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Getting the Claremont experience

by John Pixley

I haven’t thought of Frank in many years. Decades really. I don’t know what he’s doing now. He could be teaching sociology at a college or history at a high school. He could be an administrator at a nonprofit. Or he could be working at a market or store or doing janitorial work.

He could be writing for a small newspaper or working on Wall Street. In any case, I wonder if he’s still singing in a gospel choir.

I hope he wasn’t shot dead in a drug deal gone bad.

This is what ended up happening to Robert Peace, an African-American man raised by a single mother in a rough neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. His father was in prison, although he was able to go to Yale University. He subsequently worked in a medical lab and was a popular high school chemistry teacher. He also sold pot, which he started doing in college simply as a way to earn extra cash and, seven years after graduating from Yale, was killed while out on a deal.

The story of Robert Peace—Rob—was told by Jeff Hobbs at the CMC Athenaeum a couple weeks ago.  Mr. Hobbs, a Los Angeles-based writer, was Robert Peace’s roommate at Yale University for four years and has a book out called The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark.

The soft-spoken author is clearly still quite affected by his relationship with Robert Peace and by Mr. Peace’s death. (He wrote a book about it, after all.) It was with some emotion that he spoke of developing a close, longtime friendship with a guy who had such a different background, not at all like his white “well-off family in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania.”

That he was able to have this experience, facilitated by an institution such as Yale University—which made an effort to reach out to Robert Peace and other low-income minority students—is something that Mr. Hobbs definitely sees as very powerful and moving.

Listening to Mr. Hobbs and seeing how touched and passionate he is after this experience, I found myself thinking about Frank after all these years. The last time I saw Frank was when I was in high school.

This was when my parents hired him to assist me and look after my younger brother after school while they were still at work. Since I was disabled and needed care and assistance, this was a critical responsibility. Frank was recommended as someone well-suited for the job. Like Robert Peace at Yale University, Frank was an African-American student at Pomona College with a background very different from most of the other students. He was from a very low-income family from the rural South—a background very different from mine.

Unlike Mr. Hobbs and Mr. Peace, Frank and I did not live together for four years. We were not roommates, and I can’t say that we developed a tight bond. Until hearing Mr. Hobbs, I really hadn’t thought of him for a very long time. But he did take care of me for a time, and we found we had critical things in common despite our very different backgrounds and situations.

Although he wasn’t in a wheelchair and I was, he certainly knew what it was like to be different and not like the others on a campus like Pomona College. He understood what it was like for me, as one of only a few disabled students at Claremont High School. All the more so because he had a bad stutter. He had some idea of what it was like for me with my impaired speech. He knew something of what it’s like to not be understood easily, to be nervous and sometimes scared about speaking and to be sometimes made fun of, especially by adolescent peers.

I also learned at the time, in part from Frank, that I could be successful in my effort to get into a good four-year university and to move out on my own despite my substantial limitations. Knowing how far Frank had come, with all the hardships he had dealt with—I am suspicious of the notion of “overcoming,” it seems to me one deals with a disability or other condition—to get into and graduate from Pomona College gave me encouragement and support in my endeavor.

Furthermore, I imagine knowing Frank for that time helped me be more open to different people from all sorts of backgrounds and with different interests far from mine. People I would meet and deal with later in my life. This was especially helpful when it was me, not my parents, hiring people to assist me.  Plus, I got to find out about and enjoy traditional gospel singing.  

These were critical lessons coming at a pivotal time for me. I have realized over the years how important these lessons were and how they made me a better, more open person and made my life all the richer. And I like to think that Pomona College and the other Colleges here are continuing to offer this valuable learning experience to all the students, and the rest of the Claremont community, in reaching out to students like Frank who have different backgrounds and experiences.

It looks like they are. I see it when I hear the students snapping their fingers as a speaker explains what it’s like to have to defend one’s sexuality or one’s gender and when I read about Scripps College dealing with transgender students as a women’s college. I see it at Claremont Mckenna College, long ago a men’s college, putting out new guidelines on sexual conduct and when speakers encourage male students to speak up or intervene against sexual harassment and assault.

This is hard work the Colleges are doing, all the more vital now when it’s apparent that rape and sexual violence are still common on college campuses and when well-educated university students sing racist songs with gusto.

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