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A Hope in the Unseen (Ron Suskind)


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  Cedric, sitting lightly on his taut blanket, looks across the dorm room at Rob Burton, who is slumped on his mother-made bed, looking right back. It's one of life's storied moments of forced intimacy.

"So, ummm, is your house real close to here?" asks Cedric, making sure he smiles.

"Well, Marblehead is just in Massachusetts, about an hour and a half," says Rob. "My mom dropped me off this morning. My dad has someone covering for him so he's on Cape Cod this week. He's birding," says Rob. "They and my sister, she's at Harvard, will all take a trip down next week to go out to lunch or whatever. "

Cedric looks at him blankly, all energy diverted to internal processing: Covering. Doctor? Cape Cod. Summer house? Birding . . .

"Birding?" he asks.

"Yeah, you know, bird watching. "

"Oh, right, uh-huh. "

"What music you got over there?" Cedric asks, hopping up and crossing the room to examine Rob's CD collection. "I've heard of these names--REM, Sting--but I don't know any of their music. Smashing Pumpkins? What, they sing Halloween songs?"

"You never heard the Smashing Pumpkins?" says Rob, courteously suppressing his surprise and then discounting the group. "Well, yeah, they're some band. You know, they're just okay. "

Cedric appraises Rob from the corner of his eye as they stand--side by side--pawing through forty or so CDs in Rob's little slotted carrying case. Rob's a half-head shorter, maybe five-foot-six, but seems comfortable standing in tight. Cedric, who has always thought white people, in general, don't like being too physically close to blacks, feels himself loosening up. "I like Aerosmith," he chuckles as he slips the group's CD back into a slot. "So, at least I know one of them. "

Then they're over at Cedric's collection--thirty-one CDs that he's carefully, lovingly collected--and Rob offers reciprocal curiosity. "What's SWV stand for?" he asks, inspecting a CD cover with three black women posturing in slinky red.

"Oh, right, that stands for Sisters With Voices," Cedric says, laughing, "with, you know, "sister' being slang--like for a black woman."

"That much I could figure out," Rob laughs, clearly enjoying the cross-cultural riffing. "I mean, I'm not a complete idiot. "

With matters moving breezily, they talk about how to organize the room. The beds are already against opposite walls, with double windows running most of the room's length between them. Under the windows, they push together the two, university-issue, white pine desks, so their outside edges touch, making a double-wide plateau that stands between their facing chairs. Each then begins to clutter his half with desk lamps, calendar mats, bookends, pencil holders, and whatnot.

Moving furniture, unpacking books, and plugging in digital clocks is an ideal follow-up to their delicate, though cordial, first chat. A burst of activity, and some sweat, seals their union. Despite obvious differences, this is a nascent moment when their interests are identical: get settled, be friends.

With goodwill suddenly married to survival, decisions are swift and simple, starting with an agreement to share Cedric's Sony CD cassette player and to put it on Rob's trunk.

"And, hey!" Rob says as Cedric spins, "we can share my fridge--no problem. "

Cedric looks down at the small square brown fridge at the foot of Rob's bed--the sort of item seen almost nowhere in America outside of a college dorm. "All riiiiight," he says, surprised to find himself reaching out to shake Rob's hand. "We made it. "

On the Brown campus, this is a prenatal period--six days of dense, carefully planned orientation activities for freshmen before classes start next Tuesday. The freshmen are divided into units, organized through dorm assignments, of between thirty and sixty students. Cedric's unit, two corridors of rooms in the eastern wing of Andrews Hall, is among the smallest, with only thirty-three kids.

By Wednesday night, only a few hours after the parents have left, Cedric has already pored over the large packet of orientation booklets, pamphlets, and fact sheets--more things, he thinks, than he'll ever need to know about Brown. He's especially drawn to figures about the racial/ethnic composition of the school's 5,559 full-time undergraduates. It's a strange list, he thinks. The terms are so complex: white, non-Hispanic, 66 percent; Asian or Pacific Islander, 15.3 percent; nonresident alien, 6.6 percent; black, non-Hispanic, 6.5 percent; Hispanic, 4.8 percent; American Indian or Alaskan Native, .3 percent.

At a quick unit meeting later that night, he looks around the second-floor lounge and does a quick head count: two blacks, including himself. The other one is an attractive dark-skinned female, who looks to him like a city girl. Cedric sort of nods across the room to her--there's not a chance to do much more--and he quickly does the math: two blacks out of thirty-three, or 6 percent. Just about the school average. Beyond the white kids--more than half the unit--there's a mixture: three Asian Americans, plus a girl from Singapore and another from Hong Kong; two Indian Americans (as opposed to Native Americans); one Arab American; two Hispanic Americans; a boy from Israel, another from Geneva, and a girl from Bosnia--more or less reflecting the percentages Cedric read about for the rest of Brown's undergraduates. One exception is that Brown's student body is half female but two-thirds of the unit are women.

As he passes the next day with this crowd, Cedric slips into his polite but wary game face, responding quickly when questioned, avoiding extended conversations, taking in more than he is giving out. He's taking mental notes on every discussion of who hails from where and what they've done, every hand raised in a group discussion that's not his, every offhand late-night reference to Hemingway or John Grisham, to Beethoven or Bob Dylan. From the collected references, he tries to decipher patterns of behavior and custom. It's exhausting. Periodically, he breaks from the crowd, retreating to his room to unwind, feeling like he's been cramming for a test.

The campus activities of these first two days are meant to instill pride of acceptance. Ceremonies large and small welcome each youngster to the exclusive society of the Ivy League. It starts on Wednesday evening at the incoming freshmen dinner as President Vartan Gregorian tells them they're the "best, most intelligent, most diverse class to ever enter Brown," an address he or his predecessors have given (generally called the "best ever" speech) to every incoming freshman class. The admissions numbers--measurable proof of specialness--are cited at intimate nighttime dorm meetings and in a grand speech by the admissions director at a class meeting on the green.

At this embryonic point, the unit moves as a pack, holding on to each other as they cross unfamiliar terrain, sure only of their specialness. They go to dinner in a roving band of fifteen.

On Thursday evening, Cedric's cluster bumps and jostles into the Ratty, the cavernous freshman cafeteria on the far side of campus. They settle into two long, rectangular tables.

Phillip Arden, the Geneva-bred son of a millionaire British mine owner and industrialist, looks up from his plate of pork chops with milky mystery gravy. "I probably got the lowest SAT score here," he says loudly, to no one in particular. Conversations along the table jerk to a halt. Cedric, who has been concentrating on the pork and mulling the idea of becoming a vegetarian, looks across the table at Phillip--a pleasant-looking, brown-haired boy. He exudes a sort of wide-eyed openness that Cedric already senses some of the women find endearing and the guys, mostly, naive. "And, you know," Phillip continues, "I got just over 1200. "

Cedric puts down his fork, his heart sinking. He's been fretting over this moment since last year. Only a day into school, and it's already upon him.

Around the table they go. Almost all of the kids are, in fact, in Phillip's range, something Cedric--shooting daggers across the mystery gravy at the young mining heir--is sure he must have known. At the high end is Evan Horowitz, an intellectually ostentatious student from Stamford, Connecticut, who scored a 1430. At the low end is Sonya Garza, a lower-middle-class Mexican American from Sanger, California, who scored 970.

The wheel comes round.

"I, uh, got a 960," Cedric says, like he's mentioning the weather. No one reacts. There's a forced casualness to this conversation, as though no one much cares, but Cedric instantly realizes that he could, right now, recite back everyone's score, like it's some sort of identity number, and that they all could probably do the same with his 960.

"I'm not ashamed of it or anything," he says, not sure what tone he should affect, as others around him go on eating, pretending not to hear.

By Friday at dawn, a preemptive panic has set in. Maybe it was last night's SAT exchange. Maybe it was not knowing who Freud was in a lunchtime discussion Thursday or hearing that Phillip Arden's father owns an island near Bermuda. Or maybe it was the umpteenth exchange where he wasn't sure what to say, so said nothing. All he knows is that his suspicion that he lacks prerequisite knowledge and acquired poise is metastasizing as he squints into the early morning sun, unable to fall back to sleep. As he's lying there, dread is hatching a plan.

Throwing off the covers, he grabs the orientation booklet off his desk. Activities for Friday morning include scheduled meetings with academic advisers. Also today, professors are holding short classes to explain courses that are geared to freshmen.

Cedric gets dressed swiftly. He looks over at Rob, still asleep, and begins searching, quietly but furiously, for his temporary ID card. He must have left it at the dining hall last night. So breakfast, sitting in the silent dorm lounge, ends up being a bag of Fritos from the snack pack his mother left him. Looking over the course selection booklet this summer, he had figured on playing to his strengths in the first semester: calculus, of course, and Spanish. Now he revises that plan to match his strengths with a path of least resistance. He took Brown's Spanish placement test yesterday afternoon and got a 30--not great considering he's been taking Spanish since seventh grade, but enough to place him in second-, or even third-, semester Spanish at Brown.

He rushes from the dorm and seeks out a professor for second-semester Spanish. "Check out the textbook, see how it looks to you," she says, in English, thankfully, allowing him precious scheduling flexibility in which level class he'll take.

Math will be trickier. This, after all, is his metier--his passion and his expected major. He stops by the office of Professor Jonathan Lubin, who teaches Math 10, a third-semester calculus class, mostly for freshmen with a year of high school calculus and good advanced placement test scores.

Professor Lubin snatches a copy of the syllabus from his desk and hands it to Cedric.

"How does it look?" asks Lubin.

"Hmmm. I know some of this," Cedric mumbles, mostly to himself, regretting each word as it leaves his lips.

"Really. Like what?"

"Well, L'Hopital's rule, I mean I already had that," says Cedric about a rule to define the limit of functions, which he worked on at MIT.

"Really," says Lubin. "Look it over. What else?"

"Ummm. Techniques of integration, too. " Cedric stops. He realizes he's dabbled in quite a bit of this stuff already.

"What kinds of grades did you get in math in high school?"

"You know, A's."

"Of course, even if you've done these things, they'll be done in more depth here. But I think you certainly belong in this class, young man," says Professor Lubin, smiling broadly. Cedric finds himself gazing at Lubin's teeth, which might as well belong to a great white shark.

"I guess . . . well . . . I don't know," Cedric mumbles, backing out of the office.

"I'll be seeing you later," the professor calls out.

"Yeah, 'bye," waves Cedric, already gone, thankful that he didn't have to mention his satisfactory calculus advanced placement test score--a three out of a possible five--which would land him in this class for sure.

He looks at his map for the physics building and, after a few wrong turns, ends up at the office of his academic adviser, Professor Robert Pelcovits.

"Do you have a minute?" Cedric asks, ducking his head in.

Pelcovits, a nervous, birdlike man, looks at his schedule book. "Who are you?"

"I'm Cedric Jennings. "

Like most other freshman academic advisers, Pelcovits has eight students to meet today, each of whom was given a meeting time on a slip of paper in their orientation packet. Cedric lost it.

"Well, sure, I guess I've got just a few minutes right now," says Pelcovits, searching around for Cedric's file. "Yes, here we are. "

Cedric takes a deep breath and begins his pitch, trying not to worry about what's running through Pelcovits's head as he studies the file.

"I just feel I need to figure out where I stand," Cedric begins, steadily, having rehearsed this line at sunrise this morning. "I don't want to get in over my head. "

Five minutes later, he gets Pelcovits's signature, approving his enrollment for Math 9, a second-semester calculus class a notch lower than the one he just attended. For English, Cedric opts to take Writings of Richard Wright, a freshman literature course. Its prime attraction is that he's already read and written book reports--in both eighth grade and twelfth grade--on the course's core text, Native Son. As to foreign language, Pelcovits, sensing Cedric's uneasiness, says he might as well look at both Spanish 1 and 2 and see which one he's more comfortable with.

Cedric still has one more class to sign up for to get his required fourth for the semester. Pelcovits suggests one of Brown's liberal arts fortes, maybe Political Theory.

"I'm not sure. It would have a lot of reading," Cedric says hesitantly. "But I'll check into that. " He then turns the conversation to the last issue on his agenda, telling Pelcovits he's planning to take all his classes satisfactory/no credit, or S/NC, Brown's parlance for pass/fail. It's an option students tend to use for one class or two, tops, out of the four classes required each semester.

"Are you really sure about that?" the professor asks.

Cedric looks at him for a moment. Which way to go? Inside, he feels his pride being challenged by a choking fear of failure. Maybe they made a mistake by accepting him. If he winds up getting crushed in an academic defeat, he might be forced to return home, shamefully. Pride quickly dissolves, allowing Cedric a clear glimpse at what he needs to fall back on in order to clinch this approval. "Well, I didn't come from that good a school and all, a real bad city school," he says, forcing himself to look down, forlornly, feeling a bit nauseous.

Pelcovits accedes. For better or worse, Brown gives Cedric the upper hand. A defining feature here is student autonomy, the so-called open curriculum, which students won during demonstrations in the late 1960s. Students, in theory, can take everything satisfactory/no credit. The concept is noble: to encourage students to take intellectual risks, to try out some classes in unfamiliar disciplines they might otherwise avoid for fear of a bad grade. The intended message is to indulge your curiosity, challenge yourself, experiment.

Cedric has fashioned his own message: duck. He leaves Pelcovits's office having charted a slightly less taxing path, one that will allow him a few extra moments to stop, breathe, and fill what he is increasingly certain are gaping holes in his preparation. Walking back toward the main campus, he feels compromised but relieved, and his mind finally turns to food.

 
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Excerpted from A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind. Copyright © 1998 by Ron Suskind. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.