing. B______’s remarks, while well intended, were uncalled for. He didn’t realize that I was capable of considering such things, but that I felt that, by respectfully disagreeing with Joe, I was actually showing respect for him as an interlocutor, not demeaning him. I think that B______ viewed me as the pointy headed type without a clue as to human relations.

He never appreciated, for the most part, my own personal depth. Never took my measure. We did not room together after the first year. I would see him from time to time in the library where he had a part time on the circulation desk. He would ask me, “What’s up, Roger? You gonna make the dean’s list this semester?”



There were some exceptions.

Once, during the end of my freshman year, I made a witty, ironical remark to B______ sizing up a particular situation, something I am capable of. B______ said, without hesitation, something I have never forgotten: “Roger, you really do know what’s going on, but you act like you don’t.”

It’s one of the truest things about me someone else has ever said.


— Roger W. Smith

   September 2017

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