The Education of Robert Allen

UPDATED 09/17/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/17/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

It is a sultry afternoon in Rosser, Tenn., a tiny hamlet near the Tennessee River consisting of one trailer and three dilapidated houses clustered beside a rural state road 120 miles northwest of Nashville. Inside one weathered shack many years past its last paint job, Robert Allen, 35, sits at the supper table. A wood-burning stove stands in one corner. An outhouse in back is hidden deep in snake-infested underbrush. There is a well across the road for drawing water. "A while ago they raised the rent to $20 a month," says Allen, who has lived here with his great-aunt Bevie Jones for the past 21 years. "We used to pay $15."

It could be a hopeless scene, indicative of the worst poverty of rural America. But this musty cabin is the site of a small miracle. As he sits at the table Allen is engrossed in a copy of Virgil's Aeneid, one of the more than 1,000 volumes he has amassed over the years in his personal library, which includes the classics of Greek, European and American literature. Until three years ago this self-taught lover of literature had never set foot in a classroom. "Books were a world to me," says Allen, a gentle, unassuming man with receding hairline and curly red sideburns.

Two weeks ago, after three-and-a-half decades of near solitude, Robert Howard Allen will leave Rosser to begin studying for a Ph.D. at Nashville's prestigious Vanderbilt University, the final step in a remarkable odyssey. For a man who has never known the luxury of indoor plumbing, never been to a movie theater and eaten at a restaurant only once in his life, it is an exhilarating—and frightening—prospect. "I'm rather nervous about getting used to things in the big city—the crime and the traffic," Allen admits. Neither he nor anyone who knows him, however, is the least bit worried about his chances of academic success. According to Dr. Vereen Bell, chairman of Vanderbilt's English department, Allen's scores on his Graduate Record Examination were "better than anyone else's."

As great-aunt Bevie, 77, tells the story, Robert Allen's saga began "when he was barely more than a little nursing baby" in nearby Huntingdon, Ky. Robert's mother, who had divorced Allen's father before their son was born, "ran off with a shoe salesman" and left the infant in the custody of elderly relatives—his grandparents, three great-aunts and a great-uncle. His father promptly disappeared. "Last time anybody knew about him," says Allen, "he was either driving a taxi or owning a gas station. He doesn't seem to be doing either now. Quite possibly he's dead." As a boy, Allen was not permitted to attend school ("They was afraid his daddy would steal him away," says Aunt Bevie) or to play with friends outside the family. "I couldn't have anything to say about it," continues Bevie, who had no authority within the family patriarchy. "If I had, he'd of went to school every day."

As an only child, Allen instead spent his days doing chores around the house, strumming on the banjo, "listening to the old people talk," and attending the Oak Grove Baptist Church, whose congregation, he recalls, "consisted of almost all old people." Occasionally a cousin his age would visit and talk about school. "It made me feel a little left out," Robert says. His sole brush with formal education in those long years came when he was 6, shortly after county school officials had a court confrontation with his family about Allen's truancy. As a result Allen was given a "homebound" teacher, who came to the house twice a week to educate the boy. "That lasted about a year and a half," Robert says. "Then the county ran out of funds."

In place of regular schooling Aunt Bevie, who had finished the eighth grade, read to the boy constantly—"comic books and Uncle Scrooge," she recalls—and taught him how to read. "Books were my playmates," he says of those years of loneliness. Every morning and evening, as well as during breaks from his chores, Allen read anything he could get his hands on. He began with an old dictionary, then read chapters of Scripture aloud to his blind great-aunt, Ida. Eventually the boy began to spend hours at Huntingdon's Carroll County Library, where the librarian "turned me loose," he says. His curriculum was precocious and eclectic: "Toynbee's A Study of History was one of the first books that really got to me. I read that one pretty early on." Allen says he preferred Aristotle to Plato, loved Shakespeare, Whitman and Wordsworth and "every line that Milton ever wrote."

By the time the family moved to Rosser in 1963, Allen had discovered that he could pick up secondhand volumes inexpensively at yard sales and auctions. His great-uncle had taught him carpentry, chair caning and upholstery, and Allen bought books with the money he earned as an apprentice. The onset of puberty did little to distract him from his all-consuming literary appetite. "I didn't give much thought to girls," he says. He often read three or four books at once, following his own course of study. During the two years it took him to wade through Will and Ariel Durant's 11-volume Story of Civilization, for instance, he simultaneously read literature written during each time period described, developing a broad sense of politics, life-styles and philosophy throughout history.

Ironically, when he came of age and was forced to register for the draft, Allen was rejected. "When they realized I hadn't been to school at all, that was that," he says. "They assumed I was an illiterate, and I didn't give them any reason to think otherwise."

In 1981 Allen found a minimum-wage janitorial job through the government CETA program, working from March until he was laid off in June following a cutback in federal funding. He tried to find other employment. "I had an old truck at the time and I'd go around, but I couldn't find any sort of work," he recalls. Nor were Allen's job prospects improved after he took and passed a high school equivalency exam that summer. He then decided, he says, "to give college a whirl." After taking the College Level Examination Program, he drove his truck to Bethel College—a small Presbyterian church school 15 miles from Rosser in McKenzie, Tenn.—and handed the results to the college's admissions director who looked at them in amazement. "He blew the top off the scores," recalls Bethel College President Dr. William Odom.

Thanks to those scores, Allen earned exemptions from 24 hours of freshman courses, including science ("I'd read the Popular Science library and watched Mr. Wizard on TV"). With regard to languages, "I could read a French newspaper," Allen says, "but Racine was a little beyond me." He had more trouble in math, however. "I still have to take my shoes off to count my toes," he jokes.

Far more serious were the adjustments the unschooled man had to make after 30 years of isolation. Each morning he drove to school from Rosser in a jalopy "that was barely held together by wires," recalls Odom. "When I first saw him, he was in rags and his pants were frayed," says Naomi Blanks, 67, chairman of Bethel's humanities department. "There were safety pins holding his sweater together. He looked odd." In addition his teeth were rotten and he was lacking all sophisticated social amenities. At the same time his classroom performance was impeccable. He was "as well read as many of Bethel's professors," says Dr. Odom. "He has a way of storing things in his mind and then quoting them that's just amazing," remembers Mrs. Blanks. "He could have put us down and made us feel inferior, but he didn't. In class he was modest. I never felt intimidated by him. He was really a nice person to be around."

During Allen's three years at Bethel the faculty established a fund that enabled him to get new teeth and eventually to buy a suit for graduation. "I think the suit was something of a compromise for Robert," says Dr. Odom. Earlier that year Allen had been encouraged by the director of human resources to get new clothes. "If people are going to like me," Allen responded at first, "they're going to like me the way I am." In fact Robert made several friends during his years there, although he never dated. He won the school's poetry contest and in his senior year topped the class with a 3.92 grade-point average, earning him the school's highest scholarship award.

Now he and Aunt Bevie are headed for an apartment in Nashville. At Vanderbilt, Allen will join 10 other students in the graduate English program and receive a full doctoral fellowship plus a monthly stipend of about $700, a welcome addition to the $300 monthly pension Bevie has received since her husband died four years ago. "Registering for school, settling into a new place, moving, getting used to life in a city, it seems like a lot," Robert admits. After earning his degree Allen says he hopes to return to Bethel as an English professor—"if they'll have me. I feel I owe everyone there a lot." As for marriage, Allen doesn't discount the possibility: "Maybe someday...after I've completed my education."

Only a week before the climactic move three walls of Allen's bedroom remained covered from floor to ceiling with shelves of books—all of them dusted and carefully arranged. "My books will be the last thing I'll pack," he says. "I want them around for as long as possible." Then Robert wandered back to the cluttered living room and reopened the Aeneid, quieting his exhilaration about the future with the reassurance of the past.

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