Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

The Unstoppable Drive of Robert Peace

The large banner that hangs beside the entrance to P. E. Monroe auditorium suggests that The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace figures prominently on campus as this year’s common reading selection at Lenoir-Rhyne. But unlike the books that many other colleges and universities choose for their incoming freshman class, Jeff Hobbs’ biography of his Yale roommate wasn’t theSTLRP Banner subject of orientation-week discussion groups and isn’t required reading for all sections of FYE (First-Year Experience) or English 131 (Critical Thinking and Writing). Even so, I included a study of it in my English 131 classes to give Hobbs’ book its due as the campus common reading. For my students and me, the biography served not only as a subject of textual analysis but also as a starting point for a conversation about the common reading programs that so many colleges have adopted in recent years.

Last semester and again this semester, I wrote an essay on the book along with my students. Unlike the one that I posted to my blog last semester, the one that follows isn’t a revised and expanded version of what I wrote longhand while my students wrote. Instead, it’s simply a typed version of what I wrote when I put pen to paper in class on March 9.

The Unstoppable Drive of Robert Peace

In Part Four of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Jeff Hobbs recounts the hours Rob spent mentoring Truman Fox, one of the water polo players he coached at St. Benedict’s when he returned to his alma mater to teach biology. After observing Truman’s laziness, evidenced in the way he “tiptoed along the bottom during laps” (267), Rob says to Truman: “You’re not making it hard” (268). Those words of Rob’s inspire Truman to take more initiative, and the following Saturday when Rob heads to the weight room to open it for a voluntary training session, he finds Truman in the hall waiting for him. Hobbs writes of Truman that “[h]e felt that if Rob saw a spark in him, even if Truman himself did not, then it was his responsibility to stoke it” (268).

Rob’s time with Truman echoes his tutoring of his high school friend Tavarus Hester. And later after Rob leaves his teaching position at St. Benedict’s, he reprises that tutoring role, helping Dawn—the daughter of his airline co-worker Lisa Wingo—“guid[ing] her through fifth-grade reading lists and simple division” (314). With Tavarus, Truman, and Dawn, Rob models the same self-discipline, but the passage that chronicles his conversations with Truman differs from the others, revealing the dark side of Rob’s determination, a side that remains unseen to Truman: “[W]hile he and his teammates were changing back into dry clothes, his coach was mentally preparing to spend the night dealing drugs” (268).

The stress of Rob’s post-Yale days, Newark-proofing himself and negotiating and compartmentalizing his identities, explains how the same Rob Peace who aced his molecular biophysics and biochemistry courses at Yale failed the Realtor’s exam, not once but twice. If he had pored over his notes for that exam with the same focus that he gave to perfecting Sour Diesel, his hybrid strain of marijuana, he probably would have passed the Realtor’s exam on his first try. The fact that he didn’t underscores what his friends saw with clarity but Rob himself could not.

What ultimately stopped Robert Peace wasn’t a weakness plain and simple but a more complicated trait, one that could be a strength—and usually was—but that became a weakness when he found himself “focusing that unstoppable drive on the very thing that could stop him” (311).

Work Cited

Hobbs, Jeff. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. New York: Scribner, 2014. Print.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

Q&A with Rob Peace’s Nick Carraway

Yesterday afternoon, Jeff Hobbs—one of the featured authors in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers SeriesSTLRP Bannerconducted a Q&A session with an audience primarily of students, mostly freshman who are reading his book The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace for their FYE (First-Year Experience) classes. As Hobbs began to speak, I was reminded of the phone conversation that he recounts in Chapter 12: “You sound like a mouse,” Rob says, “same as you did in college” (295). Though I thought his voice was too low-pitched to be mouse-like, I could see how Rob had found it mousy—and admittedly it was, as Hobbs describes in Chapter 12, “soft-spoken” and “halting” (295).

Yet despite the “soft-spoken” and “halting” quality of Hobbs’ voice, he delivered powerful responses to students’ questions. When someone asked, what made you want to write the book? Hobbs answered with remarks about the vast array of mourners—evidence of the variety of people whose lives had been touched by Rob—echoing Hobbs’ words in Chapter 17:

The line for the viewing was two blocks long and one of the most diverse collections of people I’d ever seen: Yale students and professors, people conversing in Portuguese, Croatian, and Spanish, young and old residents of all of the boroughs of New York City and all the townships surrounding Newark. (388)

Near the end of Hobbs’ Q&A, my thoughts returned to Chapter 12, when in response to a question regarding how the process of writing the book had affected him, Hobbs answered that it made him “lament the nature of male friendship,” which he illustrates in his reflections on his conversation with Rob:

Jeff Hobbs /
Jeff Hobbs /

The distance between us and the maleness of our friendship precluded revealing anything that truly mattered, and at the time I was too naïve to know that if you were friends with someone—truly friends—then you told him what was going on (“It’s called ‘catching up,’” my wife informed me when I asked how it was possible for her to yap with her girlfriends for as long as she did and share every innocuous detail of her life). Instead, I thought that by concisely presenting the most easygoing and put-together version of myself, I was being ‘all good.’ (295-96)

Hobbs did not address his writing process—something he may have spoken about at one of his other two appearances at L-R, Thursday evening and Friday morning—but he did convey what he hoped his biography of Rob would give to readers: a narrative that challenges the “predictable media spin of potential squandered” (386). The questions that audience members asked—as if they, too, had been acquainted with Rob—indicated that Hobbs did achieve that goal, one that any of us writing a book-length narrative would hope for: breathing life into our subjects, whether fictional or real, and enabling readers to see them as three-dimensional human beings, with all of their consistent inconsistencies.

Work Cited

Hobbs, Jeff. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. New York: Scribner, 2014. Print.

Posted in Reading, Teaching

Grandmaster Flash and the Quiet Fury of Robert Peace

“The Message” /

Prologue: 33.3 RPM 33 Years Later

When I read the scene in the first chapter of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace where three-year-old Rob sings himself to sleep with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five lyrics, I remembered the summer of 1982 when I listened over and over in my bedroom to a recording of “The Message,” taped on a cassette from the WARR radio show hosted by Freddie “The Preacherman” Hargrove.

I kept hearing “The Message” as I continued to read Jeff Hobbs’ biography of Robert Peace and began thinking of the song as the first cut on Rob’s soundtrack.  When I started  to plan the paper that would serve as a model for my students’ own analyses of Hobbs’ book, I knew that “The Message” would be my subject–one that would enable me to heed the advice that I ask my students to follow: to see their interests “through academic eyes” (Laff qtd. in Graff 250) and one that would give me an opportunity to meditate more on “The Message” as a prelude to Rob’s story.

Grandmaster Flash and the Quiet Fury of Robert Peace

In the first chapter of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Jeff Hobbs recounts Rob’s mother, Jackie, wincing on those nights when she put her toddler son “to bed with a book and heard him instead singing himself to sleep with Grandmaster Flash and the Fabulous [sic] Five lyrics” (16). Readers of that sentence may wince as well, not because they share Jackie’s sentiments about rap music, but because they recognize the error (of “Fabulous” for “Furious”) that eluded the book’s author and editor. Yet despite that mistake—one that risks marring the memory that Hobbs narrates—his account of young Rob singing Melle Mel’s words still resonates as a prelude to his biography. “The Message” isn’t Rob’s story, but as the implicit first cut on his soundtrack, Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five’s groundbreaking rap introduces Rob’s fascination with music, and its references to illegal drugs, mental breakdowns, and untimely death echo the events of his life.

When Jackie hears Rob singing himself to sleep with the words of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, she thinks not of her three-year-old son’s uncanny ability to learn lyrics but rather of the world that “The Message” depicts. The line “Broken glass everywhere” (Fletcher et al. 5) evokes images of the “bits of glass from crack pipes and vials [that] were embedded in the dirt beneath the swing set” in the park where Rob played (18). The pervasiveness of illegal drugs in the neighborhood, evidenced by the fragments of pipes and vials, prompts Jackie to do whatever she can to ensure that Rob will get away from East Orange. When Jackie looks up at her old high school, she realizes that “with a few more years of determination and sacrifice on her part, Rob would leave. He would do so in spectacular fashion” (69).

Though Rob leaves East Orange in spectacular fashion, he and the handful of other Yale students from the inner city find their new surroundings in New Haven less-than-spectacular, so much less that they’re often pushed “close to the edge” (Fletcher et al. 13, 27 . . .) by the rarefied world of the Ivy League but are reluctant to seek help. One of Rob’s classmates, Raquel Diaz, who grew up in poverty in Miami, “believed that ‘going crazy’ was a luxury of the wealthy, because poor people like her had too many responsibilities to deal with mental health episodes” (178). Rather than seeking help, Raquel opts to take her junior year off to work as an au pair in Italy and to visit China. As Rob helps her lug her furniture to the dorm’s basement for storage, he tells her “not to worry about anything at all except getting yourself right” (178).

Whether he believed, as Raquel did, that losing his head was a luxury he couldn’t afford, Rob and Raquel’s classmate Oswaldo Gutierrez, who grew up in Newark’s predominantly Puerto Rican North Ward, finds himself “in the grip of a full-fledged psychotic break” (177). In Chapter Eight, Hobbs writes that Oswaldo’s “brain had begun to crumple under the weight of all it had to bear; his spiraling family in Newark; his affluent classmates whose constant whining about how hard their lives were made him want to turn a gun on them” and eventually his “[f]antasies of turning a gun on the people around him evolved into turning a gun on his forehead” (177). The events leading up to Oswaldo’s stint in Yale’s Psychiatric Institute seem eerily similar to those that Rob’s high school principal, Friar Leahy, recalls when he contemplates offering Rob a position teaching science at St. Benedict’s:

[Rob’s] situation reminded him of one of his first students [. . .]. The very bright African American student had gone to Harvard and won a Rhodes Scholarship. Then he’d returned to Newark during one of the most accelerated spans of the city’s deterioration. Overeducated and underskilled for most jobs available, he hadn’t been able to find work. The man had cracked up under the pressure of living in two worlds—being surrounded by friends from a hardscrabble youth and yet set apart by his elite education. Eventually, he’d kill himself. (231)

Rob doesn’t visibly crack  the way the unnamed man from St. Benedict’s Class of ’74 does, or his Yale classmates Raquel and Oswaldo do, but his ability to maintain his composure ultimately proves more of a liability than the detours that Raquel and Oswaldo take to get themselves right again. Unlike the man in “The Message,” Rob doesn’t hang himself in a cell, but he remains a prisoner of his drug-dealing—the selling more of a “Neon King Kong standin’ on [his] back” (Fletcher et al. 41) than the use, itself.

Elsewhere in Rob’s biography, references to music reveal his developing intellect and his evolving tastes. In Chapter Three, Hobbs writes of Rob “devot[ing] much of his time to memorizing rap lyrics of groups like A Tribe Called Quest: breaking them down, analyzing them, internalizing the words as poetry” (71). Chapter Four depicts Rob as the “boy in the class who knew the lyrics of every single Bones Thugs-N-Harmony song, every single word to every single song. Because these songs were typically so fast-paced [. . .] learning one song, let alone all of them, was a feat that inspired awe” (79-80). And in Chapter Eight, chronicling Rob and Jeff’s senior year at Yale, Hobbs observes how his roommate’s “musical tastes seemed to have softened over time, and in the room I’d been hearing fewer freestyle-based, full-throttle gangster rappers like Ludacris and more melodic, over-produced songs like the one we were hearing now, [Nelly’s] “Ride Wit Me.” (190). While those songs compose Rob’s soundtrack as well, the opening cut by Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five—unfortunately misnamed by the author—echoes throughout the book, it’s refrain underscoring Rob’s drug-dealing, how “close to the edge” (Fletcher et al. 13, 27 . . .) he and so many of his peers came, and how, though his musical taste “softened over time,” his risk-taking continued “full throttle” (190) in a life in which he “lived so fast and died so young” (Fletcher et al. 106).

Works Cited

Fletcher, E. and M. Glover, S. Robinson, and J. Chase. “The Message.” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The Message. Sugar Hill, 1982.

Graff, Gerald. “Hidden Intellectualism.” “They Say/I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. Eds. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. 3rd ed. Norton, 2014. 244-51.

Hobbs, Jeff. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. Scribner, 2014.