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Study Guide: A Hope In the Unseen by Ron Suskind - Online Notes

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7. Good-Bye to Yesterday

Summary

Barbara Jennings rents a Dodge Caravan to drive Cedric from Washington, D.C. to Providence, Rhode Island. There is tension during the long drive, which neither mother nor son can negotiate properly: Cedric says he won't be coming home during Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, while Barbara insists she will be visiting for Parents Weekend in October. As they approach Providence late that night, Cedric puts on the gospel song "Shelter from the Storm" and sings along, with Barbara joining him.

The next morning, they move Cedric's belongings into his dorm room at Andrews Hall, Room 216, noting that his roommate Rob Burton had already moved in his own belongings though he was nowhere to be seen. Barbara is aware of how different she is from the other parents, and how distant Cedric is already becoming. After lunch at a dining hall, the Jennings return to find Robert in the dorm room. Barbara says her goodbye but rushes back to give Cedric his pocket money.

In their dorm room, Cedric and Rob talk about themselves: they compare their widely divergent taste in music, then agree to share Cedric's CD player and Rob's refrigerator. During the week-long orientation process, the freshmen are divided into units based on dorm assignments. Cedric notes that his dorm unit - Unit 15 - roughly mirrors the racial and ethnic mix of the overall campus, and makes an effort to learn cultural references that still elude him. During lunch on Thursday evening, Cedric confirms he has the lowest SAT score of his unit, setting him into a panic Friday morning over what courses he should take. He also realizes the next morning that he lost his temporary ID card, blocking him access to the dining halls for meals. That day, Cedric consults various professors over what courses to take before checking in with his academic advisor, Professor Robert Pelcovits of the Physics department. He convinces Pelcovits to let him take a relatively safe selection of courses, all of them pass / fail; while pass / fail is used to encourage intellectual risks by Brown students, Cedric takes advantage of this and his course selections to allow him breathing space to adapt to this first semester.


On Friday night, Cedric's unit has an orientation diversity workshop run by the university chaplain, Rabbi Alan Flam, assisted by Vida Garcia, a Hispanic third-year resident counselor. The emphasis on ethnic and racial traits as the main form of cultural identity troubles several students, while the inclusion of sexual identity and disabilities only makes matters more confusing. Cedric speaks up and says he believes identity should come from something the individual takes pride in, such as character and faith and how people are treated, which goes beyond skin color and thus brings people together instead of dividing them. This does not jibe with the ideas of Rabbi Flam or Garcia, who try to steer the discussion back to their own notions of diversity. As a result, Cedric gives up on this workshop.

Early Saturday afternoon, Rob writes a letter to his parents, mentioning Cedric and how well they are getting along. This is the first time Rob has been close to a black person, and he is afraid of offending Cedric. He also knows that there is great interest in Cedric, as there are few black kids from inner cities at the university. However, differences between the roommates are manifesting: Rob is messy while Cedric wants a clean room; Cedric believes Rob walking around barefoot is disgusting; and Cedric watches a good deal of television, which bothers Rob.

With his pocket money from Barbara gone by Monday morning, Cedric goes to the registrar's office to try to pick up his permanent ID card early. After some difficulty, he succeeds. He joins others in his unit for a late breakfast, where Cedric entertains others by telling them what television characters they look like. With classes beginning the next day, Cedric goes to the bookstore to buy his textbooks. He is still not sure what his fourth class will be for this semester, and receives sarcastic answers when he asks two bookstore employees if a Physics class is full. He finally decides on the History of American Education, taught by Professor James. Tuesday morning, Cedric attends a convocation ceremony where Elie Wiesel expresses a general lack of hope. Over lunch, he tells Rob how excited he is about his Richard Wright seminar, then continues to entertain people by comparing them to television characters. Cedric jokes about having roommate problems with Rob; returning to their dorm room, Cedric sings a Boyz II Men song, astonishing Rob.

Notes

The drive to Providence vividly illustrates the growing chasm between Barbara's life and Cedric's. The disconnect is brought further home once they arrive at Brown: Cedric seems immediately comfortable in his new surroundings, while Barbara is at a loss over what she contributes. Cedric's strong sense of identity is also reinforced when he is forced by the multicultural diversity seminar to focus on race as how he defines himself: he has a clear disdain for this view, wanting to be judged for what's important to him such as his religious beliefs and his achievements.

That said, this comfort and surety is only provisional in other aspects of Cedric's life: he is unsure of how well he can do academically and stacks the deck to protect himself in that regard. It is a choice that Cedric makes out of fear, and one he regrets later on. Again, Suskind makes no judgment as the author on whether or not this choice is correct. Further, Cedric makes note of various cultural references he doesn't know, to better fit into his new setting. However, he has a secret weapon: a common frame of reference that everybody finds entertaining, namely the world of celebrity and especially television.


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