Russell Banks, Success Stories


«  After high school, I attended an Ivy League college(1) for less than one term. A year later, I was married and living in central Florida. This was 1958 and '59. General Dwight Eisenhower was our President, and Dr Fidel Castro, hunkered down in the mountain passes southeast of Havana, was getting praised for his integrity and good looks by Time and Reader's Digest. I'd been a whiz kid in high school, rewarded for it with an academic scholarship as fat as the starting quarterback's at a midwestern state university. In this Ivy League school, however, among the elegant, brutal sons of the captains of industry, I was only that year's token poor kid, imported from a small New Hampshire mill town like an exotic herb. […] It was a status that perplexed and intimidated and finally defeated me, so that, after nine weeks of it, I fled in the night. Literally. On a snowy December night, alone in my dormitory room (they had not thought it appropriate for me to have a roommate, or no one's profile matched mine), I packed my clothes and few books into a canvas duffel(2), waited until nearly all the lights on campus were out and sneaked down the hallway, passed through the service entrance and walked straight down the hill from the eighteenth-century brick dormitories and classroom buildings to the wide boulevard below, where huge, neoclassical fraternity houses lounged beneath high, ancient elms(3). At the foot of the hill, I turned south and jogged through unplowed snow, shifting my heavy duffel from one shoulder to the other every twenty or thirty yards, until I passed out of the valley town into darkness and found myself walking through a heavy snowstorm on a winding, narrow road. A month later, with the holidays over and my distraught mother and bewildered younger brother and sister, aunts, uncles and cousins, all my friends and neighbors and high school teachers, as well as the director of admissions at the Ivy League college, convinced that I not only had ruined my life but may have done something terrible to theirs, too, I turned up in St Petersburg, Florida, with seven dollars in my pocket, my duffel on my shoulder and my resolve to join Castro in the Sierra Maestra seriously weakening. I'd spent Christmas and the New Year at home, working days and nights as a salesman in a local men's clothing store and trying hard to behave as if nothing had happened. My mother seemed always to be red-eyed from weeping, and my friends from high school treated me coolly, distantly, as if I had dropped out of college because of a social disease. In some ways, my family was a civic reclamation project – the bright and pretty children and pathetic wife of a brute who, nearly a decade ago, had disappeared into the northern woods with a woman from the post office, never to be heard from again. As the oldest male victim of this abandonment, I was expected by everyone who knew the story to avenge the crime, mainly by making myself visibly successful, by rising above my station and in that paradoxical way showing the criminal how meaningless his crime had been. For reasons I was only dimly aware of, my story was important to everyone. Leaving them behind, then, abandoning my fatherless family in a tenement and my old friends and the town I had been raised in, was an exquisite pleasure, like falling into bed and deep sleep after having been pushed beyond exhaustion. Now, I thought the morning I left – stepping onto the ramp to Route 93 in Catamount, showing my thumb to the cars headed south – now I can start to dream my own dreams, not everyone else's. »
Russell Banks, Success Stories, 1986

Compréhension de l'écrit
1. What comes first, college or high school?
2. The narrator is a man. Give his possible age and his social background at the time. Justify by quoting from the text.
3. Why does the narrator mention Fidel Castro, how does he feel about him? (justify by quoting the text)
4. Why was the narrator rewarded with an academic scholarship?
5. How long did he stay in college?
Rebuild the chronology of events using the dates below.
a) In October 1958.
b) In December 1958.
c) During the Christmas holidays of 1958.
d) In January 1959.
e) At the end of 1959.
7. What made it possible for the narrator to attend an Ivy League College?
a) How did he feel when he was at college? Why? Use your own words. (20-30 words)
b) What did he decide to do then?
c) How did his family and the people he knew react to his decision? Why? (40-50 words)
Say in your own words:
a) What major event happened in the narrator's childhood.
b) What impact it bad on his family's attitude towards him.
10. Concentrate on the last paragraph from "For reasons […]" to "[…] not everyone else's" and say in your own words how the narrator finally reacted and how he felt. (25-30 words)
Expression écrite
One year later, the narrator goes back home and has to confront his family. Imagine the conversation. Imagine that he explains them the reasons why he left high school, his difficulties to get integrated with his particular social background and his consciousness to disappoint everyone around him. He clearly seems to go against the American dream. (300 words)
(1)Ivy League college : one of the best colleges in the US, like Harvard or Yale.
(2)Canvas duffel : sac de toile.
(3)Elm : orme.


Compréhension de l'écrit
1. You first go to high school and then you carry on with college.
2. The narrator is about 19 years old at the time as he left high school a year before: "After high school, I attended an Ivy League College for less than one term. A year later I was married and living in central Florida." . He is from an underprivileged background: "I was only that year's token poor kid, imported from a small New Hampshire mill town like an exotic herb." .
3. The narrator mentions Fidel Castro because he admires him, he says I quote: "[…] my resolve to join Castro in the Sierra Maestra seriously weakening."
4. He was rewarded with an academic scholarship because he was a "whiz kid", in other words he was doing very well at school, his marks were excellent.
5. He stayed in college for nine weeks that is less than one term.
a) In October 1958, he started college.
b) In December 1958, he ran away from college and returned home.
c) During the Christmas holidays of 1958, he lived at home and worked as a salesman in a clothing store.
d) In January 1959, he left his family to go south.
e) At the end of 1959, he was married and was living in Florida.
7. Because he had very good academic results in high school, he got a scholarship and was able to attend an Ivy League College.
a) He felt out of place, ill at ease and isolated because the others were from a different social background and the narrator didn't manage to mingle.
b) He decided to run away from college and he went back home.
c) His mother was distraught and kept crying all the time. His friends and the rest of the family were very surprised and they were convinced that he had ruined his life. They thought he behaved in a very selfish way. His friends rejected him and were very cool with him. They were all disappointed with him as they had placed hope in him and he was like a role model.
a) His father left his mother for another woman, ran away with her and never came back. He never saw his wife or children again.
b) Since he was the eldest in the family he was expected to succeed in his studies and in his career so as to show his father that they had managed without him. He would avenge the whole family by being successful.
10. He decided to leave his home town and hitch-hiked to go south. He wanted to live his own life and felt that his life was really starting. As a result, he felt a deep sense of freedom, relief and liberation. He also felt very happy.
Expression écrite
"I'm so pleased to see you after such a long time."
"I'm pleased to be back home too, mum."
"I have to tell you though how hard this past year has been for me, for your brother and sister and the rest of the family. First, you left your college and we couldn't figure out why you did that. It was such a great opportunity to go to that college. And then you ran away from home without telling us where you were going. We just couldn't understand what had gone into your head."
"College was very hard for me. The other students despised me and rejected me because I was different from them. It was impossible for me to fit in and actually I didn't want to fit in. I felt different and I felt like doing something different with my life."
"Don't you have any regrets?"
"You don't understand, mum. I felt that my life really started the day I left to go to Florida. Until then, I had only made decisions to please you or the rest of the family."
"Tell me about your life in Florida. What have you been doing in the last year? You could have written to us a little more often at least. We only got one letter, the one in which you told us you were getting married. Didn't you rush into that marriage?"
"It was love at first sight and I'm very happy with her. Apart from that, I've found a job in a hotel near the beach. I really enjoy my new life."
"I can't help thinking that you are wasting your time and that you've ruined your life. You could have had such a great career, you could have been so successful. You still can actually. Despite what you say, I feel that you have let us down, all of us. You used to be a role model for your brother and sister. And your teachers used to praise you."
"Sorry mum but it's my life. I want to make my own choices and not let others decide what's good for me."