Saved by Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka and Gil Scott-Heron!

It’s a cool spring day, April, 1985. It’s finals week at Hamilton College, and the students who were part of Hamilton’s on-campus radio station, WHCL, switched over from the playlists of alternative pop, new wave and R&B, going for a week-long “Classical Orgy” of finals study music. Yeah, nothing improves your grades more than hearing Pachalbel’s Kanon over and over again. Makes you want to recreate a scene from Ordinary People.

Anyways, things were going well for me. I was a senior and this would be my final semester at old Ham Tech. Three of my four finals were already completed, all I had left to take was my course in Public Reading (it’s a public speaking course that teaches such disciplines as emotive dissertation, conveyance of meaning with inflection of tone – it’s a holdover from the days when Hamilton students were required to take four years of public speaking courses). But that class was for tomorrow morning, so I chose to take a shift at WHCL’s Classical Orgy. I had my albums at the ready – I would start with the full libretto from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” and follow it with both sides of Wendy Carlos’ “Switched-on Bach,” and then pull some classical albums out of the library that looked like they hadn’t been played in 20 years and give them a spin.

I was halfway through the first side of Gershwin’s epic opera, when I received a phone call on the  station request line.  Oh great, I thought.  Someone wants to hear Pachalbel’s Kanon.


“Chuck, is that you?”


“Dude, it’s Art Whittermore.  What are you doing at the radio station?”

“Playing Gershwin,” I replied.

“Dude, you’re going to miss your Public Reading final presentation.  It’s starting in 5 minutes!”

“Don’t joke with me, Art, that final is for the 7th.”

“Yeah,” he replied with a sneer, “and today’s the 7th.  You’re going to fail – oh man, I can’t wait to see you flunk out of this course!”

He laughed at me, and then hung up.

Oh crap.  I was in trouble.  Deep, deep trouble.  If I didn’t pass this course, I would be one credit shy of graduation.  The prospect of my family showing up for graduation, and then watching as the college president called out the names alphabetically, and then went from Bruce Miller to Carla Miraldi and completely skipped over my sorry self…  the prospect of receiving my diploma, not on the stage, but instead in a postmarked envelope…

I quickly engaged my options.  I could stay here, play the classical music as scheduled, and then beg for mercy from the Public Reading professor.  Doubtful and risky.  I thought about running out of the station, leaving it unmanned, and going to the Public Reading finals.  Problem was, part of me had this emotional attachment to the radio station, heck it was myself and several other classmates from the Class of ’85 who built the station up from a 2.5 watt monaural broadcast entity that couldn’t be heard on the Kirkland side of the campus, to a 270-watt stereo monster that could be picked up on the New York State Thruway.

One more minute to think.  I scrolled down the list of phone numbers of the various students who were part of the WHCL on-air staff, and gave my bud Mike Lent a call.  He agreed to come down and cover for me, but he wouldn’t be able to get there for about 10 minutes.  I looked at the record on the turntable.  If he made it to the station in 15 minutes, Porgy would still be singing to Bess.

With Mike’s agreement that he would help a buddy out, I left the station and sprinted to the college library, where the texts I had used for this project were at my college computer center work-study desk.  They were still there; nobody had restocked them back into the library.  I quickly signed out all three works, and then ran like the cops were chasing me to the other side of the campus.  From the Burke Library to the “Red Pit” at Kirner-Johnson Hall was about maybe a mile, I think I did Roger Bannister proud.

The finals had already begun.  I was 15 minutes late.  I entered the Red Pit, looking absolutely disheveled.  Professor Somer looked up at me, and said, “Welcome to the finals, Mr. Miller.  Glad you could join us.”

Art Whittermore, at the end of the stage, snickered.  As far as he was concerned, he was going to witness a car crash that would rival the Saturday night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

I waited as every other student gave their Public Reading final dissertation – a comparison and contrast of three different poets from three different generations.  I sat through Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson and Robert Browning, as read with great eloquence and emotion by my classmates.  I didn’t get to see Art Whittermore’s finals – he must have had his reading before I got to the class.

At the end of the finals, there was only one person left who had not yet taken the stage.


Professor Somer announced, “And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for.  Mr. Miller, please take the stage.”

I walked down to the stage.  Each book was placed on a small table; I could grab the book and read directly from its pages.

And at this point, I have to thank my high school English and history teachers – people like Bonnie Diefendorf, Dorinda Davis and Eileen Kawola – because the texts I selected were three prominent African-American poets, a genre that no other student in the Public Reading class had attempted. I rehearsed these poems for weeks.  If I couldn’t do this now – with the pressure on me – I didn’t deserve a diploma.

I started out with a poem from Langston Hughes, the scion of the Harlem Renaissance.  With my fingers trembling and my nerves on edge, I read aloud, with deep reverence and passion, the poem “The Negro Sings of Rivers.”  Here’s an excerpt.

I‘ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I danced in the Nile when I was old
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Then it was time to go completely off the board.

Poem number two took me to the world of Gil Scott-Heron, as I tore through the classic “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”  Here’s an excerpt.

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

* * *

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of Whitney Young being run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process.
There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy Wilkens strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
For just the proper occasion.

* * *

The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.

I looked up for a second from my texts.  Nineteen students were staring at me – totally shocked.  A quick glance at Art Whittermore.  That clunk I heard was his jaw dropping on the floor.

Time for the final poet.  Out came “It’s Nation Time,” as written by Amiri Baraka.

In a reverent whisper, I began with excerpts as seen below …

Time to get
time to be one strong fast black energy space
one pulsating positive magnetism, rising
time to get up and
come, time to
be come
time to
get up be come
black genius rise in spirit muscle
sun man get up rise heart of universes to be
future of the world
the black man is the future of the world
be come
rise up

I continued, my voice growing louder and stronger with the words, deeper and harder and more vibrant and more stentorian.

it’s nation time ….
Dadadadadaad adadadad
Hey aheee (soft)
Hey Ahheee (loud)
Sing a get up time to nationfy
Sing a miracle fire light

Then it was time for the finish. I crammed in four years of college struggle, emotional battles, educational frustrations, and every ounce of energy I still had left in my body, into the final stanzas.

It’s nation time, get up Santa Claus
It’s nation time, GET UP SANTA CLAUS
Get up Roy Wilkins
Get up Diana Ross
Get up Jimmy Brown
It’s nation time, build it
Get up muffet dragger
Get up rastus for real to be rasta farari …

I slammed the book closed.

Come over here
Take a bow
It’s Nation TIME!!!!!


Then a clap. Another clap. And another and another. And assorted finger snaps, which Hamilton students use, by tradition, in lieu of clapping. And the claps and snaps turned into a roar of applause.

As my classmates and I were leaving the Red Pit, Professor Somer called me back for a moment.

“Mr. Miller,” he said, “I was prepared to give you a failing grade for missing this final, and even after you arrived late, I still thought you didn’t have enough time to adequately prepare your final presentation.”

I grimaced.  All my work was for naught.

“However, I want you to know that based on your presentation a few moments ago, I am giving you an A for the course.  You have earned it.  Congratulations.”

Home run.  Success.  Graduation day, here I come.

A post script.  Later that afternoon, the sun was still blazing in the sky, and I decided to get a little sunshine.  So as I and several other classmates relaxed on a sunny knoll outside one of the Kirkland-side dormitories, Mark Pisani – the general manager of WHCL – walked by.  He saw me, and had already heard from Mike Lent that I had run out of the radio station like it was on fire.

I filled him in on the entire situation.

“Chuck,” he said to me, “I’ve heard of people blowing off tests.  I’ve heard of people blowing off midterms.  You are the first person I know who nearly blew off a final.”

I nodded.  “I still passed, though.”

And in the end – that’s all that matters.