By Jonathan Zelinger || Contributing Writer
From the moment I arrived in Oxford, England, I felt transported in time. As the oldest university in the English-speaking-world, it immediately becomes clear that there isn’t a street corner without an illustrious history. The study abroad program I was on had arranged for us to spend a week in Oxford, planning our time between going to lectures, museums, and exploring the city on our own. Oxford is the first city I’ve ever had an emotional connection with immediately upon arrival. It is filled with so many non-average minds, that everyone is striving to be a little different. Even the wide variety of clothing I saw on the streets, quickly made me feel like I could fit in, because there didn’t seem to be a strict hegemony to fit into.
Oxford is sizeable, but not overwhelming (pop: 150,000). The key difference between Oxford and other cities, is that it’s basically a large college campus. Oxford, contrary to what any American thinks, is not actually one singular college. It’s 40 mini colleges that make up the entirety of the college. All forty-or-so colleges have identical mini square campuses spread all over the city. Each college blends in with the architecture of the streets, so it is unpronounced when you are stepping onto any of the campuses. Watching someone walk into these inconspicuous doors, reminds me on a little keebler elf nestling back into the keebler tree. Aside from all of the college campuses that take over a majority of the city, Oxford is heavily filled with coffee shops, bookstores, students biking from every direction, libraries, and more tweed jackets than one can imagine. It could be described as an antiquated Ann Arbor, though I still found it charming.
There are an endless amount of things to do in Oxford, but fittingly, I spent my first night at a history lecture delivered by Professor Emeritus, Dr. Leslie Mitchell. Dr. Mitchell a retired professor of Oxford, and a world leading historian, gave a riveting lecture about the history, the change, and England’s perception of, Oxford. He was the classic Oxford Professor. Calm, yet quietly neurotic, doused in tweed, with a thick posh accent. He began his lecture by scanning over a crumpled piece of paper that he dug out from his pocket. It was as if he carried it around permanently, just incase he had to make an impromptu history lecture at any point through the day. His lecture was lengthy. Before falling asleep, I learned how important Oxford was to this man. He had never left for long, and when he did leave, it was only for history research. The past three generations in his family all lived in Oxford, and it became apparent that from a young age, he knew he would never leave. He was an only child, never married, and didn’t have any kids. It made me wonder how fulfilled this man was by academic pursuits. This lecture, or at least the parts I was awake for, was more of a man’s praise for the city he loved rather than the history lesson of a historical place. When his lecture concluded, I of course felt guilty and regretful for falling asleep. So after the short reception that followed the lecture, I asked him to get coffee for the next day. He looked at me with confusement, his eyebrows lowered on his face, and index finger covered his mouth as if he were hushing himself. He asked why I wanted to get coffee. I told him I liked talking to interesting people. He nodded in agreement that he was interesting, and approved my request to meet with him the next day.
When I got dressed the next morning I didn’t want to be someone I wasn’t. Which turned out to be easy, considering I have a very limited wardrobe. I wanted to fit into the academic role, but not at the cost of feeling like someone else. I put on my lost-and-found khakis, my target brand polo, my off brand crocs and headed for the center of the Oxford Campus where we had agreed to meet. I hadn’t prepared any questions assuming that a man of his academic status would unforgivingly stow his wisdom and knowledge upon me. He met me right on time; briefcase in hand. I wondered what was in the briefcase considering he had been retired for five years and considering he kept last night’s lecture notes in his pocket. I assumed it was a newspaper and smirked to myself thinking about the irony of a three hundred dollar briefcase holding a three dollar newspaper. Similar to my idiot friends back home, who are willing to buy a two hundred and fifty dollar wallet, but never had more than twenty dollars in it. It’s nice to know that no matter how many PhD’s you have, you can still be a victim to consumerism.
We greeted each other like awkward robots, and instead of bringing me to a nearby coffee shop, like I had anticipated, he took me into the college, took a couple lefts, a couple rights, and we arrived at what appeared to be a brick wall. With some Harry Potter magic, he pushed on the brick door, and boom! We were in the most pretentious place I’ve ever seen. We were in the faculty Salon. For starters, the room was covered in an uncomfortable amount of portraits of past professors. Dr. Leslie Mitchell was sitting in front of a portrait, and the resemblance of the two made me believe that it was his past ancestor. They had the same grey blazer with a red sweater underneath, and the same academic round glasses; both white, of course. They all looked like former vice president, Dick Cheney.
Sitting in the staff Salon, it was impossible not to understand or be reminded of the wage gap, education gap, endowment allocation,racism, elitism, and yet you couldn’t ignore the decadence of the rooms decor, filled with silk curtains and velvet upholstery, and the blended scent of gold, vanilla, and roses.
The conversation started a little slow, but picked up excitingly and went pretty much how I expected. Here are some highlights.
(Please read all of Leslie’s lines with a thick, low tone, British accent.)
(At the beginning)
Leslie: So what can I help you with?
Me: Nothing. I just wanted to chill.
Leslie: There is no American author worth reading today. Not a single one. It’s all rubbish.
Me. When was the last time you read an American novel?
Leslie: At least 30 years.
Me: Have you ever been married?
Me: Did you ever want to get married?
Me: Do you have deep regret about that?
Me: Wow. Impressive.
Me: I don’t care for history much. I don’t like how it can reduce someone’s entire existence into one point of tension.
Leslie: I like it because it’s not heroic. I like finding out who isn’t a hero.
Me: Did you ever think that you are a leading expert on 18th and 19th century history because you were too afraid to live your own life? So, instead you just learned everything about other people’s. Is that why you never moved out of Oxford, or get married?
Leslie: You really like to ask the big questions, don’t you?
Me: I like to hear the big answers.
Leslie: The South is the best part of the U.S to visit.
Me: No. No it is not.
Leslie to Kent (butler of the Salon): Kent! Where in Heavens are today’s biscuits?
Kent: I will retrieve them immediately, sir.
Leslie to Me: I bet you’ve never had a good biscuit. You are in for a treat.
Me: I’ll believe it when I see it
The only biscuit I had ever had was from KFC, and I silently prefered it to the glorified cracker that Kent had served us.
Although a tad pretentious, I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with Dr. Leslie Mitchell. We talked a little about a lot of different topics. Most of the conversation was him instructing me on how to become a historian, but when I change topic, I would, and I did. He, for the most part, responded to everything I asked. He lived, in all senses, an academic life and I was fortunate enough to get insight into that life for an hour, but I can say with confidence, I do not want that life. Or, what I mean to say is that, I don’t want his life.
I left the Oxford chamber of secrets in a state of wonder. A part of me believed this man thought he was too smart to have a companion, a part of me thought he might have a sign of autism, or perhaps, he was asexual. I’m not exactly sure why, that after speaking to a world renowned historian, did I walk away wondering about his love life, but for me, it contextualized his studies. I felt that portrait that hung behind him would be the only way he lived on. This man did not have a family; a group of people that usually commemorate your own personal history more than anyone, and yet he spent his life studying the lives of others. Was it selfless or cowardly? Does it even matter?
I think it does. At age 20, I have a lot of options. As I spoke with Professor Mitchell, I realized how important the people in my life are. I gained clarity within my priorities. I didn’t want want to be his age, slouched in a beautiful velvet chair, having my closest relative be the person in the portrait behind me. I’m not even sure they were related.
Junior Jonathan Zelinger is a contributing writer. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.