“Were you raised by wolves or something?” I remember one of my college roommates asking as I ate heaping handfuls of 93 percent lean ground beef straight from the butcher’s packaging. I said nothing in response, because at the time I was doing my level best to hide from my past. But the answer to his question would’ve been yes, I was—and by my father’s brother, who helped me transcend those troubled lupine origins. He hadn’t succeeded as far as counseling me against eating raw meat went, but his efforts elsewhere yielded better results. And by “better results,” I mean he allowed me to discover who I wanted to be, while also enabling me to ditch the awkward, tormented person I thought I was.
To those individuals allowed brief glimpses of my isolated childhood in rural North Carolina, all seemed right with the world. My father, a former college athlete and self-styled “man’s man,” owned a franchise car dealership and projected an air of supreme confidence. My mother, a brilliant woman in her own right, was an accomplished schoolteacher on the fast track to a career in elementary school administration. They were in every respect the perfect couple, except for how they weren’t; although they underwent a messy and protracted divorce, my father’s bigamous prior marriage meant that their union was never legally valid.
Worse still, my father was in the throes of mental illness and my mother had been driven deep inside herself as a result of his violent rages. I occupied an intellectual no man’s land in the back bedroom of our enormous house, a huge, mostly empty space with ugly orange carpet and strange, age-inappropriate teddy bear wallpaper. For reasons lost to history but likely due to how big and fat I was for my age (size is an important consideration in these matters, I’ve learned), I had been advanced two grades in school. During those rare times I was enrolled in public school, no one bullied, bothered or even spoke to me; I was often allowed to sit in the back of the classroom and read George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis books, or, better still, to doze quietly. For the rest of that span, I was home-schooled around my mother’s work schedule, following a program of study which consisted of having her superhuman senses of self-discipline and self-abnegation instilled in me while also pretending my father didn’t exist.
During our drive to his house in Raleigh, my uncle talked with me, the topics ranging from sports to politics to literature and back again. Reflecting on this mundane exchange, I think it may have been the first real conversation I ever had.
But we could pretend for only so long, because at a certain point my father became incapable of running his business even as he remained quite capable of using his office as a staging area for extramarital affairs and weeklong benders. As often happened during the heady days of groundless child abuse cases, horrific domestic violence precipitated one of an ever-increasing number of “trials of the century,” whereupon the state of North Carolina placed me in the custody of my uncle.
During our drive to his house in Raleigh, my uncle talked with me, the topics ranging from sports to politics to literature and back again. Reflecting on this mundane exchange, I think it may have been the first real conversation I ever had. My father simply talked at me, and as his mental illness worsened, these monologues usually amounted to little more than context-free anti-Semitic or anti-Slavic rants (my mother was of Eastern European descent). My mother and I spoke a lot, because we were always together and always united against my father, but these discussions never strayed far from the teacher-student paradigm her training had taught her to maintain. But my uncle, an educated person with wide-ranging interests, liked to talk for the sake of talking, for the sheer stimulation of it.
When I came to live with him and his two sons, I was a sophomore in high school, though I completed only half of that term. By the time I moved out, I was a rising junior in college. Looming legal distractions and generic adolescent woe-is-me issues aside, this period was the happiest of my life. It was filled with deep and far-ranging conversations about everything and nothing. Prior to this, I had grown up all by my lonesome, exploring the world via books that I revisited only in essays and examinations, and never had any friends with whom I could share such experiences. My uncle, by contrast, would hand me a copy of The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times in the morning and discuss the articles and op-eds while he drove me to school.
In the years that followed, I came to realize that terms like “role modeling” and “mentoring,” frequently bandied about as solutions to various social ills, were more than buzzwords; indeed, they were the very way that the past came to shape the future. Before getting to know my uncle, I had only my mother as a model—an intellectual force, to be sure, but also a workaholic who refused to enjoy even a moment’s respite from her labors. My uncle, on the other hand, lived a life that I found far more appealing. He wasn’t free from faults, but he was free in all the ways that mattered to me: he could loaf around for an entire weekend yet somehow remain intellectually engaged even while watching a college basketball game or an episode of The X-Files. He could sit still, read, relax and talk about any topic at a relatively sophisticated level. My mother had made education seem obligatory, a chore; my uncle showed me that it was the best and highest form of leisure.
I became a university professor because I thought it would be a way to keep the fun going forever. It hasn’t worked out that way: The job is becoming more and more like high school teaching, with a top-down, administrator-imposed emphasis on standardized curricula, dreary co-authored textbooks, and “objective” multiple-choice tests intended to provide students with an endless amount of feedback on their progress. But I wouldn’t trade the journey for anything: I’ve met all of my best friends in exactly the same way I got to know my uncle, through meaningful one-on-one conversations that transformed even the most insignificant trips to dive restaurants and coffee shops into thrilling adventures.
And, more than that, I’ve had a chance to mentor students outside the classroom, which is the only place that genuine learning, learning in the classical Socratic “what I do not know I do not think I know” sense—ever really takes place. Whenever I have an authentic exchange with an intellectually curious student, a student who might never before have had a chance to express himself or herself, I realize that, sure, maybe in the scheme of things this conversation doesn’t mean that much to me, but it likely means the world to them. And whenever I find myself urging them to read Tom Wolfe or Joseph Heller—the two authors whose books were among the first to excite my imagination, and in whose intellectual debt I remain—I recall how my uncle once mentioned in passing that I should read them, since he thought I’d enjoy their work. My life, you see, would never be the same, because I finally had one.