Symposium Reaches New Heights


On Friday, Sept. 14, Director of Service Quality at Otis Elevator Brian Frye spoke to this year’s Symposium class, elevating students’ understanding of vertical means of transport and the culture surrounding them. The Symposium class is currently reading “The Intuitionist” by Symposium author Colson Whitehead. The novel follows the first woman of color elevator inspector: Lila Mae. Mr. Whitehead uses mystery, inspector culture, and a rift between elevator inspector ideologies to comment on more profound themes of societal otherization and racial exploitation.  

An engineer by training, Mr. Frye — English teacher Mela Frye’s husband — is an expert on all things elevator. He arrived in Symposium teacher Heidi Hojnicki’s classroom, novel-in-hand, ready to share his knowledge with 18 students who never knew how much they would enjoy talking about elevators for an hour and fifteen minutes. “Usually I think engineers are always working in their heads, but Mr. Frye was able to express himself to the entire class,” senior Taline Norsigian said. “He taught us some basic mechanics of elevators and conveyed his passion for his job, which was really inspiring.”

Mr. Frye first discussed how elevators work. He told the class about governors and how they prevent an elevator from plummeting down the shaft if a cable breaks. “The conversation flowed very well, and Mr. Frye did a great job answering our questions completely,” senior Mia Seymour said. “He was very personable and made talking about elevators really interesting.”

Mr. Frye also commented on the fictionalized animosity between the Empiricists and the Intuitionists. In Whitehead’s novel, Empiricists inspect elevators based on empirical data whereas Intuitionists can “feel” what is wrong with an elevator and diagnose it without any measurements. To the class’ surprise, Mr. Frye said that “Intuitionists” exist in real life too. He said that experienced inspectors can merely lean against the wall as an elevator travels by. The slight vibrations can alert these real-life intuitionists to potential issues. Likewise, with the advance of technology, inspectors can simply use their cell phones in a traveling elevator to measure minute vibrations and spit out potential maladies.

“Mr. Frye was very knowledgeable about elevators and provided the class with a lot of perspective that has proved useful in discussions,” senior Jason Meizels said. “He was very generous with his time and expertise.” Mr. Frye also told the class about elevator inspector culture. As in the novel, inspectors take great pride in their work, relishing the task of noticing tiny imperfections. He added that it is a male-dominated field.

Finally, Mr. Frye talked about the future of elevators. In “The Intuitionist,” there is a so-called “blackbox,” the perfect elevator, designed from an elevator’s perspective (whatever that means). Mr. Frye said that while no such thing exists, there are potential advances in the  elevator industry: having multiple cars per shaft, having cars self-diagnose their problems, sideways moving elevators.

Most importantly, Mr. Frye resolved an age-old question: Does an elevator’s “close-door” button actually do anything? The answer is no. The button is only there for firefighters and not the general public.