Monday, August 26, 2013

Peter Pan at Bryn Mawr College

Next week I will walk back into the classroom, and I will transform from Bee Ridgway, novelist and author of that time travel adventure saga, The River of No Return, into Bethany Schneider, professor of 18th and 19th century American literature.

I’m looking forward to teaching – but I’m also nervous.  This is the first time that the “new me” will have to behave as if I’m still the “old me.”  Is “old me” the same, or has she changed? 

This morning, as I worked on my syllabi, I found myself thinking about a speech I gave at Bryn Mawr several years ago, in which I compare the life of a college professor to the life of Peter Pan living in Neverland.   I dug the old file up and re-read it.    I realized that I must have partly written it for myself, for this very moment of return.  I’m going to share the speech here.   

A caveat:  this speech is a bit smarmy!   It was given to high school seniors who had been admitted to Bryn Mawr, but who had not yet decided whether to come.  My job was to convince them that Bryn Mawr is the best.  So it’s partly a sales pitch, I don’t deny it.  But . . . it’s a sales pitch in which I believe.  I’ve taught at Bryn Mawr since 2001, and I love it.   


Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gisele Bündchen and Tina Fey
I don’t know if you remember the end of Peter Pan.  The three Darling children return from Neverland along with all of the Lost Boys.  Only Peter refuses to come inside and grow up like the rest of them.  Wendy and her mother try to convince him, and he says, passionately, “I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things!  I don’t want to be a man!”  He goes back to Neverland and lives with Tinkerbell.  Every once in a while he comes back and looks longingly through the window at Wendy and the formerly Lost, now Found Boys.  He watches them grow up, while he remains a kid in scrappy green rags.  In the beginning of the play he is the one they all look up to, the one with the ideas, the one to take them to Neverland and show them things they couldn’t imagine.  By the end they are mustachioed pillars of society and they have forgotten that they ever knew Peter Pan, that they could ever fly.

Remembering Peter Pan – a fantastical play and then a book and then several films for children -- may seem like a strange way to introduce you to Bryn Mawr College, which is, as I’m sure you are aware, a scholarly liberal arts college. The sentences, “I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things!  I don’t want to be a man!” seem pretty patently inappropriate.  At Bryn Mawr you will be in school and you will most certainly learn solemn things.   And as for not wanting to be a man, well.  At Bryn Mawr we are in the business of helping young women become fabulously bad-assed in a world that is still stacked against them. 
So.  I begin by remembering the end of Peter Pan not because I think you are like that boy in green, but because, after ten years of teaching at Bryn Mawr College, I have come to realize that I am like him.  Several generations of Bryn Mawr women have now passed through my classrooms.  All of them have been, in their own way, full of spit and vinegar, as my grandmother would say.   I always feel as if the group of women I’m teaching at the moment will be here forever.  I feel like together, they and we – these particular students, the professors and staff – are Bryn Mawr, forever.  But of course a Bryn Mawr woman takes everything at a gallop.  She storms through the place and you can tell when she’s ready to go, because of the transformation not only in her knowledge, but also in her self-possession, her humor, her courage, the attunement of her mind.  Off she goes to conquer the world. 

So you see – as a professor to this particularly amazing breed, this Bryn Mawr woman, I feel a bit like Peter Pan, who lives forever on an enchanted island where others tarry . . . but eventually leave, eventually grow up.  If I’m Peter, Bryn Mawr is, in certain ways, Neverland.  I don’t mean that it is childish or silly.  Far from it.  Peter Pan lures boys away from humdrum family nurseries where they are locked into rather dreary childish behaviors, to a thrilling island fraught with danger and excitement, where they live on the razor’s edge between life and death, and find their pleasure there.  Like Peter Pan, I feel that I can offer you something that beautiful and also dangerous, something marvelously different from the confinements of youth.  

Bryn Mawr reaches out to the world, its mission is the education of women for the global present.  You won’t be isolated here, or cut off.  But I want you to also understand that Bryn Mawr is, like Neverland, an island.  It is a collective fantasy.  I mean that positively -- I think it's a good thing in a college.  The term “ivory tower” is used disparagingly, and the isolation of academia is often critiqued.  We work hard at Bryn Mawr to make sure our students are citizens of a contemporary and dynamic world.  But an important part of a liberal arts education is the small community of scholars working together, "we happy few."  You’ve been on the tour, and you’ve seen the beautiful cloister that is at the heart of Bryn Mawr, the secluded space that recalls the history of higher education in Europe.  Bryn Mawr reaches outward, yes, it prepares you for a life outside and away from it . . . but that inward-turning part of the college is precious.   It is the Neverland at the heart of this place.

Let me explain by turning to the past.  M. Carey Thomas, the school’s second president, called Bryn Mawr her “fairy college,” because back then when women’s choices were so limited, it felt as if she and her colleagues were building a fragile, magical oasis outside of cold reality.  That’s partly why she insisted on the Collegiate Gothic style for the buildings, rather than the plain Quaker style of Haverford.  She knew that Bryn Mawr was desperately needed, and she knew it needed to be almost mystical in quality – a previously unimaginable place where female students could practice being free and passionate intellectuals.  She knew they needed that “fairy college,” that place of secluded preparation, because when they left, they would have to fight for every scrap of recognition they could get outside the college’s walls.  Women have made great strides since the late 19th century, but the journey isn’t nearly over.  And Bryn Mawr is still here.  It is still enchanting in the best sense of the word.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  Enchantment should be scary.  It should be dangerous.  It should change you into something you couldn’t have previously imagined, it should whirl you away from the life you know.  It should, in other words, make you into a creature who can fly.  And unlike the poor Lost Boys who trade fantasy for respectability, the flying lessons you receive at Bryn Mawr will never forsake you.

Um yes this is from a Bryn Mawr yearbook
One thing I love most about teaching is watching my students find their wings.  I could tell dozens of stories about how my students have woken up to their passions and fascinations while at Bryn Mawr.  But I’ll tell you just one, tonight.  It’s simple, but it encapsulates the transformation that the "fairy college" can produce.  I’ll call this student Moira.  She turned up at Bryn Mawr, shy as a chipmunk. She was literally fresh from the farm in Iowa, and she sat quietly at the freshman seminar table day after day, hiding behind her hair.   She wrote the most incredible papers, but if I called on her, she looked at me reproachfully from under her bangs, and said nothing. 

Then one day a stranger walked into the room and sat in Moira’s usual spot.  She had a sharp new haircut and she was dressed in a black vintage dress. She raised her hand right away and proceeded to say fantastic things.  After class I asked Moira what had happened.  She smiled easily at me, with a sort of breezy confidence.  “Well, Professor,” she said, “Over the weekend I realized that I was here, at Bryn Mawr, and I just . . . changed!”  In her senior year, Moira – the formerly shy chipmunk -- directed the funniest, most outrageous, most un-shy production of The Importance of Being Earnest that I have ever seen.

Unlike Peter Pan, I stay in touch with my Lost Boys, who are neither lost nor boys.  My old students are out there in the world, running their own businesses, teaching, healing, researching, traveling, they are in politics and publishing and law, they have families, they are activists and artists and chefs and rabbis, nurses and doctors and actors – and because I teach English and many of my students love to write, many of them go away and become writers – food writers, children’s book writers, novelists, journalists, playwrights . . . they have scattered all over the world, they inhabit every walk of life, every kind of life.   I hope that someday some of you will be among them!

So a very heartfelt welcome to Bryn Mawr College – I hope that you enjoy your time here.  Please feel free to email me if you have any questions . . .

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Skunk Coat

This photo was taken sometime in the mid 1920s at the train station in Sussex, New Brunswick.  The two people are Millie Winger and Henry Schneider.  Henry is a young dairy farmer.  Millie is the eldest of five daughters; her father is a minister.  She is a piano player, and there has been some talk about her playing professionally.  But she’s marrying Henry and she’s going to be a farmer’s wife. 

Actually, I don’t know if this photo was taken before or after their marriage.  All I really know is that Millie, my grandmother, is wearing a skunk-skin fur coat.  That’s what that is.  And Henry, my grandfather, is rocking a pair of faded overalls under a worn-looking wool coat. It’s the middle of a workday for him, but it’s the start or the end of some journey for her.  They are pausing in the cold, bright, Canadian light to have their picture made in front of what looks like a new, or at least a nice, car. 

It’s a portrait of their love.  They are quite obviously delighted with each other.  And the picture is also a portrait of their idea of their future.    Both Millie and Henry were born in Europe, in the 19th century.  But now it’s 1920-something, they’re in the New World.  Henry has a car, they are at the train station, and Millie . . . in her skunk coat, her hair bobbed, those glasses, that cloche hat . . . she’s going places.  She is a modern girl. 

He’s not such a modern boy.  He’s a farmer, and he’s dressed for the same labor his ancestors have done for hundreds of years.  He’s comfortable in that role, at home.  You can see his comfort in his body.  Lounging there, hand in his pocket.   But look closely at the shadow under his cap.  Peer into that dark, and you’ll see . . . he’s totally besotted with her.  With this future-oriented creature.  He likes her just the way she is.   She delights him.

He’s quite a lot better looking than she is.  To be honest, she’s a frump, in spite of the skunk coat and the cloche.  She’s fundamentally dumpy.  He likes that about her, too.  Likes that she makes a whole lot out of a little, likes that she overdoes it.  Look again at the look on his face.  He enjoys her.   Not just in this moment, but in her essence.  He likes to sit back and watch her go.

She’s laughing, clutching that purse . . . a little stiff, a lot joyous.  She’s a plump dynamo.  It’s funny.  His emotions are perfectly legible in spite of the shadow over his face.  But we can’t really tell what she’s thinking, what she likes or doesn’t like. That’s the condition of those who push the future forward, though.  They don’t know what they want, except that whatever it is, they want more.  It’s why they’re fun when they’re young.  It’s also why they often stop being fun when they get older.

But here she’s young.  Check out this picture of her, spinning along in a contraption of some kind, with her stockings showing.  It’s the decade of her youth, and she’s enjoying it.  

Of course we know what’s coming.  Depression.  War.  And I know the details of how those vast, global convulsions touched Millie and Henry, first on the farm in Wisconsin and then on the farm in California, where they moved in 1946.   I know that her ambition for more changed its shape when she had children.  I know how that searing ambition radically shaped the course of my father’s life.

Millie has been gone for forty years, Henry for a few years longer.  I never met him, and I have no memory of her, although apparently we got along famously and she used to get down on her hands and knees and play “cow” with me in the flooded front yard of the California farm.   Here we are. The skunk coat is long gone, but don't worry.   That’s a big old wig she’s wearing.  And silver cat's eye glasses.

About eight years ago I was teaching some novel – I don’t remember which one – and there was something in it about how the sins of our ancestors descend to curse the present generation (sounds like tons of novels, right?).  Anyway, we were talking about the burdens of the past, and a student raised her hand.  I remember this as clearly as if it were yesterday. I called on her, and she said “I really can’t relate, because none of my ancestors ever did anything bad.”  I think my mouth hung open. I know I didn’t say anything right away, because another student said, “What do you mean, like, none of your ancestors, all the way back to Lucy?”  And this student said, with perfect confidence, “That’s right.” 

That’s a lot of people to have never done anything bad. 

I have a few really unsavory ancestors, ancestors whose sins stain the pages of history.  And quite a lot of ancestors whose sins were quieter.  Hateful people.  Bitter people.  So does everyone, of course, though I suppose it’s possible that my student really was the product of hundreds of generations of pure and virtuous behavior.   Who am I to say?  I know I would find it stressful to be the beloved child of hundreds of generations of beloved children.    How scary!  What if you are the one who falls!

Millie and Henry made mistakes, of course.  Big ones.   But I think they might be my best shot at what my student might have deemed “good” ancestors.  Nice, hardworking people.  The salt of the earth. 

That’s why I love this photo.  That crazy skunk coat on Millie.   That shadowy amusement on Henry’s face.  The sexy way his body bends toward her.   That’s vanity and lust right there.  Beautiful, joyful vanity and lust.   At least at this moment, Henry and Millie aren’t participating in a trans-historical project of virtuous reproduction.  They are enjoying themselves, enjoying their moment.  Having fun.