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Saturday, September 20, 2008

The worst night of my life

Todd Epp on South Dakota Watch commented on my previous post on small towns and how they have been portrayed in American literature. I personally have a preference for smaller communities and note that sometimes young people have a chance to explore their talents in smaller communities, whereas they get lost and caught up by urban routine in the big metro areas.

I have always thought college was a liberating experience for most students, but that is not to say that there are not some colleges that are as oppressive as provincial communities.

I have been through most of the bad times that a person of my age, 74, could go through and found that even in the worst of times there are acts of thoughtfulness and grace that buoy up the spirit. But I spent an evening in Dallas that still makes me want to take a shower and purge myself of its memory and any associations that recall it.

I was in Dallas with some NSU colleagues for a gathering for a number of English Departments that had been awarded grants to examine and revise their programs. It was a pleasant and productive occasion, and the hosts arranged a visit one afternoon to the Book Repository at Dealey Plaza where President Kennedy was shot. The memory and reliving of that assassination is a somber experience, so the professors decided to go to a famous Tex-Mex restaurant and warm up the innards with some spicy food.

When we got there, we had to split up in tables of four, and most people mixed in with people from different institutions. I ended up at a able occupied by three professors all from the same college. It was a college I knew because a number of colleagues and friends of mine graduated from it. The other professors were a woman, who was like the boss cow in a cattle herd, and two young men who acted as doting steers . I sensed immediately that I was considered an intruder but all the other tables of professors were filled and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

The woman started the conversation--which she never relinquished--by declaring that one of the distinguished professors who had addressed us earlier in the day was "a walking geek." He was from the graduate school that all the professors at my table had attended. When the woman had finished her disquisition on the worthlessness and faults of the man, she moved on to other people not known to me with one abusive and malicious comment after another. The two young male professors nodded at her slanders and sometimes uttered verbal agreement, and all I could think of was how to escape. Attempts to enter the conversation and change the subject matter were met with curt rudeness by the woman and glares from the young professors that I was out of my place. I have never been in a situation where I felt so sickened of spirit and defiled as I did at that table. I still wonder just what students at that college are exposed to and why this horrible woman was allowed to spread her vileness . She did have some positive things to say about herself, of course, to which the young men either nodded or feigned adulation.

I realize that the deep revulsion that evening inspired in me--and still does-- is because I came from a community where talking about people behind their backs and tearing away at their characters was not something you could get by with. It was one thing to make a factual comment about a person, like boy, did Sam get in his cups last night, or Sarah never says anything nice about anybody. But if someone set about tearing down a person's character, people would try to change the subject or often walked away. We knew that if someone talked to us about another person that way, that someone probably talked about us that way to others.

That is not to say that community was free of malicious gossips, but they were avoided and earned reputations as people to stay away from.

Sometimes northern Midwesterners are thought of as cold and aloof, and I think their reluctance to talk about other people is a large part of that reputation. The community I was raised in had developed under five flags--Native American, Spanish, English, French, and American. And it was a terminus of the Underground Railroad.

In such a mix of cultures, people had to learn to be respectful and circumspect in talking about others.

But if there is something that ruins communities, it is malicious people who constantly talk ill of others. It takes only a few of such types to make communities unbearable places to live. And I cannot but wonder about life at the college where that woman held forth.

1 comment:

Ross Feickert said...

As a former Aberdonian, I can attest to the veracity of your comments. After moving to Sioux City following my graduation in 2002, I began working at a company where this kind of thing is commonplace. I am frequently sickened when I hear my co-workers speaking badly of other co-workers. In most cases, I have seen no evidence to support the claims they make.

I try very hard not to say something about my co-workers I wouldn't feel comfortable saying if they were present.

I have given it a lot of thought, but I hadn't considered the possibility that I am more sensitive to this type of thing because I was raised in Aberdeen. But I share your distaste of this type of behavior.

Thank you for sharing this anecdote.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States