An Experiment Gone Right

Seeking a Duke education, an insecure teen gains even more.
July 28, 2015

When I look at teenagers today, I wonder whether I was ever really their age. They seem so much more self-possessed, so much more mature than I ever was. As a teen, I was a mass of insecurities, raised basically as an only child—my brother is ten years older— by working-class parents (my father was a tobacco farmer and ran a country store) who had never attended college. They pushed me to do well in school, and, like a good boy, I complied.

But when it came time to apply to college, I figured my choices were distinctly limited. I had, after all, attended a tworoom schoolhouse for the first six grades of my education, and then, for the last six years, got bused to a school where each class had its own homeroom, but there were only 200 students, grades one through twelve. And to make the college application process even more difficult, though we lived in Virginia, my father insisted I choose a college in North Carolina. So I chose Wake Forest—that’s where my brother had graduated, and I was already a Demon Deacon fan. However, yielding to parental pressure, I also applied to UNC and Duke. I knew they both were long shots, but ever the good boy, I did as I was told. To my surprise, I got an acceptance letter from UNC, so that’s where I would go. Until, almost at the eleventh hour, there was a letter from Duke, inviting me to join their Class of ’64. My parents were thrilled; I wasn’t so sure.

So, when I spent my first day as a student at Duke, in September of 1960, I was seventeen, a Virginia farm boy, a graduate of a fourth-rate rural school system, and I knew I had to work hard if I was going to make it. My assigned roommate, who was a startling fifteen years old, was also from Virginia, also a product of that state’s public-school system. He had graduated at the top of his class in one of the biggest schools in the state. I, too, had been a valedictorian, earning the best grades of anyone in my class. But whereas my roommate had competed with more than a thousand other students for those top honors, I had been one in a class of only eighteen. I was daunted.

A few days later, I went through the process of choosing class assignments, a random session during which instructors looked at my high-school transcript and offered advice on what courses I should sign up for. More than once I saw the teacher shake his head, and more than once I heard the words, “You’re going to have a tough time.” By the end of that day, I was officially terrified.

Classes started. I read all the assignments, got in my seat well before the bell sounded, took copious notes. Watched and listened as the other students volunteered answers to the instructor’s questions and raised their hands to probe for more information. I envied them their confidence, the depth of their understanding. Could I ever be like them?

In addition to the struggle to overcome my basic teenage insecurity and cope with my fear that I was in over my head, I got a message from the dean’s office informing me that I’d been chosen to be part of a discussion/therapy group that was to meet weekly that fall semester. I remember a half-dozen or so of us sitting around a large table with a therapist at one end, taking notes as we responded to his questions. Everyone seemed to feel suspicious, unsure. Why were we being singled out? During these sessions we were encouraged to open up about our reactions to the school, to our classes, our instructors, our dorm life— nothing personal really, nothing about family or life before Duke. As I remember it, the others in the group seemed to feel these sessions were more irritating than helpful. However, once I realized that others in the room shared some of the same insecurities and self-doubts I did, I started to appreciate this chance to talk about my situation. The therapist— a guy, naturally; this was 1960, after all—seemed genuinely interested, seemed to really care. I didn’t know why I was chosen to sit at that table, but I came to view it as an opportunity and not a threat.

Gradually, I started to wake up each day with an increased sense of confidence. I remember, in particular, my English instructor, with whom I had halfhour, one-on-one sessions each week, praised my work, even going so far as to suggest I might think about writing as a possible career path. And my Spanish professor, an eccentric, charming woman, singled me out for my ability to roll my “r”s and honor the silent “h.” These people thought I had ability; it gave me something to ponder. Maybe I was good enough after all. Maybe someone at Duke had seen something in me that hadn’t shown up on my transcript. Maybe I could do this. And from this growth in confidence, I started to feel a sense of power. I realized I was in control, that if I believed in myself and just did the work to the best of my ability, then everything would be fine. And so it was. At the end of the first semester, I had earned five A’s and one B. I was a for-real Duke student, capable of competing with the rest of them.

The power that came from believing in myself carried me through the undergraduate years and even took me into Duke Law School. It was then, though, I learned the truth about what had been going on during that freshman year, through all four years, actually. Once accepted at law school, I applied for and was given a position as a freshman housemaster, meaning I’d live in one of the freshman dorms, and in exchange for giving the newbies a little guidance, I’d get free housing and beer money. At a dinner the Dean’s Office threw for the housemasters that first year, I was seated next to Dean Womble, the man who had been dean of freshmen the whole time I’d been at Duke. When I went to introduce myself, he put his hand up to stop me, then said, “Oh, I know who you are. I know all about you. You were born in…” And he launched into my life story, complete with details, including my father’s occupation and income, and, of course, my time at Duke. He ended by saying, “You were my project. I lived with you for four years.”

I learned from Dean Womble that I had been Duke’s entry in a study carried out by several colleges—I think he mentioned Chicago, Stanford, and Princeton, among others—in which they’d each taken one male student earmarked for the graduating Class of ’64 who would, under normal circumstances, never have made the admissions cut. I never learned what happened to my counterparts at the other schools, nor did I learn whether there was a study following female students. The sessions with the therapist were, I learned, a part of the study, with the other clueless guys thrown in so that I would not realize I was being singled out.

I remember stammering, trying to ask all the questions that came immediately to mind. I was bothered by the idea that I had been the subject of a four-year “big brother” experiment. Not that there had been hidden cameras, but looking back I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence that for my sophomore year, I was asked by the dean’s office to join the first dormitory in which upperclassmen would live with freshmen, and, yes, with a housemaster who could watch us and report back. The same thing happened the next year, when a second mixed dorm was created and I was asked to move there. For my senior year, I was asked to be an assistant to the housemaster in that dorm, meaning I had spent all four years under the watchful eye of someone put there by the dean’s office. Of course, I could have said “no” at any point, but I was flattered to be singled out, to be deemed worthy of even so minor a distinction.

Yet while I was uncomfortable with the idea that someone had been watching me the whole time, I was I was excited, too. I had been singled out for this study.

Later, during my second year in the housemaster program, I was told that one of my charges, a kid from a West Virginia coal-mining community, was in the same program, so it continued for a while at least. I suspect that if I had not stayed at Duke for graduate school, had not enrolled in the housemaster program, and had not gone to that dinner and sat next to Dean Womble, I would never have known any of this. It makes me wonder how many others there are who followed a similar trajectory.

Looking back, I have no regrets about how my time at Duke played out. I am grateful to have been able to attend such a great university, to study under outstanding teachers, to get to know the people I met there during my seven-year stay. And, of course, there is the sense of empowerment that came with learning to believe in myself, in realizing that if I wanted something badly enough, chances were I could attain it. That belief and that realization bolstered me for many years, as doors opened, and I moved from law to publishing (not actually being a writer, but working with them).

My Duke education, then, was an orchestrated course in self-discovery, with me the willing puppet, a bit of 1984 playing out a couple of decades ahead of time.

Adams ’64, LL.B. ’67 is an executive editor at Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill.