Thursday, September 13, 2012
My Goddess, My Little College, and Jeannie
Shakespeare grants he “never saw a goddess go.” Shakespeare did not have professor Cynthia Lewis.
As a student at Davidson College, I worshipped Professor Lewis, my professor of Shakespeare. She was a goddess: smart and beautiful, and I was her minion. She thought I was smart and beautiful. She believed in me before I believed in myself.
That was (gulp) 26 years ago. When Professor Lewis emailed this spring to say that one of her students would be graduating from our little college, my alma mater, and moving to Seattle, I was eager to meet this acolyte from the younger generation.
Jeannie joined Ann and me for dinner Saturday night. She is charming, smart, and self-assured. She talked about the effects of segregation in the college’s social structures, her study in India, and her desire to give back to a world that has given so much to her.
In many ways, Jeannie reminded me of my younger self. I have often said that, though I was raised a southerner, I never really belonged in the South. Jeannie said this, too. When she left little Davidson, she aimed for a big city. Little Davidson made me a big city girl, too. Jeannie wants to experience new people and a new culture after her small town Southern college experience, so she moved west, away from family and friends that she loved. I did, too.
Jeannie's volunteering as a paralegal with the Public Defenders' Office instead of heading straight into graduate school. For her, this is a year of service. Like Jeannie, I wanted to serve in the working world before continuing my education: I went into high school teaching. Throughout the night, whenever I mentioned a book, she wrote it down: she’s reveling in reading again since she doesn’t need to plow through great literature in order to participate in a discussion or write a paper like she did as an English major. Like Jeannie, I have been reveling in the luxury of reading since gaining my English major’s diploma-- so long ago.
Our similarities struck me, as did our differences. She seemed so young, and I felt old—a new feeling for me. Mostly, though, our different experiences in college made me realize how much the school has changed, and I felt proud of the school for its growth.
Jeannie talked about the problem of social segregation at the college due partly to sororities and fraternities that encourage Black students to join and discourage white students. I marveled that my college has enough black students to have separate sororities and fraternities. There weren’t so many students of any color other than white when I was there.
Jeannie also talked about her semester in India. When I was in college, we went to Great Britain, France, Spain and Germany. A few outliers might have gone to India, but they were latter-day hippies. (I didn’t yet know that I was a hippie, too.)
Before meeting with Jeannie, I heard hints that suggested that Davidson was becoming more justice-oriented: it was the first college or university to promise that students would graduate without debt. Because the issue of student debt is a significant current social justice issue, and because the school was the first to institute such a commitment to its students, I saluted the school’s progressive stand.
Also, there is now support for gay students and alumnae, and the school’s president wrote a letter to alumnae following North Carolina’s disheartening vote to define marriage as between a man and a woman (and therefore not between gay people). The letter avowed the school’s commitment to justice for GLBTQ people. (When I was in college, I remember an reading an unsigned letter in the school paper claiming that there were lots of gay people on campus. My friends and I looked around wherever we went, we checked out the crowd and asked, "Do you think he's gay?" I also didn't know I was gay yet.)
Though often I am frustrated by all that seems wrong in this world, young Jeannie reminded me of how much hope there is in the world: in the South, no less, where my little college is growing into a more just place and graduates like Jeannie are committing to a life of learning and service.
And my goddess professor is still there, steadily committed to inspiring each new generation. I thank God for my goddess professor, my little college, and Jeannie who helped me see the college as a place that has changed over the last decades.
They all give me hope.