Telling Tales

By The Editors / May / June 1998
December 28th, 2007
Five years ago, author and critic Thomas Mallon '73 spoke at one of Brown's popular Saturday Commencement forums. By the time he stepped onto the stage, a crowd of twentieth-reunion baby boomers had filled List 101, the auditorium where my dormmate and I had once furiously scribbled notes during Professor Kermit Champa's lectures on French Impressionism.



Thomas Mallon '73


Tom's topic that day in 1993 was family history as revealed by the sort of prosaic artifacts many folks store in their attics. After his father's death, Tom had been given boxes containing canceled checks dating from the beginning of his parents' postwar marriage. He spent months digging through them, and then used the information to reconstruct a narrative of his parents' lives together - the down payment on the tract house, the doctors' bills, the car payments. Tom's was a typical middle-class childhood of the 1950s and 1960s, replete with balloon-tire bikes and Dick and Jane readers. We laughed as he sketched familiar generational details; in the end, some of us cried, moved by his account of his father's illness and death - all revealed by those mute, canceled checks.

Last winter Tom came to Brown to excavate an especially tumultuous year in his life: 1969-70, our freshman year, a time when small-town kids left home and ran head-on into the social and political ferment on American college campuses, ferment that, at Brown, had helped produce the brand-New Curriculum.

In his essay "The Year of Thinking Dangerously" (page 48), Tom, whose recent books have been historical novels, wryly posits his freshman self as a sort of Age of Aquarius antihero - a sanctimonious grind who took all his courses for letter grades and voted against the May strike. As he combed through old Brown Daily Heralds in the archives last winter, Tom would drag selected volumes to my office. Together we'd howl at the photographs of our contemporaries in flared bell-bottoms and John Lennon glasses, at the notices of sit-ins, Zero Population Growth meetings, and folk concerts at the Rubicon coffeehouse on Thayer Street.

But we also recalled just how scared and out of place we had felt at Brown. Many of our classmates were prep-school graduates from backgrounds of considerable wealth. For the first time, we white suburban kids encountered large numbers of blacks and a smattering of Asians. Most jarring of all, at Brown so many students were really smart; our high school honor-roll laurels meant nothing.

The memory of that fish-out-of-water feeling helped me appreciate the more profound culture shock experienced during his freshman year by Cedric Jennings '99, the subject of "A Hope in the Unseen" (page 34). As several of us on the BAM staff sifted through a proof copy of reporter Ron Suskind's new book of the same name, we found ourselves pulled into Cedric's journey from the ghetto to the Green. It was almost impossible not to fall in love with this principled young man, to feel your heart break as he met discouragement along the way, to cheer out loud when he aced a calculus exam.

As this issue of the BAM goes in the mail, Tom Mallon is preparing to celebrate his twenty-fifth reunion, and Cedric Jennings is about to embark on a national publicity tour for Suskind's book. Each man's story is extremely different, yet both recall the heady intellectual adventure and the hard work of self-discovery undertaken by all freshmen, everywhere.

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May / June 1998