Golden Silence, Silver Tongue
© Copyright 2022 by Thomas Turman
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
At 7:45 a.m., I approached the entrance to my faculty office and found a formidable woman in a red dress and large floppy hat blocking the double doors. A satchel-like purse hung from her arms crossed over her massive bosom. She stood like an unmovable, Nubian guard to a local church.
“Good morning,” I ventured. “Can I help you?”
To my relief, she stepped aside and answered, “Good morning. Well, you can if you are the teacher of the architecture drafting class on Monday and Wednesday.”
“That’s me. Let’s go inside and talk.” I led her into my office next to the drafting room, settled ourselves; she in my blue fiberglass chair and me in my fake leather swivel chair.
“I’m Jared Hall’s mother and I want to tell you some things that I think you need to know about him. I thought I’d come down here before you started the class he’s in tomorrow.”
I’ve been teaching at this community college long enough to know that if I just wait the story will come out. I didn’t say anything.
Ms. Hall adjusted herself in the uncomfortable chair I’d provided, gripped her purse with both hands, and began, “Two years ago, when Jared was 15, he saw his older brother shot to death out front of our house.” She paused and looked down at her hands as if she needed to recharge. “He hasn’t spoken to anyone since, not even me.”
As hard as it is to not ask a thousand questions, I wait.
“Jared is a bright boy. He got through high school because his other brother went to class with him, but that won’t work here.” She searched my face for confirmation that Jared would be on his own at Laney College.
I nodded and said, “You’re right Ms. Hall, he’ll have to do it alone. This is a class that asks students to explore their own creativity, and display that work in drawings, models and oral presentations.
“Oral?” she quickly asked.
“Yes, in the beginning, he’ll have to discuss his work with the class.”
“Oh Lord, you mean like public speaking?”
“Sort of, except that it’s only in front of his classmates. I try to make it non-threatening.”
“Well, we’ve tried all kinds of things to get him to talk and none of them worked. I thought this was just a drawing class where he could do his work and turn it in. No one would bother him. Oh no, dear me, this won’t work.”
“Ms. Hall, let’s give him a chance to adjust. I’ve seen some strange things happen in this class as the students get to know one another.”
“OK, but this is on you. I don’t know what will happen.”
“I don’t either, but thanks for coming in to tell me all this.”
The next day, I got the class started but felt the extra pressure from Ms. Hall. I quickly identified Jared as the tall, thin pleasant-looking kid sitting at the very back of the room. I try to have an open and even humorous atmosphere in the drafting room, so I even made a few funny comments. Jared smiled at the jokes. I passed out all kinds of textbook and required material lists along with a syllabus and dismissed them.
For the first few of the in-class basic design projects, Jared wasn’t the only one not speaking. Developing trust between them is why I push the oral presentations and eventually all but Jared got into rousing discussions using our newly acquired design language.
Jared’s designs showed that he had talent and understood the concepts. Toward the end of the series of 4 hour, in-class projects, whenever I asked him if he wanted to comment, he would smile and just shake his head no. So far, I had been able to work around his silence, but I knew it couldn’t go on forever.
The next project was bound to tax Jared’s silent world. The goal was to address homelessness in the city by creating teams of three students to design a village of six inexpensive living units along with an administration building. It was as real a project as I could get for first-year students. Their first task was to interview the homeless in the area surrounding the college. Some of these homeless lived under the freeway. I wanted them to find out firsthand who their clients were.
I teamed Jared with two competent and talkative women. Their program and client description was one of the best in the class. The women said he never missed an assignment and communicated on paper with everyone. I have to admit I felt left out, as he had not written to me.
Toward the end of the project, many of the students wanted to know if there was anything we could do to make the village happen. I said I would look into it.
I designated the site as a piece of land just north of the chancellor’s window at the Peralta College District office, which is across the street from Laney. We went to the site with the department’s surveying equipment and did a topographic map so we would have a real piece of ground to work with. The Chancellor panicked, thinking there was a real project about to block his view and called Laney’s president. Our president assured him it was a student project.
After the student teams worked up several solutions to the problem, I contacted the 40 member, Oakland Housing Authority and found that they would be interested in seeing and hearing a presentation from the students. I thought this would be a great place for the students to show off and the Housing Authority was always looking for creative solutions to providing housing..
I picked three of the student’s solutions to be presented to the Housing Authority the next week. Jared’s team was one of these.
Later, on the day I announced who would make the Housing Authority presentations, I found Jared waiting by my car in the parking lot.
“Hey, Jared, what’s up?” I said hopefully.
He looked left and right, then down at his feet and then up at me. “I don’t talk,” he wrote on his little pad of note paper.
I tried my waiting trick but it didn’t work. We just stood there looking at each other, not talking.
“Well, you can’t let your team members do all the work, Jared.”
He nodded and shuffled past me.
About five minutes before the meeting was to start, Jared and his partners appeared at the edge of the large room followed by his mother and another young man. The team was dressed totally in black. Jared had put on a thin purple tie. I started to come over to them, but one of the women team members motioned for me to stay put, and then she winked at me. It was hard not to get involved, but I retreated and let them all go.
The first two teams of three all spoke in their presentations. They each received a warm reception and a series of questions.
It was Jared’s team’s turn.
The women pinned up their drawings and stepped to each side of the boards. Jared stood, cleared his throat once, and proceeded to deliver one of the most eloquent, 20-minute descriptions of a research and design project I’d ever heard from a first-year student. He fielded questions for about five minutes and when he finished he looked first at his mother and then at me and smiled. I had tears in my eyes and chills down my spine.
His classmates began what turned into a standing ovation by everyone in the room. Several members of the Housing Authority surrounded all three teams, while I waited at the back like a proud, happy father.
Ms. Hall plowed through the crowd like an ocean liner, tears streaming down her face and engulfed me in a tight, squishy hug. Over the top of her flowery hat, the young man with her said, “Thanks, man, Jared hasn’t spoken to me for two years and last night he yelled ‘Get the hell out of my room, I’m busy.’
It was the best
architectural review I’ve heard in a long time.”