The Middlebury College academic calendar is quirky. For hackies like me, this is no mere academic matter; the comings and goings of college students spell taxi fares, and plenty of them. To partake, though, you have to be at the right places at the right times, and, as I said, Middlebury seems to be out of sync with other local schools. They have this crazy, so-called “J-term” — kind of a mini-semester — and every year I seem to lose track of when it falls. Yet, by hook or by crook, I manage to get my share. I have been at this, after all, since Jimmy Carter passed the baton to Ronald Reagan.
Sitting beside me as we breezed south on Route 7 was a young African-American man. Glancing over, I thought, This dude is cool. I could just feel it. Not cool as in “aloof,” but cool as in self-contained, comfortable in his own skin. Cool — it occurred to me — in the manner of a certain skinny Hawaiian who recently placed his hand on a Bible and took an oath. Yup, that kind of cool, I thought, and couldn’t help but smile. My intuition told me that this person, despite his youth, had already done some amazing things with his life.
“So, what are you studying at Middlebury?” I asked.
“Well, I haven’t picked a major yet, if that’s what you mean. I’m a freshman. But I am thinking I might study writing and Arabic. I’d love to translate Arabic poetry. I just find it beautiful.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. Some of the greatest poets in history have come from that part of the world. Do you write yourself?”
“Yeah, I do. I’ve been composing poetry since, like, grade school, and I compete in poetry slams. You know what that’s about, right?”
I felt like saying, “Hey, buddy — I’m old, but not a thousand years old,” but then I realized he was just being considerate. Generally speaking, poetry slams are not the province of middle-aged dudes like me.
I replied, “Yup, I know about poetry slams, all right. How has your stuff been received?”
“Pretty well. I won the Louisiana statewide competition — that’s where I’m from — and I represented the state at the Internationals in Washington, D.C. That was a load of fun.”
“Pretty well” — I loved that. Humility aside, given the huge achievement he had described, this young man had to be an exceptional poet. I’ve expressed more self-conceit over winning my dormitory’s Scrabble tournament in college. And it was a small dorm.
I asked, “What kind of things do you concern yourself with in your poetry?”
“Hmm . . . that’s a good question. You want to hear one?”
“OK,” he said, straightening himself in his seat. “This one is called ‘Ego Tripping.’ I think I still have it memorized.”
He proceeded to recite, in a syncopated, attention-grabbing fashion, a five-minute poem extolling his — that is, the poetic protagonist’s — greatness and prowess in all human endeavors. It was playful and serious at the same time. Having experienced the guy’s actual modest and soft-spoken personality gave it an especially humorous twist. Not that I’m any kind of literary critic, but I felt this young man had real talent, something special.
“That was great, man, just great,” I said, trying not to be over the top with my enthusiasm, which is a lifelong struggle for me. “So you said you were from Louisiana. Was your family affected by Hurricane Katrina?”
“Yeah, we were flooded out of our home in New Orleans, the Lower Wards. That community was the hardest hit.”
His voice grew quiet as he spoke of this, surely for the umpteenth time. The Lower Wards were a hardscrabble neighborhood pre-Katrina; this kid was clearly no silver-spooner.
“We ended up,” he continued, “crashing with family in North Carolina for quite a long spell, but finally we did return and rebuild.”
“Man,” I said, “that is one real-life saga. Probably enough material for books of poetry, I’d say. So, how’d ya end up at Middlebury College?”
“That’s actually a funny story,” he replied. “Last spring, I was visiting the campus with a bunch of other potential students. I liked a lot about the school, but what sold me was a sporting event taking place that day.”
“Really?” I said. “I get the feeling that you must have been recruited by any number of elite colleges. What game did you witness that made you decide on Middlebury?”
“It was Quidditch! You know — that game with the broomsticks from the Harry Potter books? There was a Quidditch match going on, and, dude — I mean, fierce. These kids were playing for keeps. I remember thinking, ‘Any school where the students get that crazy over a Quidditch game — that’s the place for me.’ I mean, not that I was all that into Harry Potter or anything, but just the sheer imagination of it all. I knew these were my kind of people.”
We followed the curling road down the long hill into Middlebury, then swung through downtown and up onto the graceful campus. Idling in front of my customer’s dorm, I had one more question as he paid the fare. “So, have you taken up Quidditch?”
“Quidditch?” he repeated, with a chuckle. “To tell the truth, that’s a little rough for my blood. But I have been playing on the rugby club.”