David J. Prior Award for 2013 Announced
Cory Young is a senior History major and theater minor at SUNY Geneseo. A native of Pittsford, NY, Cory’s work focuses on 18th and 19th century American history with an emphasis on the intersection between ideas and policy. He wrote an honors thesis on Thomas Jefferson's identity as a Virginia planter and slaveowner. After graduating, Cory would like to attend graduate school and begin work on a PhD in early American intellectual and social history.
Geneseo, Class of '67
It was more pleasant than many August nights, though I imagine this had more to do with my company than any seasonal temperament. Jake and I were sitting on a concrete ledge behind Sturges Hall, looking out over the Genesee Valley—two nearly-Juniors sharing some lingering thoughts as the sun set on what had been a truly illuminating, full day of exchange.
I was particularly engrossed in our conversation that evening. It had taken many semesters to get Jake to freely discuss certain aspects of his worldview with me—all those unverifiable, unempirical thoughts that cannot be studied in a physics lab. I suppose that our differing opinions regarding the usefulness of speculation could be traced back to our respective cognitive predispositions: Jake preferred to discuss certainties and I preferred to discuss possibilities (as it turns out, history and physics do not share much in the way of methodology). For whatever reason, my roommate was willing to speculate with me that night and so I listened.
As the conversation shifted from deliberations on the importance of scale in analysis to observations on the beauty of our campus, an older couple standing some ten feet beneath the ledge took notice of us. They appeared to be in their upper-sixties, slower to move but quick to chat. The man made a passing remark about the sunset before asking us if we were students at the university; we said yes and he smiled. As it turned out, the man was an alumnus of the class of 1967, a history major and a brother of Phi Sigma Xi.
His name was Gary.
He told us that he and his wife, Mary, made a point of traveling to Geneseo from time to time to see how things had evolved. In the spirit of explanation, he shared with us a few stories about his time at Geneseo, about what was different and what remained the same. We learned about his pledging process (the sixties were a very different time), his love of the college, and his life after graduation as a high school social studies teacher. The last anecdote included a piece of advice about refusing to compromise on your values in the face of adversity—in this case, a stubborn parent. After about twenty minutes, Gary and Mary thanked us for our time, wished us luck on all of our future endeavors, and carefully made their way up toward Main Street, hand-in-hand.
I cannot recall exactly what was said, but Jake and I must have made a decision to go after them because I promptly found myself striding uphill, striving to keep up with Jake's long-legged pace. Soon enough, we managed to reach the couple, intending only to thank them once more for their wisdom and kindness. However, those few additional minutes of conversation turned into a tour around campus. And with that, the four of us, generations apart and with little in common save for a shared space, set off together into the Integrated Science Center, swapping stories as we walked.
Jake and I made every effort to highlight what was new about the Geneseo experience, from G.R.E.A.T Day posters to the particle accelerator. Gary and Mary contributed by detailing how they felt about the more conspicuous changes that had occurred over the last forty-five years. The conversation eventually settled on residence halls—namely, the presence of gender-neutral housing. It soon became evident that what was normal and nurturing to Jake and me was novel to Gary and noxious to his wife. Whereas Gary's reaction was to ask if we were comfortable with such a living arrangement, Mary's was to ask if either one of us was homosexual. Although Gary was visibly upset by the familiarity and frankness of her question, Jake and I put on a pair of indulgent smiles and coolly responded that we were both heterosexual. Mary then inquired if we were Christians; we told her we were not. Finally, she wondered if we considered ourselves moral; we told her we did. Mary paused for a moment before declaring that she did not believe that one could be good without God.
It was around this time that the conversation began to split off: Jake and Gary chatted about aerospace engineering while Mary and I discussed the merits of reason-based ethics. Though she was less open-minded than her husband, Mary did not dismiss my arguments outright; she considered what I had to say about the viability of alternative sources of morality before ultimately (and civilly) disagreeing with me. The four of us carried on like this for quite some time—long after the sun had set—before a cursory glance at my cell phone alerted me to the late hour.
Our goodbyes were protracted, neither pair wanting to terminate their conversation. Jake and I eventually managed to shake both of their hands before showing them to a convenient exit. They promised to take us out to dinner if we should ever happen to cross paths again. We grinned, nodded, and bid them a wonderful evening.
I occasionally find myself thinking about that night. I think about Gary's didactic stories, about Mary's conservative incredulity, about the sheer odds of such an encounter even happening in the first place and I cannot help but smile. The whole story is truly incredible, or at least it would be if I did not have a witness. I am fortunate to have shared that experience with Jake, to have someone who understands the beauty of the connection that was forged that summer night in the halls of an academic building, to have someone who could also hear the pride in Gary's voice when he spoke of his alma mater:
"Being a social studies teacher was certainly challenging. Sometimes it's hard to deal with students, but often it's harder to deal with their parents. I once had a father come to school to discuss a poor grade his daughter had received on a unit test. He came into my office and approached my desk with his palm extended and introduced himself, ‘Mr. ________, Columbia, class of '78.' I stood up and looked him square in the eye as I grasped his hand and replied, ‘Mr. ________, Geneseo, class of '67.'"
I will carry this story with me for the rest of my life. Four people, forty-six years apart, joined in conversation. Two pairs of strangers, with little in common save for a shared space, engaged in dialogue. Students of Geneseo, past and present, immersed in meaningful discussion one summer night in the halls of a public academic building, without a conspicuously academic agenda. This is the transformative, awesome power of the liberal arts.
Class of '13