I introduced you recently to Matt Campbell, my friend and the patriarch of a fine family from Des Moines, Iowa.
This month Matt and I recalled a moment early on in our friendship—about 10 years ago—when his granddaughter became the first member of her family to attend college.
She went to University of Chicago, and we had the extreme pleasure of visiting her in her dorm room that first August, before classes even started. She was ecstatic.
After being derided as an intellectual geek in her public high school—(despite being a star varsity softball player, which she continued at U of C)—she understood from the moment she walked into her dorm that she would not be seen that way at the U of C. A scholar was normal at U of C. She even suggested demurely that some of the boys in the dorm seemed to think she was cute.
As she held aloft her copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations—she had already started reading it—she may have voiced some fleeting concern about what sort of job she might get upon graduation. Or maybe she didn’t, and I launched into my standard lecture to smart undergrads anyway. Essentially:
Don’t you waste one single minute speculating about what sort of job you’re going to get after college. Read. Think. Dream. Love. Explore. Then read, think, dream, love and explore some more! You’ll get a job, you’ll be fine. But you’ll never have a chance like these four years ever again. Take it!
It was my mother, who remembered her years in the late 1950s at the University of Michigan, who gave me that lecture, before I went to college. Her happy intellectual awakening was complicated by financial troubles, and she wanted me to do less working and worrying and more reading and thinking.
I find that my version of her lecture goes over well with incoming college freshmen, and with some of their parents—mostly, parents who agree that, of course their kids are going to be all right. Because their kids are fairly well off (and usually white).
It did not go over well with Matt Campbell, sitting next to me on his granddaughter’s roommate’s bed. Politely and quietly, he reminded me and her that she was indeed the first member of her family to attend college. And that she indeed needed to convert this degree into a good job. And that it was not at all beneath her to give careful thought to career plans as she pursued her scholarly endeavors at the University of Chicago.
I understood Matt instantly, and perfectly. I didn’t feel ashamed that I had said what I said, because Matt didn’t want me to feel ashamed about it. Neither did I feel any need to argue with Matt’s point of view, which came from a different place, as different points of view do—and an honest place, as all of Matt’s views do.
I have no idea whether Matt’s granddaughter took my advice to heart, or his—or either of ours, for that matter. In any case, she still lives in Chicago, and she’s doing great, which everyone knew she would.
Next time I see her, I’m going to ask her if she remembers that exchange. Because I think of it fairly frequently. Her happiness that day touched my heart. So did Matt’s and my ability to communicate firmly with one another, clearly with one another, gently with one another, effectively with one another, across a great big divide.
I chafe when I hear leaders talk about the need, in our divided society, for “conversations,” as if communication will lead to love and respect.
It’s the other way around.
(Photo by another of Matt’s granddaughers, Carly Carpenter.)