To the Editor:
Sometimes, I feel a surge of pride in Cornell students as a collective mass. While this generalized feeling goes against my cognitive grain, it happens often enough for me to conclude that overall, we have a good selection process. One such surge happened last Wednesday when the elderly poet Gary Snyder, a cultural hero for many of us from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, came to campus to speak. The lecture room in Kennedy Hall was packed. Many of my students arrived over an hour early to get seats. As the room filled to capacity and people started sitting on the floor, individual seats here and there were offered to a handful of people. I watched as students who had been there earlier offered seats to grey haired folks arriving just in time. I heard one student say, “No way am I keeping my chair when I can easily just sit on the floor and an elderly person can’t.” This particular student had been there for well over an hour. This played out in what I saw to be about a dozen or more cases all over the auditorium: students standing and offering their seats to older people. (In another case, I later learned an older person insisted on a seat a student had saved for her friend, and then slept through the entire lecture.)
The woman in charge of getting people seated and enforcing the code then said, flatly, “Anyone who is sitting on the floor and who does not have a seat must now leave.” What disturbed me was that not a single person who had been offered a chair out of kindness by a young person stood up and offered their seat back to the student sitting on the floor, who now, because of their act of kindness, had to leave. A grey haired couple in front of me who had arrived at 5:25 and were given seats by students, now simply sat stone still while those same students were literally right next to them, sadly packing their things to go. I offered my seat to the retreating students leaving, was repeatedly refused, and finally another young woman came and sat on the edge of my chair. In the end, the lecture wasn’t that great. I was thrilled to hear one of my favorite poems, “Hay for the Horses” read by the man who wrote it. But as I sat there, a bit bored by Snyder’s ramblings, waiting for him to read his poetry, I reflected long and hard about the little generational drama that had played out in front of me. We have a lot to learn from our students about civility, generosity and kindness.