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Former Student Makes Good,Writes Back

I will call her Susan. I taught her at Smith College sixteen years ago, and when she sent me an email, a couple of days ago, I had to ask her to send me a photo of herself because I couldn’t quite remember her name.

The minute I saw the photograph, I remembered everything: her voice, her fear, her bravery, and her nerve. She describes herself as she was then: “a high school dropout, married and divorced, working class farm folk.” Indeed, with her southern accent and her colorful plaid blouses in a sea of fashionable denim and black, she was most un-common at Smith in the 80s. I did what I could to smooth a path for her; in long chats in my office, I offered shots of self-esteem and bolstered her courage to persist despite the loneliness and isolation she felt. Her struggle to compete and survive in that environment, given her incomplete public school education and the prep-school hot-house grooming of most of her peers, was colossal. The daily work, the fire, the running-to-catch-up was all hers, every one of her four years there. I just fanned the coals now and then, gave her pep-talks, held her jacket on the sidelines while she proved herself.

Now she has her Ph.D. in theatre with a specialization in costume design (wonderful justice–she who violated unspoken dress codes learned how people create identities with costume). She has a book pending at UCLA Press and a job as a college professor. She must have googled me and sent me an email that reminds me (why do I always forget and need to be reminded again?) why I have kept on doing what I do.

She reminds me, “One day you asked me what I wanted to do with my education and I told you I wanted to come back to Smith and teach other women like me. You said there weren’t many women like me at Smith.” I remember her earnestness, my honestly, and how we rocked back in our chairs laughing, acknowledging the truth of that observation. Now, she says, she is teaching at a four-year college in the Great Plains, teaching women and men like her, she says, “who burn for more than they knew growing up.”

That’s it. That’s why we do this. Because there are some who burn for more than they knew growing up. She says it so simply, so beautifully.

She closes her email, “I suppose it’s appropriate as you near retirement that I offer my gratitude…. Thank you so much for changing my life, for nurturing my imagination and curiosity…. You loved me in a way no one ever has before or since. Thank you.”

No, Susan. Thank YOU. I’m so grateful to you for reminding me what I was there for. I have often quoted Ellen Stewart, the woman who founded La Mama theatre in NYC: “All that mattered was the love.” I believe it, but sometimes I forget. This reminder is all the retirement party I ever want.


-2 responses to “Former Student Makes Good,Writes Back”

  1. Rob says:

    “who burn for more than they knew growing up.”

    Says so much about so many of our lives…


  2. admin says:

    Ain’t that the truth! And your photoblog is WONDERFUL. I’m so impressed. I was never able to master the mechanics of putting photos and words together on a bootsnall blog. You’ve done it. Very impressive! May I post your blog address?

  3. jessie says:

    Thank you so much for this post. It reminds me of the wonderful professors I had at Adrian College. I was lucky to have their support and encouragment. I wonder what my life would be like if I hadn’t had them there to hold my coat on the sidelines. Tankyou Kendall.
    Jessie (JetGirl)

  4. admin says:

    Write to them. Tell them. Make their day. And once again–it was “Susan” who made my life make sense by giving me a jacket to hold. The drama was hers. The work was hers. I just stood on the sidelines (as I still do) cheering for her good work. Who is the teacher? Who is the student? Whose jacket is that? We mirror each other. Thanks, Jetgirl.

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