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A Transformative Experience: Alvin Bess '77

by Alvin Bess '77

Editor's Note: Alvin Bess, a member of The Country School Class of 1977 and a published author, public speaker, and transit service planner, visited campus recently with his mother, Rosemary P '73, '75, '77. During their visit, Alvin and Rosemary toured campus, speaking with teachers, students, and administrators, and observing how The Country School has both changed and remained the same in the nearly 42 years since Alvin graduated. Alvin also visited with 6th Graders in their English class, sharing a memory of his own 6th Grade English class and an experience that he believes changed his life. 

It all started with my big brother, Michael, “Mike.” As recorded in his Country School yearbook, Mike entered The Country School in Grade 5. After he graduated in Grade 8, he attended The Hammonasset School. His stated interests were basketball, medicine, soccer, football, law and bicycling. His ambition was to become a neurologist, football player or lawyer. My older brother graduated from The Hammonasset School and then attended the University of Pennsylvania. My older sister, Sheila, came next, following Mike and graduating from The Country School in 1975. She went on to Hammonasset and then Tufts University.

Then came me. I attended The Country School for 6th, 7th, and 8th Grades, graduating in 1977. Between us, Mike, Sheila, and I were the first Black siblings ever to attend and graduate from The Country School. After TCS, I attended The Hammonasset School, although after one year, I transferred to Hamden High School in our hometown of Hamden, Connecticut.

Fast forward to the present, when, as an alumnus of The Country School (“Education that lasts a lifetime”), I revisited campus and spoke to English class students, school faculty, and the Head of School. My mother joined me; my father managed home obligations.

Answering questions in 6th Grade English

Two score and two years after I graduated, I brought with me my treasured varsity letters and my Faculty Prize, an inscribed copy of The Best Loved Poems of the American People, selected by Hazel Felleman and published by Doubleday. Both the book and the varsity letters were immaculately kept all these years.

My life-changing experience at The Country School was unlike Mike’s and Sheila’s, as I arrived with a severe stutter, something I had developed as a result of a traumatic event circa Kindergarten. When I arrived at The Country School, I could read very well and was confident in my writing, but my speech was entirely different.

Prior to attending The Country School, my teachers were aware of my stuttering but were uncomfortable with my speaking in class, and so I planned for my life as a stutterer and developed an extensive vocabulary and creative writing skills. I do understand my teachers' discomfort with my speaking in class (and I realize that my arguments on the subject could be pretty persuasive). On the other hand, with hindsight, I also see why my mother sent me to The Country School. My previous teachers, by allowing me to stay silent in class, had done me more harm than good.My life-changing experience at The Country School was unlike Michael’s and Sheila’s, as I arrived with a severe stutter, something I had developed as a result of a traumatic event circa Kindergarten. When I arrived at The Country School, I could read very well and was confident in my writing, but my speech was entirely different.

All that changed when I attended The Country School because of Mr. Robert Morrison, a caring and patient 6th Grade English teacher and Dramatics coach. He bucked the trend, and it was a life-changing decision/moment that I have never forgotten.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of my book, The Objective Narrative of an Undaunted Black Male© and a Deliberate Blue-Collar Scholar© (The Counseling Edition), which describes the experience that changed my life:

This chapter praises my deliberate, witty teacher who, most likely as a result of both expectations of my mother and of my father, would not skip my turn to read-aloud passages in his reading and writing class.

His name I have forgotten but his contribution to my fluency, my confidence and my future, I shall remember, and will not —in all conscience—ever forget.

He was a White male. I was a Black male. 

It made no difference to him, or to me. I was the only Black student in his class.

This was usual and comfortable for me and, in fact, seemed to stimulate interesting group discussions on my degree of blackness because I did not match or fit a perpetuated and stereotypical Black student that the White, Hispanic, Indian, Asian, or Native American students were prepared to see.

Black students, too, held group discussions on my degree of blackness. Inconsistent with their domestic programming and social acceptance, I was not what they wanted to see.

My philosophy of life as a severe stutterer, a creative writer of poetry, and accomplished student, was that my reading aloud interfered with the lesson of the day. It was common knowledge that I could read proficiently.

So, in a thoughtful act to skip my turn to read-aloud, which would have saved us valuable class time, by offering to skip a turn, I truly believed that my unselfishness was facilitating his completion of our class assignment.

I was unable to persuade him.

I looked at him. My thoughts were, “Do we really need to do this, and waste valuable time?”

It was as if he were a mind reader.

He just looked at me and said, “Alvin: It is your turn to read the next passage.”

“Just take your time, relax, and begin.”

I could no longer be silent.

I wondered why he insisted that I read-aloud when he knew that I read at, or well-above, grade level.

Did he know something that I did not?

Maybe, my teacher knew that I had to learn to stutter in front of an audience in order to become the effective inspirational speaker that today I am?

Maybe, my teacher, this teacher, saw something in me that my other teachers—up to that point—had not? He was the only teacher that insisted—or even cared—that I read-aloud along with my classmates. Had my Black teachers cared?

Maybe; in all fairness, the other teachers did not instruct me to read-aloud due to embarrassment, ridicule—or comfort?  

The reality is that without having this uncomfortable, path-finding and necessary experience, I might well have picked the coziness of knowing what I could have gotten by doing, while never realizing what I was truly supposed to be doing. 

I am so very thankful for having had that particular teacher at that specific time.

Requiring me to read-aloud helped me with my confidence, as a stutterer. In other instances, requiring students to read-aloud has enabled a teacher to identify reading difficulties, or learning disorders, hidden behind a disruptive behavior.

I do believe, if it were not for this experience, or this teacher, I would not have had the confidence in my ability to redirect my efforts from becoming much more than—as expected—a silent, content, and potentially selfish professional athlete. ...

Still, I had much work to do.

My confidence had not blossomed with my mettle, my spirit, my resolution, and my inspiration.

As I would discover later in life, any confidence at that stage might have interfered with my maturation into a competent leader and an advocate, of which I had discovered through having learned how to fail embarrassingly in public.

It was a great experience, becoming a butterfly.

It was much greater than the three of us needing to be at a bus stop by 6:30 a.m.

It was much more than riding a school bus daily for nearly 90 minutes. 

It was my passage, transformation.

I would also like to recognize James Masker, History and Physical Education faculty member. Our Eighth grade Anthropology class trip to Pueblo, Colorado, will never be forgotten.

The Country School encourages students to challenge their teachers and it fosters critical thinking, social skills, trail-blazing and courtesy. Hence, I would tend to agree that it is an “Education that lasts a lifetime.”

Alvin speaking to 6th Graders, where he studied History with Jim Masker.

Alvin and his Country School classmate, Liz Lightfoot '77, P '05, '07, '08, '12, 
Director of Alumni Relations, with current 6th Graders.

Alvin, teacher Jim Masker, Liz Lightfoot, and other 8th Graders in 1977.


Mr. Morrison, Alvin's 6th Grade English teacher.