Books: Excerpts

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Robert Coles, the Harvard University child psychiatrist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Children in Crisis series, has written a deeply personal book on the significance of community involvement. The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism recounts his life experiences in this area and what he has distilled from them and from the similar endeavors of teachers, friends, students, and acquaintances. Below, he goes back to the source of his idealism, the family, and recalls an early mentoring experience:

When I was a college student I did "volunteer work,'' as we then called it. I tutored some boys and girls who lived in what would now be called a ghetto neighborhood and who were having trouble with their schoolwork. I left one part of Cambridge [Mass.] for another, often on foot, so that I could enjoy what my father had taught me to call "a good hike.'' When I returned to my school, scenes I had witnessed and statements I had heard would stay with me and would come to mind now and then as I pursued various courses and lived my late-adolescent life.

Often, when I went to visit my parents in their suburban home, they inquired about my extracurricular teaching life.

As I have mentioned, my mother was inclined to be religiously sentimental: She felt it was good that I was helping out some youngsters in trouble. For her the sin of pride was around any corner. It was important to escape that constant pull of egoism--to work with others on behalf of their lives, with our own, for a change, taking a back seat. My father, a probing scientist, commonly took a different tack and asked me many times the same question: "What did you learn?''

I was never quite sure how to answer my father, and often I had no need to do so. My mother was quick to reply for me, emphasizing her notion of the education such tutoring can afford a college student: "the lesson of humility''--a favorite phrase of hers. If any amplification was necessary, she had another well-worn piety: "There but for the grace of God ...''

My father's question often came back to me. What did I learn? What was I supposed to learn? After all, I was the teacher, not the student. Anyway, these were elementary schoolchildren, and there was nothing new in the ground I was covering with them every week. But I had listened to my father too often, on long walks through various cities, to let the matter rest there. During his boyhood in Yorkshire, England, he had been a great walker and a great observer. He was also an admirer of George Orwell long before Animal Farm and 1984 were published--the early Orwell who wrote Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, and Homage to Catalonia. In those books Orwell explored relentlessly the world around him and described it carefully yet with dramatic intensity.

My father had introduced me to those books before I went to college, and as I did volunteer work I would recall a scene, some words, or, more generally, Orwell's social and moral inquiry. I began to realize that Orwell was a "big brother'' for me in the sense that he was helping me make sense of my experience. His wisdom gave me pause, promoted me to scrutinize not only the children I met and, occasionally, their parents but my own opinions and attitudes.

At college I read the poetry and prose of William Carlos Williams, including his long poem Paterson and his Stecher trilogy: White Mule, In the Money, and The Buildup. Williams tried hard to evoke the rhythms of working-class life in America, the struggle of ordinary people to make their way in the world, to find a satisfactory manner of living and regarding themselves. He knew how hard it was for someone who was well educated and well-to-do to make contact with people who worked in factories, stores, or farms or with those who have no work or are intermittently employed.

In emphasizing his search for an American "language,'' Williams was getting at the fractured nature of our nation's life: the divisions by race, class, region, and culture that make us unable to comprehend or even be aware of one another. Often, as I did my tutoring, I heard words I had never known, heard words used in new and arresting ways--and I learned about the memories and hopes and habits and interests of people in a neighborhood that was unlike my own. I thought of Williams's poems and stories and realized how much he owed to the humble people of industrial northern New Jersey. As he once told me, "These house calls [to attend his patients] are giving me an education. Every day I learn something new--a sight, a phrase--and I'm made to stop and think about my world, the world I've left behind.'' He was reminding both of us that "education'' is not a one-way affair.

I fear it took some of us volunteers a good deal of time to learn the lesson Williams was stressing. At my worst, I must admit, I had a sense of noblesse oblige, a conviction that I was sharing certain intellectual riches with "them,'' the children I tutored. Only when I went with Williams on some of his house calls and observed him paying close heed to the men, women, and children he visited did I begin to realize how much his mind grew in response to his everyday experiences.

From the book The Call of Service: Witness to Idealism by Robert Coles, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. Copyright 1993 by Robert Coles. Reprinted by permission.

Vol. 13, Issue 17

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