You may well be wondering what the hell happened this week. Where are the promised blog posts here and on Dead White Guys and The Girl Who Loved Zombies and Tate Street High Society? Where are my thoughts about Ferguson or the Keystone Pipeline or the series finale of Agent Carter?
Or maybe you know.
Monday was my 28th birthday and it was in many respects both ordinary and excellent. I had a great day and I looked forward to celebrating more with friends this weekend. More than that, I felt optimistic about life. It felt like everything was looking up. I had a great job interview that afternoon. It seemed like many of my projects were falling into place. I was about to write a post for this blog, in fact, about optimism and another about the book club I’m starting with my friend, Kelly.
I made these plans for Tuesday, March 3. I spent that morning the way I often do–with yoga and reading and other offline pursuits. Around 1pm, I received an email from my undergraduate alma mater, Sweet Briar College, a small women’s college in rural Virginia. The email said–in the plainest and somehow most painful terms–that the school is closing this August.
Now, I’m a pacifist and kind of a wimp so I’ve never been in a real physical fight. But I can say confidently that I know how it feels to be sucker punched.
As a classmate noted on twitter: “I feel like someone burned my house down while my grandma was still in it.” Others have likened it to the feeling when a friend has suddenly died. Both are apt. We were grieving–reeling. Yes, everyone knows that times have been hard for education and on private liberal arts institutions in particular. But surely if the school was on the brink, someone would have said something.
I won’t get into the politics here. No one fully understands them at the moment, except perhaps the school’s board members and they are uniformly not talking. The administration told us–and has reiterated–there is no hope. But of course within hours of the announcement, alumnae gathered on social media to see what we could do. Action groups were formed. We have a hashtag (#SaveSweetBriar) and a website (www.savingsweetbriar.com). I do hope you’ll check them out.
But I’m not writing this to tell you our plans. I’m writing this to explain, if I can, why Sweet Briar is worth saving.
I was not a happy teenager. As is true for so many, high school rarely felt like a safe or welcoming place. I worked hard with the intention of getting through it and getting into college. You will love college, my teachers said. How right they were. I applied to eight different schools my senior year and was admitted to six. Sometimes I joke that there are six parallel universes, one for each school. Even with what’s happened, I prefer this universe.
Ultimately, I chose Sweet Briar. In part for its uniquely beautiful campus, in part for its creative writing and study abroad programs, and in part for the impressive financial package they gave me. Mind you, I still turned down full rides at two fairly prestigious state schools in favor of these partial–if generous–scholarships.
Naturally, college isn’t easy at first either. I was homesick. I didn’t feel like I fit in. Small, quirky schools are often an acquired taste. All of that sisterhood talk felt like nonsense. What sisterhood–I didn’t know these women or belong with them. After several tearful phone calls, my parents and I decided that if I didn’t like the school enough after my first week of classes, I could come home.
I loved my first semester classes: Italian I, Tudor/Stuart England, Globalization, The Art of the Essay, Fiction Workshop. I went on to love pretty much every class I took at Sweet Briar from Statistics for Behavioral Science to American Romanticism to On Monsters to Crime and Punishment in the West. I took many more classes than I strictly needed to in order to graduate. In fact, I finished with two majors (English & Creative Writing and Italian Studies) and the college’s 24-credit honors degree. And these classes weren’t just fun–they were academically rigorous. Our faculty expected frequent class participation and thoughtfully written essays. It didn’t matter if the class wasn’t in your major, you worked just as hard. And they rewarded us for it, not with easy grades, but with their time and energy inside and outside of the classroom.
Beyond academics, I was finding my niche(s) in all sorts of places from the theater department’s production of Macbeth to the campus newspaper to the outdoors program (cleverly named SWEBOP). In my four years there I learned that, whatever outsiders’ perceptions of the school’s traditions and demographics, there is no uniform culture at Sweet Briar save one: a community of women who care for one another. I used to complain that my classmates who were overzealous in their expression of school spirit had drunk too much of the pink and green Kool-Aid. What I know now is that if there is such a thing, we were all drinking it–and it was simply the unifying belief that an institution could be founded on love, female empowerment, and intellectual curiosity.
Trust me, if you’d told me ten years ago that today I’d be fighting like mad to save my school with a bunch of pearl-wearing 21st century Southern belles in pink and green sundresses, I’d have given you a wide berth. But Sweet Briar wasn’t–and isn’t–for one kind of student. Like all the best places, it’s what you make of it. It’s a beautiful opportunity. Every community member has their own Sweet Briar, and each of them is entirely legitimate.
And its influence isn’t just in its course catalog or its extracurriculars. It has an immediate community in Amherst County, VA, where students volunteer and spend their time. Sophomore year, we helped build a house with Habitat for Humanity. More than one of my friends in the education program volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters at a local elementary school. We did exhibits for the children’s museum in Lynchburg. Service is, in fact, a large part of the college’s mission. And it is hardly confined to Amherst Co. or Virginia or the United States. The last time I was on campus, a professor explained to me her student’s work with filtration methods for water sources in Africa. I was impressed–but not surprised. It was a Sweet Briar kind of project.
I’ve been thinking about what it would mean for the school to close and it’s not just that it would make my fellow alumnae and the current students and faculty very unhappy, although it will. It would be another forfeit in the fight for women’s rights. It would be a concession to the wrongheaded mindset we have about education in this country. It would be a loss of innovative thinkers and articulate women who can advocate for themselves and others. Of sustainability projects and artistic expression. It’s not just about Sweet Briar–it’s about how we’re going to deal with these things moving forward. Because they will keep happening. And it seems like the last thing we should do is shrug our shoulders and hand over the keys.
One of the aspects of this that bothers me personally is that I had a plan for Sweet Briar. It’s true I can’t quantify all the key ways in which the school helped me become who I am. I couldn’t assign a number to putting me in touch with my MFA program or giving me the drive to make the world a better place or even teaching me the phrase chi dorme non piglia pesce. There is a number I do know: $80,000. That’s the money Sweet Briar gave me for my education with no expectation of repayment. It is the money I have always intended to pay back over the course of my adulthood and help fund the next generation of Sweet Briar women. If the school fails, I’ve been cheated of that opportunity.
I’ve been tweeting nonstop with friends and classmates and one of the points people have made is that there will no doubt still be reunions. The college’s community will survive and continue to love each other and the Sweet Briar they knew. I don’t doubt it. But a member of my sister class pointed out a fact that really struck me: yes, the community will survive for a while, but one day not terribly long from now, that community will cease to exist. It may sound dramatic to say so, but perhaps drama is fair in this situation. Consequently what is most horrible isn’t the loss of what Sweet Briar has been, even very recently–it’s the loss of what it could have been in five years, ten years, forty years.
This past May, I had the opportunity to attend my very first reunion. One of the most moving moments of the weekend was during the afternoon luncheon when the alumna association accounted for the money raised by reunion classes. The very last class represented was that of 1939 or 1934–one very little, very old lady had made it to reunion. “Now that’s a goal,” I told one of my friends.
There will be more little old Sweet Briar ladies and I still hope I’m one of them, but what will fade is the number of young women inspired by those little old ladies to be part of something different and powerful. And that is tragic.
So if it seemed a bit insane for a small group of alumnae to oppose the eminently rational decision of its Board of Directors, I hope I’ve given at least some sense why we can’t give up without fighting. I went to school with some very intelligent women. We’re not deluded and we’re not idiots. We know this will be hard and there are moments when it feels nearly impossible. Luckily, we have each other to get us through this–and no matter the outcome, we will find a way to do right by our institution, its students, and its faculty.
Because I know what I owe Sweet Briar and I would venture to say my sisters do, too. It’s not just a number. I owe her my time, my energy, my optimism, my tears, my love, my financial support (whatever I can give), my determination, and my very last shred of hope. And she’ll have them.