After Scalia and “Decolonizing Wesleyan”: Remembering Wes and All It Taught Me
Recently a friend sent me the March 6 issue of the Wesleyan Argus. I am intensely interested and somewhat disturbed by the collectively authored “Wespeaks.” The articles addressing the controversial invitation to Justice Antonin Scalia are electrifying and wonderfully articulate, just the way I remember voices of Wesleyan students. “The Moral Duty of Opposing Scalia’s Corruption” and “The Value of Protesting, Disrupting, and/or Silencing Antonin Scalia” present clear, thoughtful arguments, and I find the discussion on free speech in association with Justice Scalia fascinating. What left me a little shaken was the reference to “decolonizing Wesleyan” and accusations of white supremacy and intellectual dominance. This leaves me concerned and even sad. My absence from Wesleyan goes back many years, so I rely on the magazine and the Wesleyan Connection online for news. What I read and see have always upheld my image of Wesleyan as one of our country’s most diverse, dynamic, and progressive universities. This is what I know firsthand. In 1976, only a few years after the University had transitioned to being co-ed, the Etherington Scholarship Fund was established for the purpose of educating non-traditional students from Connecticut community colleges. It was a shock to be called in by the Dean of Middlesex Community College where I was in attendance and asked if I would be interested in applying for this scholarship. In a short time, rather in a daze, I was meeting with the Dean of Admissions at Wesleyan, and when she asked me to tell her my thoughts about attending, this is what I told her: I had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis three years prior, and though I was considered in remission I was told that I would likely have many limitations in my personal and work life. In addition, I felt that due to my upbringing in the Appalachian Mountains I was ill-prepared educationally and socially to be competitive and successful in such a culturally rich environment. Also, my husband and I had just separated, I was now alone with my two children, and I was devastated by this as well as his choice to move in with a 19-year old that lived in a beach house, and to become a folk musician. By then I was near tears, and I sputtered, “We had just bought a house, and I don’t know how any of this could have happened, and how could I ever come to Wesleyan!” The Dean listened carefully to me then said, “Most couples whose marriages are in trouble do one of three things: they have a baby, put in a pool, or buy a new house. You can sell the house and live in campus housing.” Then, she leaned forward and said she had just read Hillbilly Women, and some of the strongest women in the world come out of those Southern mountains. She said my transcript was solid and that she thought Wesleyan would be enriched by my presence. And, that opened a door to more than I ever could have imagined. I am not one of Wesleyan’s prize students. I haven’t been a knockout in any way, and other than a modest donation every year, I have brought the institution no fame, wealth, or connections. Although I had poems published and won a Chapbook Award, I never tried to publish another book. After a few years in a promising teaching and administrative position at a New England seminary, I was called home to Southwest Virginia to care for my father. I moved back into the house where I was reared on what was once a small dairy farm, and I stayed. The town has a population of about 2,000 residents, and the highlight of the year is the Tobacco Festival which features the high school band and floats for the beauty queen, Woman’s Club, various churches, and the Nursing Home. The Shriners march and some people ride horses. One year, a progressive goat farmer tried having her goats pull a fetching cart filled with hand crafted soaps and such, but the horns from the logging trucks upset them so much she never did it again. (The tobacco industry is now gone, but the people have resisted any attempt to change the name of the festival.) Being in a remote area, I was fortunate to procure a position as adjunct faculty at a community college, and that is where I have remained. But there is never one day that I don’t think of Wesleyan. The voices of my professors ring true and clear as I continue to find new ways to present material or challenge myself to think more critically, to dig and dig deep. I teach World Religions in a region known as The Bible Belt where almost all my religion students are Pentecostal, Independent Baptist, or of other conservative Christian denominations. Many start from a place of thinking the religions we are studying are primitive, wrong-minded, exotic, or even evil. They have to be reminded to write about them in the present tense. Typically students come from families who are white, Republican, gun-loving, and biased against ethnic people, blacks, and gays. Most have grown up in households where their fathers and grandfathers mined coal. They are against environmental regulations and outside interference in any of their ways. They relish their freedom. They, like Justice Scalia. It is because of professors at Wesleyan who challenged and nourished me that I love teaching these students: Jerome Long who taught me about indigenous people of the world and who has been my constant mentor and friend; Jeremy Zwelling who introduced me to the world of mysticism and Consciousness and who saw something in me that led him to recommend that I work as a therapist intern at Elmcrest Psychiatric Hospital while being a student; Tony Connor, my dear friend, who said I was the worst poetry student he ever had but who polished my roughness like river stone and made me a writer; Merrill Miller who often left me breathless by his eloquence in an Old Testament class; Gene Klaaren who encouraged me to devour Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek which she wrote while at Hollins College in Southwest Virginia; Sheila Tobias who guided my thinking about Women’s Rights; Nancy [Schuster] Barnes who introduced me to Buddhism and Asian art, and asked me to help host a visit by His Holiness the Dalai Lama; and David Swift who fiercely challenged me on issues of slavery and bigotry when I insisted I had no such biases. The list is long. These professors have retired or moved on, but they live in my memory just as your teachers will live in yours for the rest of your lives. I don’t know to what extent Wesleyan or President Roth deserve the criticism in the Wespeaks; I do applaud students for thinking critically and standing for justice. I don’t know if Wesleyan’s commitment to diversity has veered from its path. I hope not. I can only attest to my experience: to have been accepted as a minority (at the time) and made to feel I was an asset to Wesleyan because of my experience; to have been the recipient of a scholarship and a fine education while being made to feel equal and appreciated for my differences; to have been exposed to diversity in the most liberal and engaging venues for religion, art, literature, music, politics, and social issues; and for having had my mind and heart opened in ways that embrace curiosity, awe, and compassion that help me to be an educator of students who are much as I was when I walked through those doors. When my students express their appreciation for learning about people, beliefs, and ideas they never knew existed, and they sincerely want to go forth as better citizens of the world, I know it isbecause I have passed on to them what was passed to me at Wesleyan. I am so grateful.