Friday, July 22, 2011

i'm a PEACE girl

On the eve of my 18th birthday, my parents and i turned the corner of New Bern Ave. and Wilmington Street. we sped past the n.c. legislature building and the museum of history i had visited in 7th grade, there she was. just over the horizon stood a great lady, her large white arms and red brick skirt drawing me like a mother welcoming her child home. though she stood at the end of this very old street, seeing her there meant a beginning for me.

hours later my parents would leave me in the lap of this great lady, and i would live with her for two years. she would nurture me and scold me, challenge and celebrate me, teaching me a lot about the world, about God, and about myself.

that afternoon i became a Peace Girl, with most of my belongings housed in a room with polished wood floors and orange and green plaid bedspread to match my roommate's, and a window that looked out over a green lawn and at its center a fountain that in those two years would take on great meaning for me. i'd packed a trunk with shampoo and toothpaste, my raggedy andy, yellow and green towels that coordinated with my bedspread, tucked in a bright green laundry basket i use to this day — and with it all a nutty unspoken dream of being a writer. and i was hoping this grand old lady would help me figure out how.

i live in the same city now, and every time i turn that same street corner and see those arms, though it's been 36 years, i feel the flutter of promise. 

i suppose every girl feels that way about her college, but i can only speak for myself. i chose Peace not only because my sister had graduated from there that spring, but because it was what back then was called a 'girl's school'. i'd spent 12 years in classrooms where boys pulled rank, scolded and ridiculed, teased and cajoled and frankly, i welcomed some time to see what we girls could do without them.

within weeks i was sipping coffee with my new friends in the crowded cafeteria and writing about that dream of mine in my journal. "i'd bet on that dream," my professor wrote on that entry. she actually thought i could do it? i still have the journal, and though the writing is pretty abysmal, it represents something crucial to me: my attempts to find my voice. like learning to ride a bicycle, the entries were my first real effort to do something i had long wished for.

on april 12 of my freshman year — my mother's birthday — just a few weeks before i would leave the grand lady's skirts and head for a summer at home, the editor of the literary magazine tapped me to take her place the next year. i had never even taken a creative writing class.

i have said before that when i did enroll in that first writing class the next fall, it was as if God had taken a can opener to my head, allowing all those things i had been keeping inside it OUT and into the world. i couldn't stop myself. i wrote on everything i could find — notebooks and napkins and the edges of the newspaper, event my textbooks — stories and poems i couldn't believe i was inventing — sharing them at a table of other student writers. in that class, i learned that not everyone had felt the love i felt growing up, and that it was ok to put it on paper and share it with the world. i learned that i had a few stories to tell myself, and though i was not the best writer at all, knowing there were others better than me made me a better writer. (though in tennis class i was always paired with a member of the tennis team, it never made me better at tennis.)

in that room i also learned how to encourage other writers, how to pull the story out of myself and others in surprising ways. it is a skill i use still, and often.

outside of class i watched my fellow Peace girls find their voices, too. in student government (one would later be leader of the grand old lady herself). in art. in fashion. doctor, lawyer, indian chieftress, you name it. they started to become their best selves because of these two years. i watched them speak up in class without fear of ridicule from a boy, watched them break the rules sometimes (well, often), watched them challenge each other at backgammon and basketball and politics.

and i learned a lot about God. and not because on my Old Testament exam i had to list all the kings of Israel in the little blue book, but from a wise man who spoke to us each week in chapel. (yes, back then, we actually went, pretty much every week)... it's there, in my journal, how on one of those Wednesdays, he talked about the three most important decisions we would make in life, and not necessarily while in the gathers of the grand old lady's skirts: our life's passion, who we would spend the rest of our lives loving, and what our concept of who God was to us. i thought about these three things a lot after that day. still do.

on the day of our final exam in New Testament, we gathered in the auditorium with our blue books in hand. our professor sat on stage seated on the stool in front of a grand piano, and when we had all settled into our seats, he began to play "Once I had a Secret Love,"

'Once I had a secret love
That lived within the heart of me
All too soon my secret love
Became impatient to be free'

and turns out, he was talking about God. our exam was to listen to him. that was all. to listen to his voice. and to continue once we left him and our lady, to keep trying to listen to our own. which of course was connect to that secret love of his.

not every day was grand in those two years. i was picked for the honors English program, but the thesis i wrote (i think it was on Faulkner... whom i still can't understand) was not up to honors quality. i will never forget how i disappointed my professor the day she told me i hadn't done good work. and how i had short changed myself. the grand old lady had believed in me, and somehow i had not believed in me. but this was something important to her, that i learn that i don't always make the cut.

and i also learned this: all those women together in one place sometimes can end up not being a good thing. i was sometimes not a good friend to my Peace sisters. not at all. and i am ashamed of that. sometimes they weren't so good to me, and there have been days in the last 35 years when both still cause ache.

but mostly those two years were ones of good and plenty, and when we gather every so often at reunions i am reminded of how much joy just being with them brings me.

at graduation, we gathered around the fountain in white dresses, carrying bouquets of red roses and sang our alma mater together and threw one of our roses in the fountain. it was a poignant moment for us all, because we would be leaving each other, most of us transferring to a four-year college or university to earn a degree. others married, got jobs. i was terrified to leave the lady who had been my mother mentor. (i recall when i approached the steps of the journalism school building at Chapel Hill for the first time thinking how unwelcoming those tall steps seemed to me.) 

in my two years away from Peace i floundered, losing my voice for awhile, except in one lone feature writing class. i longed to hide myself in those mighty skirts again, but there was no doing that. years later, when my classmate came to lead her, Peace became a baccalaureate program. and thrived. this fall, the daughter of my friend and classmate will be president of the student body.

several years ago i came back to the grand old lady, for a writing residency program where i was once again the student. we met in a classroom that had not been built when i was there, and among the dozen or so students in my class, i was the only alum. but surrounded by those welcoming skirts again, my voice came through more loudly than i had dreamed it could when i was 20. and though i had been a professional writer for over 20 years by that time, this time i was writing fiction, and i was surprised — my heart filled once again with promise — when the professor liked my work. my undergraduate professor was there, and in a moment i will never forget, she told me that the novelist teaching me that week said of me: "she is better than she thinks."

last year a new leader came to Peace. in the past few months, there have been a lot of changes. faculty and staff fired. programs erased. more makeover for our grand old lady, who some think was too out of date.

and yesterday i learned online that the leader of the our lady has decided to change her name  — after 152 years of creating strong women — and open her skirts to men. MEN! the letter even referred to this: Alumnae(i) ... we have always been the feminine. it is a bit hard to take.

 a FB Peace Girls group has shown outrage, and though the majority of the posts point their rage toward the end of the tradition we knew as students, (a very few) others say it's change or die. both i think have a point.

i don't know, honestly, how i feel. i mourn the future chance for a girl like me who won't have the experience of a woman's college like my Peace. no longer is she just a 'girl's school', but she is a college educating young women to be thinkers, dreamers, leaders. but it is a different time now, and young women have changed much since 1975. i know because i have raised one. still, i know having the choice of an all-female college should be there for those young women who want it. now, i fear, fewer of them will choose Peace. 

but this is what i know for sure: once i had a secret love. several in fact that lived in the heart of me. and Peace is one of them. i do wonder, what does this grand old lady want? has she, too, become impatient to be free? and free from what? i can't imagine it is from her feminine voice. no Peace girl would ever want to lose that. my prayer is that those who are listening most carefully will hear just want she means.

susan byrum rountree, class of '77