Monday, February 11, 2013

Pioneer stories, our stories.

Just some of my college sisters, grateful for the pioneers who came before us.

Last night, I attended a gathering in celebration of 40 years of coeducation at my alma mater. It was inspiring, humbling, and a reminder that stories are always out there - and it's great to have a forum where we can share them.

Our school became a coed institution in 1972, and many women from that first class (the Pioneers of '77 as we call them) were on hand for the weekend's events, including a panel discussion and a dinner.

I knew from my past interactions with these pioneers that they have formed a deep friendship, a true tribe, in the 30+ years that they have been out in the world after college. After all, there were only 88 of them in that first class, smushed onto our small campus with 1,000 men. Nearly half of those 88 have gone on the class's annual beach trip, a tradition that began when they turned 50. When you're in a room with any number of them, it's clear they are sisters, laughing and embracing and bonded at the soul.

I admit that before yesterday, I never really thought that their bond came from anything other than, well, spending four years together at college, as you do, as I did. And while that's definitely part of it, the discussions yesterday brought to light the difficulties they faced as individuals and as a collective. Coming into a school that had been all-male for 135 years, they encountered prejudice - for simply being women - and pressure - for being the first women.

They lacked the support system that is so deeply ingrained in most schools today, no counselors, no health advisers, hardly any women to lift them up or encourage them, male professors who were worried they would have to change their lectures with women in the classroom.

"They brought us in and then didn't know what to do with us," one speaker said. To paraphrase another: they had words like "women's lib" and "male chauvinist"; they didn't have words like "stalking" or "date rape."

And though there were 88 of them, they faced many of these hard, confusing, chaotic situations alone, never thinking that their classmates might be experiencing similar things - or perhaps not knowing how to bring them up. For many of them, it was only after graduating and sharing stories through the decades that they came to understand they had not been alone.

Forty years later, they celebrate each other, they lift each other up. Their yearly beach getaway has allowed new friendships to form between women who did not know each other at school, and provided a space for sharing and support. They are writers, engineers, teachers, doctors, mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, pioneers, the ones who paved the way, women, our women.

At the dinner, two people were honored in particular. First was the college's president emeritus who was in office when women came to campus, who was intricate in deciding that they should. He sat, shoulders hunched, and I couldn't see his face, but as we surrounded him in a standing ovation I like to think he wore a shining beam. What must it feel like, to see these strong women you knew first as teenagers, to see them return here with joy and pride and thank you these many decades later?

Then, they honored the woman who had been in charge of the dorms during those first coed years, one of the very few women on staff, one of their only sources of encouragement. She too is old and hunched, and her daughter helped her inch out of her chair at the front table, so she could stand and wave and grin at the applauding room. The room full of the girls she had supported when they so desperately needed it - and did she know, until now, what it meant? "We could have never done it without her," was an oft-repeated phrase during the evening, and what a blessing for her to hear it.

I felt that yesterday spurred within the women and men gathered on campus a desire to tell stories, no matter their generation. Some recalled happy, carefree college memories. Others spoke of the blessings of those relationships begun after their years at school. Men who were present for the introduction of women to the college shared their thoughts (though I wish there had been more men present for the entire event), including one whose daughter is now a student - all has come full circle. Issues that still face women - and men - on campus today were brought up.

An African-American alumna of the '80s stood and shared how the prejudices she faced in regards to both race and gender had much in common with the struggles of the first women. I wish I had her exact eloquent words, but she made this point: It's really important to acknowledge the hard parts of this place and its history and the hard parts of individual experiences here and the impact that has. But - and this I distinctly remember her saying: "I'm here because I love this place." There was a glimmer in her eye, a deepness and a brightness to her voice and her words and it is this cycle of history and mystery and good and bad and desolate and fulfilling that we come to find here and perhaps every place we find ourselves in the world - and yes, it should all be remembered, nothing swept under a rug. There is still work to be done.

Throughout the night, I thought of my friends from this place, amazing women all, from the ones I think of as soul sisters to the ones I saw only in passing on campus but knew they did great things. There is not a woman associated with this place that I wouldn't love to get to know. I thought of songs sung and articles written and debates held and first honors won and roles performed and matches played and the conversations and the laughter and the prayer and the tears and the beauty of my friends, women from my generation that forged my college experience (along with some pretty fantastic men, too). And I looked around the room and saw current students listening, sharing this experience, at the beginning of their journey into these life-affirming friendships.

I think that most of us realize what we have, these bonds that will not break three, ten, forty years after graduation. I think we know that there's nothing else like it. And when I schedule phone dates, when I book flights for weddings, when I send an e-mail or a card or a random text, when I run into one of you on the street, I look back with a bit of nostalgia - but I look forward even more, knowing that we hold something that goes back long before us and will continue long after.

I look forward, knowing that we are not done, that we have heart and grace, that we are sisters.


Sue McAvoy said...

Yes, you totally got it, Claire! Thanks for weaving your words to express what we all feel. Hugs to you!

Meg said...

Claire, thank you so much for capturing the event beautifully.

richardg said...

Thanks, Claire. As one of those "wild women" of 1977 (a name we only adopted at age 50 at Ocean Isle Beach), I can attest to the gift of time to get to know more of my fellow women alums. I wish there had been more attention paid to the "pre-pioneers" who took advantage of coeduation in 1972, transferred in, and graduated before 1977. We stood on their shoulders.
Van Williamson Garrison, 1977