H O W A R D   U N I V E R S I T Y

Faces & Voices 5
An Anthology
of Verse and Prose

the Composition
for Honours Class,
Howard University,

E. R. B

Faces & Voices 4


Conversation Piece
E. R. Braithwaite

There was a knock on the door of my office. I opened it to a stocky young man who greeted me with a grin and a casual.
  “Good morning, can I help you?” I asked.
  “You the Professor of the Comp. For Honors Class?” he inquired.
  “I would like to talk to you about. like, joining up next semester.” He smiled.
Exposing a small wad of chewing gum as white as the rows of perfect teeth.
  “Guy in my dorm has been telling me about that class, like about all the stuff they do there and I’m like telling myself I should, like, check it out.”
I moved aside to let him enter. He slipped a heavy backpack from his shoulders, made himself comfortable in one of the chairs and patted into place the black knitted cap which tightly encased his head.
  “This guy in the dorm,” he continued, “he’s, like, always going on about the Honors class, about the stuff they do, and it sounds, you know, like just what I’d like to do.”
  “What is it you’d like to do?” I asked.
  “You know, I am a Journalism major, and I’m, like, pretty good with writing and stuff like that, and from what he tells me, I’m thinking I should be in that class.
He crossed his legs and adjusted himself in a more comfortable position.
  “What is your name please?”
  “Williams, La Mar Williams.”
  “Well, Mr. Williams, I welcome your interest in the Composition for Honors Class, but I am not sure you would find it very much of your liking.” I told him.
  “Why?” He stopped chewing and the smile quickly withered away.
  “If we’re to have a conversation, Mr. Williams,” I paused briefly, “I’d prefer that you get rid of the chewing gum.” I pointed to the wastebasket beside my desk.
Shamefacedly he complied and resumed his seat.
  “I know from personal experience that it is quite difficult to clearly enunciate one’s words while chewing.” I said, in an attempt to relieve his embarrassment.
  “Sorry about that,” he responded. “I forgot I had it in my mouth.”
I arranged a chair facing him and sat, giving him a few moments to regain his composure.
  “The Composition for Honors class is not only about writing, Mr. Williams.” I continued, keeping the tone friendly and casual. “Writing is only a part of what we do. As the name implies, the emphasis is on Composition whether we are reading, writing or speaking, and yes, even thinking.”
  “But isn’t Composition just like, I mean, writing stuff?” The guy in my dorm is always on his computer doing stuff, and I’m like, you know, looking over his shoulder reading some of it and thinking, I can do stuff like that, I should, like, be in that class.”
  “Composition is much more than writing, Mr. Williams. For instance, you and I are having a conversation, aren’t we?”
  “Yeah, right.” He nodded.
  “As we speak we try to arrange the words we use so that their meaning is clear. 
  “Yeah. Right.”
  “In short, Mr. Williams, we compose our words. We compose them first in our minds so that when we speak or read or write the words make sense, humorous sense, dramatic sense, legal sense, whatever we will…” 
  “Right, right,” he interjected. “That’s exactly what my guy was saying. That’s why I want to be in that class.”
I let a moment or two float by. He was again comfortable.
  “We not only work at improving our use of our language, Mr. Williams, we also make a serious effort to exercise ourselves in those little social niceties which help us to be comfortable with each other in the rather restricted space of the classroom.”
He was watching me expectantly as if wondering where this was leading.
  “For instance,” I continued “you entered the office wearing your cap and you’re still wearing it.”
With a smooth motion he snatched it from his head.
  “I didn’t think it was, like, a big deal,” he said. “I, like, wear it in class all the time.”
  “Let’s imagine, Mr. Williams, that this office was located somewhere downtown, and you were here to be interviewed for an internship or a job. Would you have entered it wearing your cap?” I stood and walked a few steps away from him.
  “Well, no, but I, like, figured I’m like, in school, so it doesn’t matter.” The knitted cap was squeezed tightly in his hands.
  “Oh, it matters, Mr. Williams. It matters a great deal. This place, this revered Howard University, is expected to educate you in every way, in preparation for the wide variety of circumstances which will confront you when you eventually leave here. Now is the time for you to practice and be comfortable with all those necessary habits, I believe they are called social graces, by which we’re all judged on first contact with others. Don’t you agree?”
  “Yeah. Right. Sorry, I wasn’t, like, thinking straight.”
  “I do understand. However, I’m sure you know what they say about first impressions.”
He nodded in agreement, the cap still tightly gripped, the knuckles of both hands gleaming palely.
  “Another thing, Mr. Williams, the Honors classroom is not very large and in such relatively close quarters it is inevitable that each of us is subject to the critical scrutiny of the others for nearly an hour, three times a week. Such a situation demands that we treat each other, at all times, with unfailing courtesy and respect. We make an effort, a real effort, to be at our best in every way, and gradually we’ve become comfortable with being at our best. We comfortably share ideas, opinions, experiences, hopes, and concerns; in short we share quite a bit of ourselves with each other, learning from each other, so that through mutual help and encouragement we grow academically and socially. The Honors classroom is a little more than it seems. For a few hours each week it is a community, a temporary venue for practicing those skills which will serve us well when we leave here, and we can practice them in an environment made comfortable by all those sharing it.”
He looked away from me towards the window through which the morning sun was making the room quite warm. Again he turned to face me, with
  “Are you, like saying I can’t join the class?” His hands were now on the arms of the chair as if readying himself for departure.
  “Not at all, Mr. Williams. I’m merely describing the way in which we function in the Honors Class.”
  “Right, right. So what do I do now? I, like, told my guy I’d like to get into the class and he said I should come talk to you. So what happens now?”
  “I think that you should first pay us a visit. Drop in one morning and look us over. Test the atmosphere, so to speak, that you might know if you’d be comfortable in it.”
  “You mean, like, just drop in?” The suggestion seemed to surprise him.
  “Certainly. Just drop in.”
  “Any time?”
  “Any time.”

*  *  *

Yesterday, about fifteen minutes before I would leave for the classroom, there was a knock on the door of my office. I opened to a stocky young man whose smiling face was vaguely familiar.
  “Good morning, Professor.” He greeted me.
  “Good morning. Can I help you?”
  “Don’t remember me, do you?” The smile widened to expose two sets of gleaming white teeth. I’m Williams. La Mar Williams. I was in your Honors Class three years ago.”
  “Oh, yes. Of course I should have recognized that smile. Do come in. I am delighted to see you. How have you been getting on?”
  “Fine, Sir, just fine. I’ve been doing really good. I’m graduating in June, you know, and I’ve already got a job all lined up.” The words were spilling out of him in an impatient, pleasant torrent. “Two years running I’ve interned with a corporation in Philadelphia and I’ve been promised a job there after graduation.”
  “In Journalism?” I inquired.
  “Oh, no, no. But I see you remembered. No, Sir, I switched from Journalism to Business. Marketing. It’s just the thing for me. And the job I have been offered is great. Good starting salary, benefits good prospects. I can hardly believe it.”
  “I can hardly believe it myself, Mr. Williams. What will you be doing?” 
  “I’ll be in the Design Department working as part of a team to promote descriptive texts for new products. The designers produce their colorful outlays and we create supporting texts, using just the right language to, like, seduce prospective customers. Oops! Sorry about the ‘like’.” His smiling face animated with excitement.
  “Mr. Williams, I’d really love to hear your news, but I must hurry. My class is waiting. Would you drop by later and tell me about your job?”
  “Sure, Professor. Just thought I’d look you up and say ‘Hi’.”
  “Hi, Mr. Williams.”
Still smiling broadly he strode off down the corridor.

© 2001 E. R. Braithwaite
11 February 2001

© 2001 Howard University.
(First Published in limited print edition, An Anthology of Verse and Prose, by the Composition for Honours Class, Howard University, Spring 2001. Professor E.R. Braithwaite)
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