In two weeks I’m heading up to the “happy valley” in Western Massachusetts for my 20th college reunion at Smith College. I’m working on an essay about this – not about me or being forty-one or about the turning of the generations, but about the place, its history and what, if anything, it still means to spend time in a place dedicated to women’s education, history, experiences.
When I’ve visited recently, especially when there are no students there, I keep thinking about its beauty – it’s such an obvious thing, the beauty of the place, but you forget it, and it has to mean something. And the quietness when the students are not there, but that everything is waiting for them, the care that is given to help us believe we are cared for:
“A. Williams – one may read it in the moonlight; and next to it some Mary or Eleanor, Mildred, Sarah, Phoebe upon square cards on their doors. All names, nothing but names. The cool white light withered them and starched them until it seemed as if the only purpose of all those names was to rise martially in order should there be a call on them to extinguish a fire, suppress an insurrection, or pass an examination. Such is the power of names written upon cards pinned on doors. Such too the resemblance, what with tiles, corridors, and bedroom doors, to dairy or nunnery, a place of seclusion or discipline, where the bowl of milk stands cool and pure and there’s a great washing of linen.”
Virginia Woolf, “A Woman’s College from Outside,” 1928
In Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy writes she was grateful for her Catholic education, in spite of everything because it was a history, a narrative, that she could reject and modify but it got her into the story. Looking at the world Smith gave me, I think something like that – it was not perfect in all sots of ways I want to give proper attention and space to – but it was a history. For many of us, you could be ambivalent or reject assets of the history, the traditions, but few were apathetic to it. It didn’t make a utopia, it may or may not have made a counterculture, but it was an experience, it was something, it wasn’t a place you went to pass the time. And so I go back to Woolf:
she lay in this good world, this new world, the world at the end of the tunnel, until a desire to see it or forestall it drove her, tossing her blankets, to guide herself to the window, ad there, looking out upon the garden, where the mist lay, all the windows open, one fiery-bluish, something murmuring in the distance, the world of course, and the morning coming. “Oh,” she cried, as if in pain.