In my own small corner of the world, this is a big week. My 18-year old stepdaughter will graduate from high school on Friday. My 17-year old son will finish his junior year the same day. And on Saturday, I head to Swarthmore College for my 25th reunion. It will be a week full of speeches about endings and beginnings. At graduation after graduation, reunion after reunion, speaker after speaker will try, one way or another, to offer meaningful advice about life’s journey. No one asked me to make such a speech. If they had, I would have told this story.
29 years ago, in the fall of 1983, I arrived at Swarthmore College. Swarthmore is outside of Philadelphia. Its campus is an arboretum. The physical beauty of the campus is matched only by the intellectual rigor of the classes. I remember across all that time how nervous I was. And I remember too the intense worry that I would not find friends. On arrival, my new roommate, watched me unpack my stuff and said quietly, “I requested a neat roommate.” And I remember replying, trying to suppress a smile, “so did I.” Patrick McNamara and I became fast friends (though the sides of our room were kept to different standards). And I made others too — many of whom, including Patrick, are still close friends today. The friends part turned out to be relatively easy, but is not the point of this story.
After a few days of orientation activities, classes started. I remember clearly being astonished at how much reading there was to do. And in each class, the reading was preparation for the conversation that followed. We would walk in, somewhat sleepy, to a professor not ready to tell us what the answers were, but instead to ask questions that would lead us to talk to one another about what those answers might be. It took a while, but we caught on. The classes were very different — I had a seminar on the Holocaust, an Economics class, an introductory Psychology class, and an English class. The method though was, essentially, the same. Read, think, prepare, and then talk together so that we might somehow understand better what there was to know.
One class in particular stood out to me. In my sophomore year, I took a course called Proust, Joyce and Faulkner taught by a man named Philip Weinstein. It would be unfair not to tell you that he was a legend at my college. For the first class, he assigned the first chapter of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. In spite of my excellent Massachusetts public education, I had not read Faulkner. For others in that boat, I need to say that it is tough sledding. The sentences go on. There are italics. It is never clear what year it is. Said differently, reading Faulkner can be dizzying; it is as if you do not know where you are.
After we had all sat down in class, Professor Weinstein came in. He is (still) tall and thin, with a very quiet but authoritative speaking voice. He also manages to speak in sentences that are stunningly beautiful — you want to write them down. As he talked about the book, it seemed to me he had read something I had not. To him it made sense, and understanding the story was critical to unlocking its meaning. I took notes furiously. I went back to the library. I reread the chapter. I looked at the notes. And, by the end of the night, I felt as though I had read the book Professor Weinstein was talking about.
And that’s really what I learned at Swarthmore. Listen. Go back. Look at the notes. Talk about it. Eventually, you can find the thread that makes it make sense for you. Being willing to risk not knowing along the way to finding out can be thrilling. Imagine a desk with pile of books, a story that doesn’t quite make sense, and a blank notepad. These are the ingredients of a great journey. My story is about a book — but it can be any problem or idea that life presents to you. That’s what I learned at Swarthmore. And, every day, when I get ready to talk on the radio or to a Court or with a client, I apply those lessons. Think about it.