ArticleAn Enlivening Heritage: Reintroducing Robert Coles
Professor Miller said to me, “Why don’t you send what you’ve written to Dr. Williams.” I said, “What?” He said, “That, what you wrote.” I said, “I can’t do that.” He said, “You don’t have the postage? No, you’re either shy or embarrassed.” I said nothing. He continued: “It might mean something to him.”
Coles sent the paper and received a reply from New Jersey about a week later:
I opened it up and there was a piece of paper from a doctor’s small, square prescription pad: William C. Williams, M.D., 9 Ridge Road, Rutherford, New Jersey. The prescription said, “Dear Mr. Coles, thank you very much for sending your thesis to me. It’s not bad for a Harvard student.” In a new paragraph, he added, “If you are ever in the neighborhood, please come see Flossie and me. Bill.”
A week later, Coles writes, he went to New York to be “in the neighborhood.” He met Williams and that was it. In Lives We Carry with Us, Coles describes Williams’s influence: “For me, to know Dr. Williams, to hear him talk about his writing and his life of medical work among the poor and working people of northern New Jersey, was to change direction markedly. Once headed for teaching, I set my sights for medical school.”
Application and admission to Columbia Medical School followed. While there, Coles met another mentor, this one courtesy of his mother: Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
Coles’s mother had carried on a correspondence with Day, and she shared the connection with her son in typically crisp fashion. During a lecture at Phillips Brooks House, home to a Harvard student organization dedicated to social justice, Coles explained that his mother responded to a description of his academic struggles by saying, “Maybe if you met Dorothy and the people she’s working with, you’d stop feeling so sorry for yourself.”
The student heeded his mother’s advice, and, through meeting Day, started to discover a way that he could be a doctor without neglecting his desire to work for social justice. Like Williams, Day receives a full chapter in Lives We Carry with Us, appears in Handing One Another Along, and has a portrait in the pantheon on the wall in Coles’s study.
In Lives We Carry with Us, Coles writes that Day helped him with his struggle to “connect a strong interest in moral philosophy to the work I was learning as a member of a particular profession.”
The connection took time. A lot of it. In fact, Coles explained during that same lecture that he spent so much time with Williams and Day that he was summoned to the dean’s office. Failing to concentrate more fully on his medical studies, they said, could jeopardize his completion of them.
Coles buckled down sufficiently to graduate, and, in part because of his encounters with Anna Freud (Sigmund’s daughter) and her work, the subject of another chapter in Lives We Carry with Us, he decided to specialize in child psychiatry.
Williams and Miller both urged Coles not to stay in academia, but to get outside its gates and see the world. Recently married to the former Jane Hallowell, Coles was fortunate that his bride not only acquiesced, but supported the exploration. Their travels took them south to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, where Coles served as a military psychiatrist.
While in Mississippi, Coles traveled to New Orleans and witnessed what he calls in Handing One Another Along “an incident that transformed my life, my work, my perspective, the trajectory of my career.” The incident was a riot outside William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Having grown up in the North, Coles had not had direct contact with segregation and the venomous hatred that could be stirred when its order was threatened. (The brutal response in South Boston to Judge Arthur Garrity’s court-ordered school desegregation of Boston’s public schools by busing took place close to fifteen years after the upheaval Coles witnessed.)
Coles describes the scene in Handing One Another Along:
Once I got within sight of the school, I saw, as well as heard, a large group of people, and all kinds of shouting and screaming. Then, almost suddenly, I saw some cars drive up, and if you have ever heard a noisy, foulmouthed mob suddenly fall silent, you will know the noise of silence, the presence of silence.
Men got out of the first car, all dressed alike in gray flannel suits, sunglasses, and carrying guns. A couple of men got out of the second car, but they didn’t have guns at the ready—rather, they were holding on to a little girl, who was about four feet tall and had on a white dress, white shoes, a white bow in her hair and was carrying a lunch pail.
After the silence came the noise again, the screams, the shouts, the threats: “We are going to kill you, you blankety-blankety-blank.”
The girl was six-year-old Ruby Bridges, a black girl who was integrating the previously all-white school. The protestors’ rage shocked the sheltered Coles, who had slowly begun “to figure out that this had to do with race,” and sparked in him the curiosity to learn more and a determination to find out what was happening. After meeting with NAACP Legal Defense Fund chief Thurgood Marshall, Coles gained permission to meet and work with Bridges.