|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.
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.
|They have no clue that's a library behind them.|
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.