So You Dream of Sarah Lawrence College

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Sarah Lawrence College.  Those words show up yet again on the lips of a young female lead while I’m watching a movie. The writers of these scripts know that Sarah Lawrence is famous for being a number of things: the black sheep of the Ivy League’s Seven Sisters (though not one of the actual seven); expensive education for families who can helicopter their children home for the weekend with their own choppers; artistic and demanding liberal arts icon.

Speaking its name, characters automatically define themselves as people who have big dreams and the necessary ambition to achieve them.  For characters from “the wrong side of the tracks” like Lady Bird, in the similarly named movie, wishing to attend that school also illustrates her desire to cross over those dividing rails from poor to so wealthy that one can afford an education that competes to be the most expensive in the country. Kat Stratford, though more upper-middle-class than poor, was ready to ditch the dull, suburban, cookie-cutter mentality of her peers in Ten Things I Hate about You.  Allie Hamilton in The Notebook illustrates she is the maverick of her wealthy family by returning to her small town from Sarah Lawrence.  Even Mia Thermopolis, a forgotten princess in The Princess Diaries attends SLC.  Mia is the perfect symbol: a smudgy, outsider sort of girl who somehow knows deep down that she is meant for better things, and in this case, she’s blood of royalty. . .she just doesn’t know it yet.  Desiring SLC helps to underscore her crowning.

No other Ivy League school is depicted in this way in fiction.  Sure, in film Harvard or Princeton exudes wealth and snobbery, as Smith and Barnard equal smart, wealthy and serious, but few characters see those places as transformational. Sarah Lawrence represents more, and with more depth, a chrysalis, maybe a crucible.

And having attended, I agree with the writers or directors for their choice.

However, I have a love/hate relationship when I am sitting in a movie and suddenly any character shares the same dreams I had so many years ago: to be an SLC graduate; my experience both met my expectations and also completely disillusioned me.

I write this now to all the young, not-so-wealthy students who look to SLC with starry, unaware eyes.

First, a disclaimer, I attended as a graduate student, so my experience is different from an undergrad’s:  no dorm rooms, no easy access to all the Victorian charms of the campus, fewer classes for fewer years.  And I came in with a college experience in hand which may have stunted or broadened my view.

What I loved so much about Sarah Lawrence College that was so special:  The classes are small, very.  NO huge lecture halls filled with three hundred students where Phd. and Masters candidates grade all papers.  In all of my classes at SLC, typically 8 to 18 students sat around a conference table.  The faculty members do corral the lectures, or in SLC’s case, discussions, but quickly they expect the students to become leaders of the topics.  At no time did a teacher stand at a board and bore me (though I wonder what a math or foreign language class is like there).

What’s even more wonderful is that the students were invested and came prepared to lead the discussions.  And they were smart, clever people, informed, ready to analyze the world.  They were not there to make A’s, but to learn and share knowledge; earning an A was simply a by-product of their enthusiasm.

If you Dreamers like remaining in the background, SLC is not for you: you cannot hide your ignorance or laziness in a sea of anonymity; but I imagine you would not be interested in the first place if you were a wallflower.

Grades were only assigned on transcripts for students who needed to transfer out of Sarah Lawrence, and few students ever bothered to view these transcripts. Otherwise, no individual assignment received a grade.  Papers and projects instead received detailed commentary rather than a simple letter assessment and number range.  At the end of the term, the teacher wrote a summary of the student’s overall performance.  Subjective perhaps, but more meaningful to me.  As an undergrad in a typical university, I was very good at figuring out a simple hoop to jump through for an A.  I couldn’t do that at SLC, thank goodness.  So Grade Grubbers, beware.

I also loved that for every class I met with my “Don” every other week for my own personal research. (Though I would prefer their name to be less Godfather-like, a Don is what SLC names the class teacher, since the college did not have ranked/tenured professorships.)   These meetings were like having a totally separate class.  This meant in writing classes, almost all my work was reviewed by my Don if only a few times by peers in the workshops.  In typical university writing classes, one’s creative writing is critiqued only a few times each semester by the class and professors alike.

My Psychology of Emotion class, made up of graduates and undergrads, discussed the research/readings of the week assigned to all of us.  And I also met with my Don to choose a line of study that was just mine; I had to develop and keep up with it under her vague guidance.  The journey was my own.  She was ultimately impressed by my work (where I used strategies I had learned as an undergraduate in a Methods of Research class).  She was down right excited that I seemed to know what I was doing among a group of students who were wading around in theories but no evidence.

Which brings me to a list of complaints (though I am not finished with my compliments.) Teaching these sorts of solid strategies is not something SLC would be likely to ever do, too methodical and pedantic.  Think of SLC like a large Montessori school for undergraduates with a healthy dose of the Socratic method tossed in.  To learn something as rigid as scientific, objective research practices as defined by the APA seems almost counter intuitive.  I wondered what sorts of dreamy, non-validated, non-empirical conclusions the other students in that class surmised in their personal studies without this foundation.

The methods of exploration and discussion at SLC certainly encourage, sometimes even force students to deepen their knowledge, but some of that knowledge does need to be concrete and structured, perhaps even rote.  What would biology look like at SLC?  Do students memorize the skeleton?  Or do they have deep discussions about the evolutionary differences between the female vs. male skeletons.  I have no idea, though I’d hope both. But remember this is a liberal arts school designed for fresh, creative thinkers, not a research university churning out doctors and engineers.  Plus, my personal research component in my SLC psych class was not encouraged at my undergrad school because it was too busy teaching me those rote lessons.

My next complaint is an important one though it actually might apply to all college and universities.  No Don has been trained on how to teach.  Aside from those Dons in the Early Childhood program, they’ve had zero foundations classes in teaching, or communications classes, or even ethics and law courses related to teaching.  (Perhaps this isn’t necessary since public school teachers study all this which seems to make little difference in the quality of education in our country.)  What this means, however, is that folks who lead classes at SLC are hired for their publications and their work, not their ability to lead or pass on their skill or their honesty and interpersonal skills.  Not every great writer knows how to help amateurs develop into better writers.  Not every director knows how to show future directors how to work the editing machine.

That last complaint literally happened to me. In a Writing and Directing for Film course (where a few famous directors jelled) I had to learn to use a fancy editing machine I had never encountered.  This was before regular, middle-class kids like me had access to digital editing in our homes, before computer programs for such were affordable.  This was for reel/real film, and had plenty of complicated gadgets, entries and exits, buttons and screens.

The teacher met each of us in our bi-weekly one-on-one time to show us how to run the machine.   He showed up to meet me with no handouts, no drawings.  I was supposed to just listen to him as he told me how without demonstration, then as I was listening, I was to work it once, and then remember everything he said for all time. I guess.  And not only that, he got irritated when I started jotting down notes.

“Stop writing and just listen.”

Okay. . .what if I am not that sort of learner.  What if hearing and doing once isn’t enough for little ole me?  And honestly, how hard would it have been to photocopy some simple reminders for nine students?

This underlies a certain laziness that some instructors could, and did, easily fall into at SLC:  compile a list of topics on the syllabus, let the kids lead the class, sit in on meetings with nine separate students and make them do the talking. . .drink coffee and relax.  When the “real work” of reading student papers arrives, make a few standard comments, ditto, and return.  This Writing and Directing for Film teacher was a bit like that on the surface, until he would discuss my work. Then I got real insight.  Plus, we had a number of good laughs in our one-on-ones at the expense of the young men in that class who were strongly influenced by David Mamet at the time and thus believed that tossing in tons of curse words made their work deeply emotional and dramatic, too.  Of course, being ethical, the Don broached a discussion in class after it became too obvious to ignore.

One of my roommates, another middle-class girl from a western state who was in the Graduate Poetry Program had to deal with a Don who was a famous poet, but one of those ride-his-reputation-lazily sorts that she often complained of.  Plus, he had a tendency to surround himself with the prettiest girls, producing rumors of his sexual-conquest-nature.   He came to my city once (long after I had graduated) for a reading.  I helped host a gathering afterward where he was still giving the attention to the lookers in the group like the rockstar he saw himself as. Even his recent obituary, describing how he had left SLC and moved south to my city to teach at a public university, awkwardly hints at his “social” nature.  This sort of possible lechery is pretty common at many colleges and universities, but the one-on-one coursework that I loved at SLC may, on the flip side, open up opportunity that students must steel themselves against.

There is something too personal sometimes about the closeness at Sarah Lawrence, which might allow some unnecessary conflicts with teachers, too.  Such conflicts probably wouldn’t happen with “anonymous” and “distant” teachers overseeing too many students in too many classes at traditional universities and colleges.

In my Graduate Fiction Workshop, we were reading and discussing important short stories.  Here I was assigned to read Katherine Ann Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” for the fourth time in my education (but the fifth reading of my life). The first time I read the story, however, was on my own out of curiousity.   Porter’s work is a cannon example for symbolism and irony, southern irony by the way, the harshest, most darkly-humored sort.  (Read anything by Faulkner, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, or David Sedaris, and you’ll see. . .)

After each reading, I simply became more soldered to my own first conclusion: Granny was jilted by her lover, but ultimately, she was waiting for death and Death would not come for her.   She had “weathered all” and when ready to stop life, was jilted by Death.

Now THAT’s some southern irony for you.  I do not recall the high school discussion other than the class being divided on this issue of whether Granny lived or died, and the teacher not telling us if this is what it was about, but agreeing it was possible.  My undergraduate discussions were very similar, except that after we read the story, we were then privy to an interview where Katherine Ann Porter herself would not admit whether Granny died.  These were the days before the internet and easy access to all literary explanations, so one can be certain that most student reactions were personal.

All of these former class discussions took place in the south. . .we think in metaphor and symbolism more than the puritanical north.  We personify death in our daily lives and literature, and are more likely to see Death as the suitor who jilts Granny as she lies there in her bed all day long, so hopeful.

Yet at SLC, in my graduate class, I was the only one who saw the jilting this way, and the teacher not-so-gently ridiculed me, arguing to the group as if I were a dumbass who could not grasp that, “No, Granny was jilted by her lover, and the candle snuffs out, symbolizing her death.”

Truly, what sort of good southern writer would pen a whole story about an old, dying woman worrying about once being jilted at the altar?  How boring.  Oh, no, Porter’s title is about the real jilting.  The candle snuffing out is simply Death laughing at Granny, a play on an overused symbol.

The teacher was treating me like such a moron, that I finally got defensive and naively said, “I’m not the only one who thinks this. . .I’ve read this a number of times, and each of my classes and teachers thought this was possible.”

And this “leader” says to me in front of everyone: “You need to learn to read deeply instead of parroting what some high school teacher tells you. . .”  I was mortified.  I couldn’t even tell her about the interview; she cut me off and said, “That’s enough about that.”

I had come to my own conclusions, and I’d still argue I am right.  My point is not that I have to be right, nor do I have to have the professor or Don sooth my tender feelings when I need to consider another possibility or truth.  Importantly, my experience really is about intellectual discourse and good teaching practices. 

Sarah Lawrence touts itself as the center of intellectual variety and depth.  In what context does SLC ever argue that the majority thought rules?

But let’s say I am/was wrong.  My perspective was at least intriguing. Alas, I could not begin to utter these words then.

I should never have been put into a defensive position; I should never have been dismissed so summarily.  And most definitely, based on SLC’s supposed interest in diverse thinking, I should have been allowed to explain the southern cultural difference.  However, the Don was as disinterested as could be in diversity that was not “popular.” (A Ukrainian immigrant’s kid, Military Officer Brat, now residing down south.)

Had this Don been a better communicator and leader, she would have stopped and allowed me my own reader’s response instead of belittling me for being on a different path, especially a response that is not off the grid.

Could be she just flat didn’t like me. . .but should that come into context here?  Does it ever say in any of the SLC brochures: “We intend to graduate likable people?”

But then, perhaps she was simply harboring resentment toward me for another event that had occurred at SLC, which leads me to my next complaint.

The faculty then was political beyond typical politics of other schools, especially the writing faculty.  It was small, tightly knit, and seemingly expected everyone on staff to be on the same page.  I had no idea of this.  I had no interest in this.  I was interested in their talents and their insights, but I was unaware of their interior issues.

While there, I served as the treasurer of the Graduate Student Council, a group funded by the student activity fee.  Students petitioned us for money to pay for events, and one petition was for the writer, Cynthia Ozick.  Apparently at the time, though Jewish herself, she had an unpopular opinion about Judaism and Israel.  To be honest, I did not even recall who she was.  I had read her works before, and liked them, but she did not take up space in my head the way other writers had.   Still, she had clearly impressed the group of students who asked the council to fund Ozick’s visit.  The council voted and handed over small change to pay for the woman’s train ticket, dinner, and reading fee.

Wrong move.  Members of writing faculty, primarily Jewish themselves, had some dish with Ozick’s politics and became livid.  Since I was the only writing student on the council, I became a target for their anger.

“You should have known.  You should have asked us!”

Really?  Graduate student councils are in the business of checking with faculty before making decisions about student-funded, student-requested, student-attended author readings?  It had never occurred to me.  I had been on a Visiting Lecturers Committee at my undergraduate school, chairing readings by people like Kurt Vonnegut, Garrison Keillor, and Elie Wiesel that drew full city-sized arenas, and we answered to no one over who came and went. Pleasing our faculty was never part of our agenda.   But at SLC,  I was told I should have known better since visiting authors reflected on these writing faculty members.

If I had been sagacious and gone to the writing faculty and said, “Hey, what do you think of this author?  Should she be allowed here?”  Would they have told me a reason why not? Would I have seen it as a good reason to deny her? Probably not.  I might be wrong, but I believe Ozick is still a talented, respected author, and students have a right to hear dissenting, educated opinions.  Does this fit with how SLC sells itself as open-minded?  No.

The irony is that I was completely innocent of any of it.  I was even accused of doing so to cause trouble, though I was simply an ignoramus. Causing trouble might have been the intention of the group that petitioned the funding, but I am not even sure of that.   A better reaction might have been for the faculty to let the students hear Ozick, and then hold a chat afterward to educate us on their reactions to her rather than to blackball the woman.   More than likely, that would have been too subject to the community spotlight.  Better to passively censor whatever Ozick might say than openly deny what she does say.

But I got the sense that internal clucking and fission was the nature of that particular faculty dynamic (and student body).  So the SLC experience is completely colored by the intimate, particular group of teachers that are in residence while you might attend, Dear Dreamers.  You could end up with the joy of Dons like Joseph Campbell, one of life’s natural educators, or an angry finger in your face.

Another sly group at work caused yet another conflict for me.   Each term, different faculty members took over the Graduate Fiction Workshop.  At that point I knew nothing of our latest Don, other than there were some students who groused about her taking over. To me, she came across as warm, boisterous, slightly goofy, but loving.  That was my take on her after our first class.

Then I came to my first one-on-one meeting where writers share whatever new ideas we have.  I brought my journal of thoughts and story beginnings, as I might have with previous Dons.  She welcomed me in her roomy office, asked me to sit, and after a moment of polite exchanges asked me what I was working on.  I opened my journal and within minutes she was literally shouting at me and accusing me of incomprehensible things.

This woman I barely knew seemed off her rocker, and I was dumbfounded. My first offense was that my work was hand-written and not neatly typed for her perusal.  I’d never brought typed-up perfect work at a first sit down since we are just getting to know one another, and we were not “turning in work” yet.  I still often write first drafts in cursive rather than typeset.  My second offense was apparently that I had been seen socializing with people whom she regarded as enemies.  I had no idea what she was talking about when she stuck her finger in my face and said heatedly, nearly snarling, “I know about you!  I knew you were trouble from the moment I met you!”

I was startled for she erupted so suddenly and unprovoked. Imagine standing in a grocery store and some stranger suddenly screaming at you and accusing you of unknown offenses.  This is what her behavior felt like to me.

I said, “What?”

My initial response was to glance around for video feed. If the show Punk’d had yet existed, I would have been certain.  She was so filled with vitriol.  No one had ever spoken to me this way, even times when I probably had deserved it.  My second thought was she is confusing me with someone else.  I tried to ask her what she was talking about, “I don’t know what you mean?  I think you think I’m someone else. . .”

She yelled, “Oh, I know you.  I know who you are.  I was warned about you!” I was sitting right next to her, side by side, so she could see my journal and with each sentence, her spittle was landing on my cheeks.

This had happened after the Cynthia Ozick debacle, but before the Jilting jilting.  Yet, neither of those could explain this attack.  Who talks like this? And who was talking about me to her? Whaaat?

Now, I’m thinking, okay she has Alzheimer’s, she’s drunk, she’s insane.  I pleaded, “Ms._____________, I honestly think you’ve got me wrong.”

“No. . .it’s you!  You horrible person.”

Given a natural fight or flight situation, when attacked, I almost always fight.  “You’re crazy, Lady!”

She continued, “Look how disrespectful you are!  Bring me such shit!””  She ruffled my journal pages in my face. “What the hell is this?  NEVER bring me something that is not typed!”

Her face was red and right up in mine, “You will never make it here!  I do not want you in my class.  You’re out!  You’re out of this school!”  I felt like I was in some 1930s movie;  I could hear You’ll never work again in this town! echoing through the walls.

We heard a sharp rap on the wall. This startled us both. Grace Paley, whom I loved, had an office right next door, and I was beet red with embarrassment that she could hear this outrageous confrontation.  Paley had seen me go in as she had welcomed one of her current students into her office.  Was she telling us to quiet down?

I started to defend myself and my decision to bring my journal, but this woman screamed “Get out!  Get out!” I just said, “Holy Shit!” and got up and left her office, she still yelling at me to not come back until I apologized. . . for what, I’m not sure.

I fled in tears and found Linsey Abrams who taught the workshop the previous year, and she let me in her office, astounded and probably worried that I had been physically attacked.  I was in such a panic and crying so hard that I couldn’t speak.  All I could think was that I was going to fail this crazy woman’s class and be drummed out of SLC.

Eventually I learned that there was some group of students who had tried either to get the new Don fired or at least stopped from teaching at the graduate level.  And that she must have had me confused with that group.  I was not yet the sort of person who felt that much power that I might plead with a school board to undermine a faculty member. . .and I also had no idea who she was before she walked into our first class. None of this truth mattered.  I had become her target in that brief, hot moment.

However, the next week in class she acted like nothing had ever happened and smiled and joked with me and the class. And then when I had to return to my one-on-one, she met me at the door, hugged me, (you can imagine how stiff I was) and said, “I’m so glad you came back.  Let’s start over.  Abrams told me you always write drafts by hand. . .” as if THAT were all that had upset her.  As if her reaction to handwritten notes were normal.

Obviously, there was something going on with this woman. Though in her sixties then, she went on for twenty more years of publishing, so I don’t know what it might have been.  She turned out to be a supportive, spirited and interesting teacher though waffling and forgetful.  But the experience marked me, and though I only told my roommates, the story got around.  I think there were students who liked her and thought I was one of those that had undermined her.  There were others who did not like her, and wanted me to report her actions to a higher authority.

Again, the small, intimate style of Sarah Lawrence allowed events that could not and would not occur elsewhere.  Or perhaps the entitlement that goes with being rich allowed this student body to think they had the power to oust their leaders?

I just kept my mouth shut and tried to lie low, which was sad because this teacher, this woman and writer, was worth knowing more deeply; she had accomplished amazing things in her life time, one of which was to start the Women’s Seder, now an international Passover phenomenon.  But whatever political machine that had gotten in her way and caused such rash behavior was too big for me to truly let my guard down again with her.

My mistake, to those of you with dreams of being an SLC graduate, was that I was an outsider in all of these cases or complaints.  And though older than the undergraduates, and world-travelled, I was inexperienced in their mores.

I was not one of the rich kids.  I was not one of the transfers from one of the other ivy league schools or a graduate of expensive private boarding schools whose parents knew people on the SLC board (and knew whom to complain about and to whom to complain).  I was not privy to these behind-the-scenes politics and strings that stained this community of leaders who studied, worshiped and debated in groups outside the school.  Instead, I had come from a system where students and teachers had very clear boundaries and too many moving parts to bother with small issues.

Plus, like I said teaching, being great teachers was not the priority for some of this faculty.  They seemed to be hired based on how they got along with one another, how they fit some ideal.  Not whether they were right for the students.  And perhaps this woman who screamed at me tyrannically should have been retired earlier, but was being protected by her colleagues?  Or maybe the Graduate Fiction Workshop, with its own special baggage, was a tough group to lead so, hey, her colleagues foisted her on us and maybe it was insulting for some students to complain?  Maybe if I had been the person she thought I was, her reaction would have been rightly placed?  I have no idea.

As an outsider who only had two years to become an insider, I was clueless. 

The worst faculty experience, however, came the next year.  I entered an African-American Literature class led by a man of great repute.  I had read and studied a number of celebrated works by African Americans, and I had loved and been inspired by all of them.  As with many courses there, students had to pass interviews to be allowed entrance into the class, and I was excited to be one of the 15 women in the group.  I was one of two white girls “accepted.”  In so many ways this great class taught me much that I later was able to impart to my own students; it allowed me a tenuous grasp of issues that are nearly incomprehensible that I would not have otherwise.

I also learned to keep my mouth shut more than open. The other white girl was an undergraduate from Boston who kept trying to explain how she could relate to the racism and prejudice in the novels because poor Irish kids went through the “same thing” where she was from.  She was too young to understand her ignorance.  And no one in the group had any interest in validating her experiences.

I was feeling proud that I knew enough to sit quietly and absorb.  I now suspect that the whole reason I was there was not because I had anything to offer the group.  I was so open and willing to learn, and the Don decided to teach me not just about the insights in the literature, but a mean lesson.

I owned a bootleg tape of a rare interview with Zora Neale Hurston that a professor from my undergraduate school had given me; (yes, she was African American herself, and it is important to share that here).   I loved how Hurston played with the reporters as she sang old, very bawdy ditties to these uptight, overtly polite male journalists; I proudly shared it with the Don of this SLC course, who seemed as excited as I was when told him I had it.  We listened together in his office, and he asked to borrow so he could make a copy.  I nervously handed over my only tape.  After months, I had to repeatedly ask him to return it, worrying it would be lost.

He did not lose it.  He supposedly shared the copy with a buddy from People magazine. Finally, the Don told me I would never get it back because, “I’m really sorry, but my friend says he doesn’t believe this tape belongs in the hands of a little, white girl.  I wish I could help you. . .but he won’t let you have it back.”

He said this with a smile on his face.  So one professor of color happily wanted to educate me about Hurston, but this man from SLC wanted to educate me about life.

Stunned, Flummoxed, I came home and cried to my roommate, and knew there was no authority I could tell, and nothing I could do about it.  He had my grade in his very subjective hands, and this is when “no grades” on assignments gets iffy.   If he decided to, at the end of the term, fail me, what records did I have that I was performing well previously.

It’s not like I could prove what he had said either, our one-on-ones were private.  And who would have thought to tape all our behind-closed-doors sessions secretly just in case something truly unethical occurred.  Again, his actions underscore what I mean about faculty not necessarily being teachers.  What did he teach me?  Hate?  No, I can see more than that, but his lesson was wrong.

I came to SLC to have that artist’s experience, to enjoy all the things they advertise, talented writers, small classes, intelligent peers, and even the NYC experience. I did get that.  And I will never regret going though some of the teachers had hurt me personally.

As I said, that advertised experience is probably different yearly depending on the group of teachers that swing in and out of Sarah Lawrence College’s gates, and the students who sit next each other.  Which is something else you dreamers should ponder.

Middle class, and below middle class kids/students are distinctly different from the rich kids, the ones who already know how to use the film editing machines because their parents bought them one for their 5th birthday.  Different from the majority whose parents vacation with famous artists, directors and writers; the same famous folks who then sit and discuss at the host’s dinner table the politics of Cynthia Ozick or the injuries behind Cultural Appropriation.  Different from the ones who could host Grace Paley for the weekend,  from the ones who no longer care about seeing the Nutcracker for Christmas because their Daddies have taken them back stage since they were two years old,  different from the ones who reside overlooking Central Park in the same building where Yoko still lives without John, and who look at you blankly because you find that thrilling.

You will not be able to Uber your way into NYC for a party, and must take the train.  You will not be able to drop $1700 for a pair of boots that look just like the ones you are already wearing because they have tassels and yours don’t.  You will not be able to pay a local from Bronxville to type and edit all your journals, essays and stories or an actress to perform in your first student film.   Your clothing from Target will look not so much like Goodwill chic, as well, Target, and calling it Tar-Zhay will simply embarrass the other students for you.

These are not people who are looking to learn from the diversity offered by middle class or poorer students (who are supposedly accepted in order to secure diversity.)  As much as SLC argues for this, the rich majority doesn’t find it intriguing or cool, but droll and annoying.  Afterall, you cannot chip in when they want to literally jet over to Martha’s Vineyard for a lobster roll.

And Dreamers, you will probably not move to Spain upon graduation and run an organic Iberian pig farm, or backpack through China until you come back to start a Yoga pants line for Bergdorf’s, or open a soon-to-be Fortune 500 company offering solar-powered water filtration tanks for third world countries no matter how many of the school’s graduates seem to achieve such between the pages of the school magazine.  Those lofty pursuits cost big start up bucks:  You won’t graduate with a dime to your name after paying the $60K yearly tuition.  Plus, you will have to work your way into the world on your own.  Even with a Sarah Lawrence College degree, you still have a Dad who cannot open career doors for you by rubbing elbows with investors; your Mom still cannot buy you a company. Neither will SLC plot it out for you or hook you up.

But. . .But you will have an education that no one else has.   Your peers will be smart and curious and insightful. And talented.  TALENTED.  TAL-EN-TED. You will sit in classes with future JJ Abrams, Julie Shigakunis, Julie Hesslers and Dani Shapiros-my peers.  Or Alice Walkers, Yoko Onos, Barbara Walters and Carly Simons who came before me. Or Jordan Peele, Brooke Anderson, Adam Goldberg who came after.  You could possibly be mentored by the likes of Grace Paley, Joseph Campbell or Mary Karr all former teachers.  You will experience a learning ideal that strengthens your perspective, opens you up to pushing yourself past the normal limits set by other schools.

You will also have an education to brag about. I’m certain that just the name Sarah Lawrence has opened a number of doors for me, earned me my first faculty teaching position at a State University, (though I “only had” an MFA,) and weirdly made a few folks swoon at cocktail parties.

Understand, Dear Dreamers, that the drive that will open SLC to you is the same drive that will allow you to be successful whether you matriculate there or not.  The SLC experience is one I will cherish forever.  IS that worth $60K a year?  Maybe.  You’ll have to tell me.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you about the nooks and crannies first!   Just go in knowing that what they sell you is not always there, unless YOU bring it and establish it.

I recall one of my very last group lessons.  Grace Paley had put together a long Saturday workshop for just the Graduate Fiction Program students on short, short stories, her specialty.  She and the group loved my writing I shared.  One of my peers named Annie, who was a year behind me, responded that she wished I had shared more of this sort of work in the other classes.   (Realize that of all the fiction you write only a very small percentage will be presented to class simply because of time constraints.)

I said, “Why? I bring the stuff I am struggling with, the stuff I need help with, not my BEST work.  I’m not here to impress you, but get help.”  She looked surprised.  She sat back and said, “Huh.  Wow.”

My obvious annoyance was truth.  Often in weekly workshops my peer writers were too concerned about being special or even politically correct than on solving their own or your writing struggles. They might want your characters to be more dynamic than real, more feminist than weak, less perpetuating of the human condition, while you might simply be examining reality for a different purpose.

And then later Paley asked those graduating second years to share advice to the first years, sort of like passing batons. I remarked on how whispered complaints over how the student council would not help with the cost of graduation and gowns, among other things, had surfaced to me (on the council).  I said, “You know, I hear whining and finger pointing, but few people are willing to step up or even directly ask; none of you came to the council meetings to vote though you all are welcome. It’s like those people who complain about the president but don’t vote.  Only five dollars of your activity fee comes to the council. Not enough to cover your gowns and boards.  What’s more I’ve experienced people going behind closed doors to make trouble for this teacher or that student.  My advice?  Next year get involved, go to  council, and change things rather than assuming. . .be more open and honest.  Solve, don’t create problems.”

Again, Annie reacted.  She said, in awe, “Keren, this is the first time I really feel I know you. I really respect you for saying this.   And that story was great. I wish I could see more of that. I wish I had time now to get to know you.”  (Disregard that she had not really bothered to try before.)

I said,  “I appreciate that, but one more thing, you all need to try and help writers do what they are trying to do with their work.  Like I said, I bring things I’m struggling with, not the stuff I’m happy with.  And instead of help, I get all this advice on how to make it yours not mine. . .Like Shapiro’s work (which became her first published novel and focused on a troubled, seemingly selfish woman transforming herself).  Her writing honestly is the only stuff right now coming out of our group that is ready to publish.  But you all wanted to insult the main character, the events, change the people over to something you respect, to some other ideal.  THAT’s not DANI’s story.  Next year, try to figure out what your classmates need and give them that, not what you want them to write.”

The others sat there dumbfounded.  I’d found my voice at the last second, maybe because I knew I was leaving and there could be no more blow back.

BUT, Dreamers, learn from me.  If you are lucky enough to be accepted to Sarah Lawrence College, and you choose to embark, Use your voice early on. Bitch openly if a Don steals your property or doesn’t give you clear, written directions, or forces your valid opinions down or screams in your face like she is having a stroke.  Tell off the peers when they are trying to make you them, or are undermining the sanctity of the group.   No matter how tightly held the line of the community pushed you away, push back.  Then you just might get the SLC experience it brags about in those brochures you have been collecting.

Good Luck, and may I see your name as a famous graduate of Sarah Lawrence one day, You black sheep, You.


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