Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Chosen of the Lord, and Precious

Corduroy: official fabric of white people. 
Two years ago a student of mine took to hanging about my room to talk colleges. My room was often host to a nest of strange birds: the queer kids, the artsy kids, the theater kids, and the newspaper kids, for the same reason all the neighborhood kids congregate at that run-down house down the street – it’s got an absent-minded mom too busy watching her soaps and smoking her cigs to care if you happen to light one up too, or to notice if you say “fuck” too loudly. Benign neglect is a great way to attract a following, it turns out.

Anyway, Emily kept bringing the conversation around to Sewanee, and I kept gently deflecting it. I didn’t think much of those teachers who pushed the glories of their alma mater on their students, and I didn’t want her to sense approval from me that might have influenced her choice. And also, if I’m being honest, I’m not sure I would have had much approval to emanate. My own relationship with Sewanee is complicated, less straightforward than the feelings a lot of alums have for their school, and I’m the last person to tell a ferociously smart, extravagantly quirky young woman that Sewanee is the best place for her. I kept nosing her north, in our conversations, and she kept swinging back as resolutely south.

And then finally she wouldn’t be nudged any more. “I really fell in love with it,” she confessed. “I love Sewanee.” Well then God help you, I wanted to say, because naturally there was nothing more to be done for her. There never is, once it gets to that stage.

Today I had the privilege of gowning her at Convocation, with my gown. A sophomore gownsman, no less! It’s ridiculous how proud that made me. It’s ridiculous how happy it makes me to see Sewanee through her eyes, instead of my jaded ones. It’s the same kind of happy I feel when I see Sewanee through my kids’ eyes—my kids who have been spending their summers romping around Sewanee since they were little, and whose memories of it are decidedly uncomplicated. Last year I mentioned to my oldest that if she wanted, she could think about going to college there. “For real, there’s a school up there?” she asked. “Where is it?” Because of course for her the landmarks of Sewanee are lakes to swim in and woods to explore and people to visit and gardens to weed-torch; all those buildings are only large things you bike past on your way to Horace’s market.

They have no clue that's a library behind them.
But for many of us, it’s not quite possible to bike past the things we don’t want to see. At Convocation today, I was shocked to see how white the place still is. I’ve seen more diversity at a family reunion, Lisa Rung is fond of saying, and she’s not wrong. My years living in larger cities make me wince at Sewanee’s whiteness. It’s the price you pay; if you’re going to have the audacity to call yourself the University of the South, you’re going to be taking on all the wretched, complex freight of that word “South,” and you can’t expect other people not to know what that freight is. They know. People of color just don’t apply in large numbers, and it ain’t no mystery why.

It’s still a place without any women in upper administration, or at least, not any visible today. Everyone who conferred degrees or had anything to do with the ceremonial was white and male: chancellor and bishops and chaplain and vice-chancellor and provost and deans, and if that ever seemed normal to my diffident 18-year-old-eyes, it shocks me today.

You’d think, once you know all those things, once you’ve lived there and seen behind  the curtain, that Sewanee has lost its power over you. That’s where you’d be wrong, of course. Refusing to be charmed by Sewanee is like ignoring your ex-wife’s calls in the middle of the night, when you know she is drunk and calling you from a bar and everything she says is going to be a lie, but you know just as surely that you are going to pick up that phone, goddammit, and you’re going to get your keys and stumble out the door and drive to wherever she is, and yes, probably sleep on her sofa too once you get her home safely, just to make sure she’s all right in the morning. You can know all the stuff you know, and all the people you know it about, and by the time the choir hits the soaring descant on “Christ Is Made The Sure Foundation,” it will not matter. You can’t stand there and sing All that dedicated city, dearly loved of God on high and not feel that clench in your throat, that tightness in your chest.

Sewanee will never not be the place I met and fell in love with my husband, and the place we bought our first house, and the place I lived for seven years. But also, Sewanee will never not be the place that viciously screwed the person I love most in the world, and the place where some friendships are buried forever because of that. It will never not be the place I tasted my first beer, got laid by a guy, got laid by a girl, bit into a tomato right off the vine and hot from the sun, and learned that the word for my kind of conservative was in fact liberal.

Sewanee will never not be a tough place to be a woman, to be queer, to be non-white, to be non-Christian. It will also never not be a wonderful place to be all or one or several of those things.

But all that was too long to say to Emily today, so I just hugged her. “I’m so proud of you,” I said. She will figure out the rest. 

1 comment:

  1. Mimi, you rock. I love this.
    I will tell you that there is at least ONE woman I know of...well, maybe two..in the higher echelons...Susan Askew C'82 director of alumni relations and Kim Heitzenrater C'91 director of career services, though it now has another name. I guess these aren't high up administrative positions, but at least it's a start. Until recently, there was a woman provost...but we are back to a man...yet one I love! John Swallow, whom I knew in the choir.

    I, too, marvel at the lack of diversity. I used to be annoyed beyond belief when it would be "multicultural visit" weekend and they would host a HUGE group of "diverse" students..giving them what I thought was a false impression of Sewanee. When the 3 or 4 who decided to attend finally showed up on the Mountain, I wondered if they felt betrayed.

    Thanks for taking me back to the "lump in my throat"...I will miss that. We can't attend our 20th reunion this year because of Andy's responsibilities here (ah, the life of clergy)..but we go back as often as we can. We spend less time on campus than we do fishing and hiking with our kids. Maybe one day they, too, will be astounded to learn there is a school there!

    Peace and love to you and Don!