Monday, June 13, 2005

Melancholy Professor/Rock Star Professor: Musings on a Bi-Polar Weekend

This was graduation weekend at my university. It was also my birthday weekend. But mostly, it was graduation weekend, as I had to do double duty and attend two separate college graduations. First up was the small college where I spent the first two years on this job teaching. For those of you just tuning in (or if I haven't actually ever blogged about this before) I teach at a big urban university which bought, and then sold three years later, a struggling liberal arts college in a nearby suburb. I was initially hired by the big university to teach at the smaller college, and then when the board of trustees decided to close the college, I transferred into the college of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the main campus.

This, then, was not only graduation at the small college, but the last graduation ever for a college that had been around since 1868. It was a women's college until 1981 and retained that empowered, creative, women's college aura. Getting my first job at this school was a dream come true. I know, any job is a dream come true, but really. It was a gorgeous campus in a leafy, lakeside neighborhood. I wish I could find a better picture, one that would better show the rolling lawn, or the leafy trees, but this kind of gives you an idea:

The classrooms felt like what you thought college would be when you dreamed about it as a kid: big wooden doorways and windows, antique wooden desks, intricately tiled floors. The long hallways still have giant floor-to-ceiling mirrors on each end where students once checked their clothes and hair in the morning as they got ready for class. We had our faculty meetings in what had been the library for most of the college's life, with dark wooden walls, and a tiny circular staircase leading up to a cat walk that lined the outside edge of the room, giving the room an extra level of bookshelves. I'd sit in faculty meetings and get lost in the paneled ceiling, each pale green panel painted with a golden icon--a heart with a sword in it, a fish, a shepard's cane, and also some really bizarre and arcane symbols that I couldn't figure out. But what a great way to pass the time.

The ground floor was dominated by a chapel, as beautiful and intricate as anything I've ever seen in Europe. I loved going in there and thinking about the generations of students and faculty who had sat in there through the years and I tried to draw some of the energy of their prayers into me. I don't go to church, and my feelings about organized religion would need their own blog and kill the mood of this post, but one of my mother's sayings during my childhood was "never discount the power of faith," something a woman who briefly tutored me in Wicca a long time ago reiterated, and I believe it. If you stand in a place where people have prayed, and cried, and struggled, and believed, and if you let yourself be quiet and still, you can feel their energy.

The top floor, which was mostly abandoned during my time there, except for some art studios, had been where the nuns lived up until the 1960s, when the school became only unofficially affiliated with the order of the Sacred Heart. There was a rumor that it was haunted by the ghost of a nun who had killed herself because she was pregnant--you knew she was there if you smelt roses from out of nowhere. Big university had turned the nuns' rooms into storage rooms, and locked the doors. But sometimes, when I went exploring during downtime between classes, I would find an empty one with an unlocked door and I go in and try to imagine what it was like when it was someone's room. What would it be like to sleep and think and write in a room that high up in the trees? From the nook made by the dormer windows, I could see over the trees to the lake. The nuns' lockers where still there, lining the upstairs hallway, and some of them still had names pasted inside, or contact paper lining, or scraps of paper. It was quiet and dusty and magical. Sometimes I'd open what I thought was a closet and find a whole other room, or a set of stairs.

Once, at the end of last year, just after they had announced the closing, an art history professor who had been there for at least twenty years, and who specializes in architecture, and had therefore been kind of the spiritual custodian of the building's layout and its history, took a few of us on a special tour. We went through old photography labs and art studios, into classrooms that big university hadn't touched, that had been the kingdoms of long dead professors. They still had signs on the walls and some furniture set up in ways that reflected the classrooms they had once been. My colleagues told me about these women, who had been old, old, old when they began their careers there, still respectful and maybe a little fearful of treading in their long lost colleagues' fiefdoms. We went into a tiny room hidden behind a stained glass window that housed the carillon (which hadn't been played for years), and finally, into an unfinished attic, where we picked our way delicately over boards and planks to a ladder that led to the cupola that sat at the top of the building. One at a time, we climbed up the ladder, moved the board the covered the hole at the top, and poked our heads out squarely in the middle of the cupola, just under the Irish cross. And from up there you could see 360 degrees around you, over the grassy land the building sat on, across the trees, and out to the lake, deep dark blue from so high up. While one person went up the ladder and looked out, the rest of us carved our initials and the date into the ceiling beams. At one point I remember looking up and seeing a colleague who had been kind of brusque with me since my arrival, maybe because that's just her way, maybe because I symbolized the onslaught of the big university on their world, but who I wanted to like me, because she was tough and smart and passionate, and as she rotated on the ladder, looking around as far as she could see, the wind caught her long hair and blew it up and around her face into the brilliant blue of the afternoon sky. It was one of those moments that are so perfect and so moving and so powerful that they are almost lost even as they happen, because you can't stop meta-narrating them and just experience them. But as I'm typing this tonight I see her again, see the wildness of her hair in the breeze--like William Holman Hunt's Lady of Shalott--and I get a lump in my throat and have to squeeze my eyes shut to keep them from tearing. I knew I was someplace special, and I knew I had to leave, and I wanted, more than anything, to linger in the powerful, conspiratory kinship of that moment.

I left a few days later and moved my stuff down to the main campus where I settled in among new colleagues and new students and didn't really look back, because that's not something I let myself do, and I had a great year, taught intensely challenging classes, got involved in curriculum design, got swept up in the rhthyms of this new world. I loved my 20 minute commute into one of my favorite neighborhoods in Chicago, and the fact that the cafeteria always had vegetarian sushi, which became my standby lunch. I told myself I had to move down a year before the school actually closed because of my career (true: I needed to acclimate into the program which will hopefully tenure me) and because someone had to be there to help the small college students as they transferred into the larger one. And I did teach a lot of those students this year.

So I got up early on Saturday morning, my birthday, and drove an hour up to my old college, and by nine o' clock was sitting, robed, with my colleagues, under a tent on the front lawn of the school. It was already 90 degrees. The ceremony was passionate and tearful and brave as the students said goodbye, as they must, as they do every year, everywhere, and as my colleagues said goodbye, for real, forever, to a college and a building that had been their lives for their entire careers. Until big university came along, this little school had been relatively cloistered from the nastiness of academia. People came and they stayed; often they taught the children and even grandchildren of their former students. During a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the main building last weekend, I saw several generations of women who had gone to the school stand huddled on the front lawn, looking up at Old Main, and crying.

When the ceremony was over, the faculty lined up in a semi-circle and, as always, greeted each graduate with a handshake. Having been gone for a year, I was amazed at how many faces I had forgotten--I don't usually forget things--as students I didn't really remember hugged me and thanked me and told me what they were doing after graduation. It was emotional, but also a bit of a disconnect, mostly because I refused to go to the weepy place and focused instead on how much better I actually like teaching and participating in the larger college in the cool downtown neighborhood, and on how I was going to go to Target on my way home and buy a charger stand for the new ipod shuffle I got for my birthday. A lifetime of church-going teaches you to look serene and reverent while your mind plans and strategies and narrativizes. I drove away feeling little and lost. There was never a day I taught in that building that I didn't feel awe at its beauty, didn't feel touched by its spirit, didn't feel proud to walk its majestic halls.

Sunday afternoon was the big college of LA&S graduation, and, as this is already way too long, I'll keep it brief. I drove to the venue, a major arena just outside of Chicago (the last time I was in it was during Tori's Choirgirl Hotel tour) with a car full of new school colleagues. We had a good time processing recent administrative changes, talking about departures and lines and general, informational, but not too juicy, school topics. Then we pushed past the hordes of students into the faculty section of the staging area where everyone seemed a bit torn between robing and eating one last sandwich--who wants mustard on $800 robes? Then all the faculty lined up in a narrow, cement hallway and my friend leaned back and said, "You'll see why I dragged you here, you'll see." And then the line started moving, fast, faster and suddenly we emerged from the tunnel into the bright lights of a packed arena, to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance, over and over and over; academic nerds, suddenly transformed into brightly robed super heros under the glaring lights and to the tumultuous applause of a sea of graduates in royal blue robes. The lines split and separated and went down separate aisles and rejoined, dramatically, at the base of the main podium as we marched up the risers, up to our seats facing the students. And it was magic, too. But a louder, more exuberant magic. An I-dare-you-to-be-cynical-about-this magic.

The ceremony was long, and after a while the adrenaline rush died down and then I realized how lucky I was to be sitting between people I liked and could chat comfortably with during the readings and walkings across the stage and handshakings and waves of 1500 graduates. I'll go again next year. I think this kind of thing is kind of addictive--getting to wear your robes and be all Jude the Obscure, (only happy, and with living children) seeing your colleagues in theirs, being in a procession led by someone carrying a medieval mace.


Anonymous joanna said...

Beautiful piece about the college. It took me back to the celebration we had when the nuns sold my high school to another school. By then, the other school had been using the building for years, so we didn't have a graduation, but we did have a mass and a weekend full of activities and reunions on the convent grounds for the last time.
Happy Birthday! My birthday was on Saturday, too.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Margo, darling said...

Happy Birthday to you, too. Don't you love being a Gemini? When I was in elementary school, my birthday was on the last day of the school year, which I thought made it extra special. But then by the time I got to high school it was just the middle of finals week. Sheesh.

8:37 PM  

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