Just Listen

Reflections on a conversation with an eccentric Russian metallurgist

Last Wednesday morning, I entered my office on Hudson Street and glided past the silent engineers to the interns’ desk in the back room. I was halfway through another week at my internship, and so far, the job had mostly involved client reports and crossword puzzles. Normally, only the hum of the air conditioner filled the otherwise voiceless office, but just as I settled in with my morning coffee and the NYT daily crossword puzzle, Michael marched in.

A worn, yet robust old Russian metallurgist, Michael conveys his resolute opinions in a broken, stumbling English. Despite his difficulties with English, he is undoubtedly the company’s most talkative and disruptive employee—a true character whose presence oscillates between charming and irritating.

“Your name Mark? You do physics?” “No, it’s Ryan.” I chuckled. “I’m a mechanical engineer.” “You say Brian?” He leaned in and tilted his head as he asked this, resembling a grandfather suffering from moderate earing loss. “No, no, Ryan. With an ‘R’.” A nod. “You follow me. I show you how to do something.” I rose and followed him dutifully, just happy to finally be doing something but also worried about falling prey to his taxing chatter.

Throughout the morning, Michael demonstrated the process our firm used to catalogue and prepare metal pipes for failure analysis. While he explained each step, I was oddly engrossed in the contortions of his face as he struggled to find the right English words. It was subtle, but I understood his uncomfortable struggle, the endless wrestling match between tongue and brain.

Traveling in Ecuador this spring, I was resigned to speaking only Spanish for the first time in my life. Though it was thrilling to finally test seven years of Spanish classes, it was also terrifying to not be in control; I was on foreign soil, confined to the language and customs of Ecuador. I hoped each disjointed string of words occupied enough space to be deemed an intelligible sentence—likely Michael’s initial experience in America as well. I learned to listen hard, to never miss a word.


I remember lying in bed after my first day in Ecuador, enjoying the catharsis of my English thoughts; my mind had drifted back to Cambridge and brain break in Mather dining hall, where I often pressed my best friends on the stories of their pasts over cast-aside p-sets and Marshmallow Mateys. Fatigued by the daily obligation to provide updates of my life to people whose names I never remembered, I reserved brain break for intelligible refuge with friends; in time, I gained insight into authentic Lebanese food and the unconditional bond of Colombian families. Each friend had a riveting journey to share; coincidentally—and later, to my chagrin—I often procrastinated late into the night, energized by their biographies.

I remembered Ecuador and brain breaks as Michael spoke. As polarizing as he was, I couldn’t deny being fascinated by him and his persona. I listened harder and prodded him on, causing him to launch into a tangled gospel of his grievances with the world: Bernie Sanders. Outrageous tuition. The plight of print newspaper. Russians spend their whole lives seeking knowledge. A frustration with “lazy, poor people stealing my money.” His ideas were peculiar, and I found myself frequently wanting to react, wanting to push back against his ‘crazy’ ideas with a snarky retort. But at the same time, I also noticed that he laced pieces of his life story into his monologue. And so, I swallowed my retorts, tilted my head in acknowledgement, nodded slowly, and smiled.

I quickly found that his views were genuine and originated from firsthand evidence. This man wasn’t crazy. He was rational. I knew then that I had made the right decision when I chose to seek understanding before immediately criticizing his opinions. In fact, my smiling and nodding spurred him to express himself with frankness and profundity. As a result, I gained insight into the life of Michael: the eccentric Russian metallurgist.

It was a moment of raw vulnerability, as storytelling often is. To him, I was just an intern, here one week and gone the next; yet he still shared openly. He likely viewed it as a teaching opportunity, a chance to fill the role of wise sage to young, eager-beaver intern. He seemed content to share, and I was content to listen.

At Harvard, our stories often sound a lot like resumes, or like upscale dreams of Wall Street riches and future study abroad strolls through southern France. I must confess, I care little for these things; if I learned anything from Michael or brain break testimonies, it’s that dreams are simply introductions.

A real story appends a lifetime of experiences into a single network of moral, political and religious beliefs, as well as fears and unanswered questions. In moments of incertitude and courage, it reveals itself chapter by chapter. Multiply one story per person by seven billion people on earth, and you have before you the awe-inspiring fabric of humanity. These are the stories that collectively chronicle the past and disguise the future; all it takes is someone wise enough to listen.

But that may be the hardest part. It seems as though there is never enough time to listen. Too often, we turn away with a curt excuse: “my p-set is due in three hours; my essay in five; I have a meeting soon; my deadline is tonight.”

Rarely, “I would love to hear your story.”

At Harvard, we are always racing against time, trying to learn and absorb information at alarming rates. Eventually, we succeed. We change the world, and heck, some of us are even remembered.

Yet, perhaps we are missing the point entirely. Maybe the goal shouldn’t be a list of successes or accolades at all, but rather, an arduous and unceasing pursuit of stories, extracted from the minds of those around us. They hide there, waiting to be consumed chapter by chapter, waiting to be heard by willing and unwilling listeners alike.

So, the next time you find yourself conversing with an eccentric Russian metallurgist, just listen.

Ryan V. LaMonica ’18 is a mechanical engineering concentrator living in Mather House.


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