Class Notes - June 10, 1998

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London calling

I'm sure that any agony aunt would label me a rumbustious whinge just for saying this, but my first fortnight in England has turned me into a knackered prat.

And it's all the fault of the editors of The Washington Post.

Of course I was dead-chuffed when the editors assigned me to be the Post's new London correspondent. But I was nobbled by one worry. Before I leave for England, I said, I'd better get some language training.

Hahaha, the brass replied, steering me toward the airport, we've heard that joke before.

Joke? It's no joke. It hardly takes a boffin to see that my chunter to the guv'nors was bang-on. I've had so many naff verbal prangs in the past couple of weeks that I sometimes feel I'll have to become a total anorak before I can suss the strange and wonderful language they speak here.

Some things about England's version of English were fairly easy to learn. Once you figure out that "gaol" is pronounced "jail," that "Towcester" sounds like "toaster," that "St. John" is "sinjin," that "clwyd" rhymes with "fluid," and that "clerk" is pronounced "clark," you're at a point where you can almost read the language out loud without sounding like a hapless berk (a word that means "jerk" but is not, for some reason, pronounced "bark").

It's not all that difficult to figure out that a "plaster" is a Band-Aid, a "biscuit" is a cookie, and a "jumper" is a sweater. Or that the pound key on a telephone is the "hash key," that an organization called the "Royal Mail" delivers something called the "daily post," that the term "pear-shaped," strangely enough, means "unsuccessful."

Some English-isms seem much better to me than their American counterparts. The straightforward assertion "She's ex-directory" is both simpler and snappier than the awkward American equivalent, "She has an unlisted number."

I'm not even sure that we Americans have a noun to describe an Ann Landers-type columnist. To fill this linguistic gap, we ought to adopt the standard British term: "agony aunt." It's certainly livelier than "advice columnist," or whatever an American newspaper might use. (In this category, though, I still think the Japanese have trumped us both with their noun "jinsei sodan," or "human life consultant.")

In some areas of discourse, England's English is harsher than the American way. That stuff we pour in coffee under the decorous label "half and half" is known here, bluntly, as "half-fat." A worker who gets axed in a corporate downsizing is not referred to as "unemployed," or even "laid-off." In Britain, he's "redundant."

On the other hand, many of the unfamiliar words I've encountered here are draped in layers of nuance. The British are generally more than happy to explain these things to those of us who had the misfortune to learn English in the New World.

When I first came upon the mysterious adjective "twee," for example, I turned to my friend Mary Ann Sieghart, a brilliant woman who writes editorials (sorry, "leaders") for the Times of London. Over beer and potato chips (sorry, "crisps") one day, she gave me a virtual dissertation on twee-ness.

"Now, twee comes from 'sweet,'" she began, "but it actually means a bit too sweet. Twee means the white picket fence around the tudor house, and then when you go inside it's the pink floral tablecloth for high tea, plus the dried flowers in wicker baskets, plus the scented candles. That whole scene is twee. It's charming, don't you see, but too charming."

Sometimes, though, such requests for help turn out pear-shaped. Reading the newspaper one day on the London subway (sorry, "tube"), I found a leader that accused Prime Minister Tony Blair of "bunking off geography." I turned to the bloke next to me and asked what "bunking off" might mean.

"Bunkin'?" the fellow said. "Bunkin' off? Well, sure, mate, bunking off, it's just about the same thing as skiving, innit?"

Except for the occasional social blunder -- I learned the hard way that you're not supposed to use the word "shag" in polite company here -- my struggles with the native tongue have been harmless and entertaining. But the other day, my inability to understand the English language cost me money.

I stopped in at the local Turf Accountant -- a charming British euphemism for "bookie" -- to place a bet on the famous horse race called the Derby (rhymes with "Barbie"). I picked a horse, filled in the tout slip, and laid five pounds on the counter. A few minutes later, to my delight, my horse came romping home at 7-1 odds.

Instead of the 35 pound ($60) windfall I had every right to expect, though, my winnings barely exceeded eight pounds. When I complained, the clerk explained: "Your chit was an each-way, mate. A four-way punt. Quarters your quid."

"But, but, I don't understand why -- " I sputtered, but the clerk cut me off. "Don't go whingeing about like some yobbish wally," he said. "Don't you sodding Yanks know English?"

-- T. R. Reid '66

This story originally appeared in The Washington Post.

Steve Grossman '67 and a debt-ridden DNC

Around the turn of the century, when the paternal grandfather of Steve Grossman '67 left Romania and settled in Boston, he started the Massachusetts Envelope Co. and hung out at local Democratic clubs. Two generations later, the company is still in business -- and his grandson, a self-styled "genetic Democrat," was the person chosen to straighten out a fundraising morass as chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

At Princeton, Grossman wasn't especially political, writing a thesis on Stendhal, joining Tower Club, and founding a student course guide, which he credits with getting him into Harvard Business School. An interest in public service was sparked in 1978, when he spent a week in Israel on a leadership development program.

That experience led him to take active roles in Jewish charities, including -- at the suggestion of Kitty Dukakis -- raising the first million dollars for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Impressed, Kitty's husband, Michael Dukakis, tapped Grossman as a cochairman of his 1988 presidential bid. "I always saw myself as a grassroots activist," Grossman says. "As a kid, I went door to door to get petitions signed with my uncle in southeastern Massachusetts."

After Dukakis's campaign fizzled, Grossman found himself working with an unexpected patron. Future Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown was in the running for DNC chairman, but his stint heading Jesse Jackson's 1988 Democratic convention operation seemed to hinder his chances of attracting Jewish support. Grossman called Brown -- who didn't know him -- and offered help. Brown won the position and elevated Grossman to the DNC board.

Later, as president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Grossman met another future patron: then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Grossman had been assigned to brief the governor before a speech to AIPAC; he was struck "by how a person who did not have a great deal of knowledge could absorb so much information and give such an extraordinary speech the next day," he says. "I thought to myself, 'This is a man whom, if he ever runs for President, I will do everything I can to elect.'"

In January 1997, while at home in Boston watching a football game on TV, Grossman received a call from Vice-President Gore asking him to come to Washington to talk about "the future of the party." Figuring the conversation would include an offer to become national chairman of the DNC, Grossman talked over the idea with his family. His father told him that "you don't say no to the President." He agreed to take the job, provided he could still live part time in Boston.

Though a few years ealier Grossman had helped the Massachusetts Democratic Party climb out of its debts, the DNC's financial house was in far worse order. At its worst, the DNC was $15.3 million in the red, much of that for legal expenses related to fundraising investigations. But Grossman has managed to reduce that number by more than half.

As Grossman often does in conversations, he cites Jewish writings to explain why he took a job that he knew would be arduous and possibly thankless. "There's a saying that we are not required to finish the task," he says, "but nor are we permitted to desist from it."

-- Louis Jacobson '92

Was it color or capability that got you in?

Not too long ago, an alumna commented that she often gets asked her opinion of affirmative action. She sees the question, usually delivered in an aggressive manner, as a barely disguised statement implying that it was the color of her skin, not merit, that earned her admittance to Princeton.

In this conversation, which took place on WomenConnect, a university-sponsored Website, she asked, "How do I respond to that question?"

My reply was that 20 years ago, that type of person might have just resorted to a pejorative, such as nigger, spic, or kike, and that in these more politically correct times, it is a more insidious, and effective, act of aggression to cast doubt on someone's intellectual capacity. I suggested she ask the person to examine his or her motivation in asking such a question.

This kind of dialogue is common among people of color because all of us have experienced manifest prejudice. And her question with regard to affirmative action reminded me of a lesson I learned after my first visit to the Princeton Club of New York.

I had joined the club before graduation, and one day I was in the city shopping and sightseeing. After such a full day, I was in need of peace and quiet. I made my way to the club, walked in, and was ignored by everyone. Undaunted, I went to the coat check and handed my coat to the attendant, who was Hispanic. He said, "You know that this is a private club, don't you?" I answered him affirmatively in Spanish and proceeded to the bar. The bartender, who was black and Hispanic, appeared stunned when I ordered a drink, but quickly recovered his cool. As he handed me the drink, he smiled at me. It was a knowing smile, and in that smile I saw that he knew I belonged. And I knew that he knew I was breaking ground in a place in which he would never be able to.

After I finished my drink, I went into the dining room. The room fell silent as everyone turned to look at me. I was certainly the only person of color in the room and possibly the only female.

I sat down and began thinking about what I wanted for dinner. A man from a class of 1930-something asked if he could join me for a few minutes. His eyes sparkled. I said yes. He introduced himself and wanted to know what I thought of my Princeton experience. We talked until my meal arrived, when he stood to say goodbye. Just before he turned from my table, he leaned a little closer to me, smiled, and said something I'll never forget: "You love Princeton as much as I do!"

During my years at Princeton, I heard many a racist comment about people of color. But when that sweet old white man asked to speak with me at the Princeton Club, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and kept an open mind. In return he gave me a pleasant conversation and experience which gave me optimism and hope. I do not remember his name, but I will always remember his face.

When I picked up my coat, I was pleased to see that the attendant in the cloakroom had recovered, and as he said goodbye, practically saluted me!

It is hard for women and men of color to let go and trust, especially since so many of us have experienced direct prejudice. In a society where we can list the gains of the civil rights movement and where we talk a lot about multiculturalism and diversity, it seems odd that not more has changed. But through dialogue, we can approach understanding one another.

And we must be forever open to the possiblity of change for the better. And in doing so, we must allow room for the good people who are out there.

-- Vanessa Austin Wardlaw '76

Vanessa Austin Wardlaw is a sculptor and poet who has lived in Calgary, Canada, for the past nine years. She is returning to the U.S. this summer.

Starting a boarding school for at-risk kids

On September 8, a coed, public boarding school will open in Washington, D.C., after a four-year effort by Rajiv Vinnakota '93. The SEED (Schools for Educational Evolution and Development) School of Washington, D.C., will be located at 3rd and H streets, N.E., in the Capital Children's Museum and will begin with one class of 40 seventh graders. Plans include expanding yearly until a full enrollment of 300 students in grades seven through 12 is reached. Students will be those deemed at-risk, especially those growing up in dangerous homes and neighborhoods. Ultimately, Vinnakota hopes to replicate the boarding school in other cities. Vinnakota, who majored in molecular biology and the Woodrow Wilson School, got the idea at his first Reunions, in 1994, after a heated discussion about the state of education in poor, urban areas. Two years later, he still couldn't shake off that conversation, so he took two months off from consulting for Mercer Management to tour the country and see whether such a school was feasible. The response, he says, was "both yes and no. Possible, but it was going to be a really hard road." A year later, he quit his job to devote himself full time to the boarding-school project, which has included the arduous tasks of applying for a charter from the D.C. Public Charter School Board, tracking down funding, and addressing curriculum and administration concerns. His founding partner is an old friend. The students will be no less busy than the founders, with evening and weekend schedules that include supervised study time, campus chores, social activities, community service, and culturally enriching events from morning till night.

J.R. Neiswender '93 is a teacher in Baltimore and SEED board member who gives time and advice, and Geoff Nordloh '92 acts as board treasurer from Palo Alto, where he's at Stanford business school. Marc Miller '69 and Vasco Fernandes '77 also serve on the board.

(SEED, 1225 Eye Street N.W., Suite 350, Washington DC 20005; 202-712-9134, fax 202-789-1116.)

-- Kazz Regelman '89