This is me as an undergrad:
That phone is plugged into a wall, people.
Behind me, my roommate’s desk. Not visible, but clearly present in my mind: liquor bottles lined up over the kitchen cabinets, my Apple computer, the tiny living room where we ate mac and cheese with tuna and watched Days of Our Lives between classes. Our room opened out to the front entryway and the Quad. We could see the streakers from our windows. We may have gone the entire year without scrubbing our shower. I wrote countless papers in that room, strictly abiding by the best set of writing rules I’ve ever devised: 20 minutes per page, 1 beer per hour, 10 minutes to proofread at the end.
I went back to campus yesterday for the retirement celebration of a professor who changed my life in ways big and small: Gail introduced me to Women’s Studies, Women’s literature, intersectional feminism. She was the first person I heard talk about whiteness from a critical perspective. She embodied everything I imagined I might want to be if I could ever get my shit together and grow up: brilliant, compassionate, thoughtful, wise, sharp-witted, a feminist and teacher and mentor beyond compare.
K is a small college, and when I was there it was strictly residential. We ate, slept, drank, studied, partied, protested, wrote, wept, celebrated in close quarters. Four years of intense intimacy with people who were strangers to me when I arrived and lifelong friends when we drank those last beers on the Quad under the stars the night before graduation. I couldn’t have known it when I chose K, but I grew up there, grew whole there, broke through there in ways that I believe would not have been possible anywhere else, and would not have been possible without Gail’s unwavering commitment to us as women, students, writers who deserved the best of ourselves, no matter how doubtful or cocky we were on any given day.
We were a motley crew, the campus feminists and women’s studies acolytes: poets, actors, activists, with majors in English and Psych and Poli Sci and hungers we couldn’t name that kept bringing us back to classes with women in the title. Women in Cross Cultural Perspective, Women in Religion, Womens Literature, Women in the Modern Western State. We were whip smart and heartbroken, privileged and outraged, desperate to learn to speak in a voice that was both audible to the outside world and recognizable to ourselves.
Small college, small classes: my Women’s Lit class met in a seminar room upstairs in the library. We sat around a table, with Gail at the head. Maybe there were a dozen of us, toting dog eared copies of the Norton Anthology of Literature of Women, a massive volume with wisp thin pages and a bright blue cover. I wrote in the margins with ink that inevitably bled through, annotating Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Jane Eyre. I hated Jane Eyre as a student but I remember those discussions like it was yesterday, Gail’s voice guiding us through the red room, the madwoman in the attic. We read Jane Austen, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, June Jordan, Lucille Clifton. When I taught Women’s Lit for the first time and Jane Eyre was on the syllabus I was given, I pulled out my undergrad notes, reread that old copy with new eyes, surprised and sustained by the power of teaching that narrative to a small room of young women grasping for voice and presence, just beginning to be cognizant of their capacity to remake the world.
Most of my classes were that size junior and senior year: 10 or 12 students, seated around a single seminar table. Read, write, discuss. The tenor of discussion varied greatly, though. Some profs used discussion as a thinly veiled space for critique: we addressed our comments to them, they corrected us, another student made an attempt and was praised or rebuffed. Discussion as ping pong. Others saw discussion as a gladiatorial sport. They leaned back while we fought it out amongst ourselves, hoping to say something sharp enough to be noticed and praised as we packed up our books and shuffled out at the end of the hour. In a philosophy class a divide between feminists, all women, and philosophy majors, all men, deepened over the quarter. They accused us of willfully misunderstanding the texts and then of simply being incapable of understanding the texts and the prof sat quietly, expecting us to defend ourselves. I remember a heated exchange about Heidigger in which I yelled something like, “He was a fucking Nazi! I’m not going to pretend that kind of ethical bankruptcy produces morally neutral writing!”
But Gail conducted discussion like we were a symphony, deftly layering questions and responses, holding us accountable, inviting us to work harder, think more critically, ask more complex questions. She drew out the best of us, sometimes the beginning of an analysis offered hesitantly and sometimes confidant assertions, moments of clarity that we offered excitedly, voices spilling out over one another. Gail’s classes were spaces in which we could count on being heard, being seen. She asked us to be fully present: unlike so many faculty who expected us to check our selves at the door and focus relentlessly on the academic, Gail opened the door for us to integrate an analysis of the textual, the personal, the political. Her feedback was legendary: careful line by line comments asking critical questions, challenging us to consider how structure and voice and analysis and evidence were working together or against one another.
Funky old house on a hill. Always coffee in the living room during poetry seminars. Always students smoking on the porch, talking about Kirkegaard and Kerouac.
Gail’s office was a haven: on the hill, in a funky old house (our women’s studies capstone seminar met in the living room, we lounged on the floor and in overstuffed arm chairs), her office door open for us to stop by and talk about our papers, our poetry, our accomplishments and heartbreaks. Certainly nothing we said was new to her, and yet we went to Gail because we knew she would hear us, respect us, take us seriously. Some professors would chat but keep their distance, turned halfway from the computer screen, or glancing up from work still spread across their desk. Gail looked you in the eyes, steady, present with you. You knew you could trust her, not to keep your secrets but to help you find the way out of whatever secret was keeping you.
I am indebted to Gail on so many levels: as a woman, a feminist, a writer, a professor. Gail offered a vision of feminism as a landscape when I still understood it as a measuring stick. Her classrooms and discussions are models for my own. I strive to be as present, as patient, as compassionate and as challenging as she was with me and my peers. She pushed us hard because she knew we were capable of more than we realized. She taught us to laugh in hard times, to love one another well, to trust our instincts, to raise our voices and to listen hard. I needed those reminders, at 18 when I met her and at 22 when I graduated. I need them still.
Red Square. Stetson Chapel. How many hours did I spend lounging in that space as an undergrad without really appreciating how lovely it is?