Soul afloat

By Minna Canton Duchovnay ’98, M.A. ’99

Liza Jane Bernard, Director of Career Development at Bryn Mawr and Haverford, put it succinctly when she said my decision to leave my job and go to school full time sounded like I had jumped from a cliff without a parachute and went into free-fall.

How do I describe the rationale for the significant life changes I made when I made the decision to change my life so dramatically? Some of my friends thought it was a sign of approaching senility. Why else give up a job that had the advantages of high salary (in the top 1% of female employees), generous benefits, extensive travel, exposure to different cultural backgrounds, opportunities to learn about new trends in the business world and specialized technological training? Other friends cheered me on and provided me ongoing support through the process of making the transition from career woman to student.

I had longed all my life for the college experience that had eluded me, for reasons too complicated to go into here, when I graduated from a college-preparatory high school at the age of 17. Through the permutations of many different careers—I call them former lives—I had successively worked for a Chinese missionary organization, an investment firm, the college textbook division of a large publisher, a planning/design firm, a multi-billion holding company, and, finally, a British chemical company.


Minna Canton Duchovnay '98, M.A. '99, middle, with McBride Helen Rehl '96, right.

Except for the period that I worked for the publisher and the design firm, conversations about intellectual ideas or current events—other than sports, that is—were unique events, so rare as to be worthy of celebration. Extra-curricular activities such as book clubs, museum tours, special lectures, even evening courses in subjects relevant to my occupations, did not satisfy the longing I felt.

Two things happened that propelled me to jump from the cliff: My husband died suddenly in 1987, and I experienced an epiphany during my vacation in 1992. I felt rudderless for many years after my husband died. I had submerged myself in the pursuit of my career, worked long hours, barely accepting my husband’s loss. Even though one of his friends kept telling me that I needed to "stop and smell the roses" like Erwin did, I lost my own sense of fun. I treated all my extracurricular activities with the same sense of earnestness and intensity that I did my work and can’t say that I enjoyed what I did.

Eventually I learned to accept my husband’s death, but that acceptance did not give me the inner peace I knew I needed to live. The ever-pressing question became one about my purpose in life. Would I turn 75 one day and regret that I had not pursued my lifelong dream?

I often thought of the quotation from The Sayings of the Fathers:

"If I live only for others, who am I?

If I am only for myself, what am I?

If not now, when?"

Then in the winter of 1992, an old friend suggested I join her at the Berkshire Choral Festival in western Massachusetts the following summer. The BCF offers experienced choristers opportunities to come together for a week at a time (out of a selection of five weeks’ programs), study and rehearse a particular choral work and perform it with a professional conductor, soloists and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra. BCF uses the Berkshire School grounds in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Concerts take place in a building that has a dual purpose: a hockey rink in winter and a music shed in summer. The experience is thrilling. There are 225 choristers; the audience usually exceeds 1,000 people.

That summer of ’92 I prepared to sing The Dream of Gerontius by Edward Elgar. The work is about the struggle of Gerontius’ soul to reach heaven. (The libretto is from a poem by John Cardinal Newman.) Although a beautiful choral work, it was hard to master the changes in the rhythm and the difficult sectionals; we all felt we were struggling along with Gerontius. Would we reach the concert stage?

I vividly remember standing on the back riser of the concert stage during the dress rehearsal as the orchestra played the introductory music. For the first time that week we would all perform together—the orchestra, the conductor, the soloists, ourselves. In the distance I could see the Berkshire hills bathed in sunlight and shadow, hear the sounds of a baseball game, see a runner round the track fall down, then pick himself up. Then the tenor began to sing about his soul’s tortuous journey to heaven. I gazed into the distance and was transported by the music. Immediately I felt the penetrating awareness that I was going to leave my job and go to school. The sensation was not a fantasy; it was a reality.

A few months later I was accepted into the McBride Program, I gave my notice at work, and I planned to begin school in the fall of 1993. I used up all my savings, got school loans, and sold my house to finance my education. The parallels between Gerontius’ struggle to reach heaven and my struggle to study and stay afloat in what is essentially the enterprise of the traditionally-aged student have much in common. I have had to rise and fall with the rhythm of the college year, be patient as I was leading myself and being led by my professors through the process of learning. The most important thing I learned, however, is to listen carefully to myself.

I am proud to say that I am a Bryn Mawr alumna. I completed a combined A.B.-M.A. degree in Latin. I found at Bryn Mawr many friends with whom I still share common interests. I rediscovered my love for classical languages. Was it worth it for me to make such a change? In a word, yes. I have had my college experience.

I lived and worked on campus. As the resident at Wyndham Alumnae House, I had the grand opportunity to meet many people who came to visit the College. Bryn Mawr is certainly my intellectual home, and I will never regret the decision I made.

As Liza Jane said, I went into free-fall. At the end of what seemed to me an impossibly long job search, I did find a good job: I am the Coordinator of Meetings, Programs and Administration for the American Philological Association at the University of Pennsylvania. I work for the Executive Director who has a Ph.D. in Classics. And guess what? He is a Haverford alumnus, Adam Blistein ’71, and he was the first official male resident of Radnor Room 20, where he lived for a year. He was a busboy in the Faculty Dining Room at Wyndham. Bryn Mawr is with me in spirit and in reality.

Risks on the path
By Jeanne-Rachel Salomon ’00
Soul afloat
By Minna Canton Duchovnay ’98, M.A. ’99
The exam room
By Andréa Miller
Regaining a community: Myra Reichel ’95
By Lynn Litterine ’96
'The process never stops'
By Grace Fonda ’98


A bi-co collaborative

Ying Li, Visiting Assistant Professor of Fine Art at Haverford, is the artist behind the cover of Cherishment. The cover shows a detail from one of a series of large acrylic paintings. "I tried to capture the mood and the place of cherishment," Li says. "I could really visualize the meaning of the book."

In the spring of 1998, Li showed her art at the school’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery. It was there that Faith Bethelard ’93 and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl first saw her work and approached her about Cherishment. When Li began work on the cover art, she had just returned from a month of landscape painting at an artist colony in Ireland. "I had all these landscapes in my head," she says. The cover bears witness with its grainy texture and visual brush strokes, which give it a natural feel. Its colors, too, evoke the outdoors. The background is in shades of green and blue, while the character—a hexagram from the I Ching meaning inner truth—is a stunning red. Li chose red to suggest the seals Chinese artists use to sign their paintings: "The red seal is the last statement of the artist. In keeping with Cherishment, I thought the cover should have a Chinese theme." The cover can be viewed on the books page.


Risks on the path
By Jeanne-Rachel Salomon ’00
Soul afloat
By Minna Canton Duchovnay ’98, M.A. ’99
The exam room
By Andréa Miller
Regaining a community: Myra Reichel ’95
By Lynn Litterine ’96
'The process never stops'
By Grace Fonda ’98


The exam room

By Andréa Miller

1996:
Have you ever noticed how the medical profession creates an unequal yoke between physician and patient? Picture a physician entering an exam room, closing the door to the world outside. Here sits a patient, who comes to him for answers and help. He listens attentively to her concerns. Her words are intimate and serious. It is her life and vitality she entrusts to him. He takes his commitment to her well being seriously. Then because of who he is, he reaches beyond empathy into action. Then he takes his leave and on to another room to do just the same for another person. And another after that, and so on.

Careful orchestration prevents a patient from seeing the doctor with anyone but herself. To the patient, it could easily feel like a monogamous relationship, and a fulfilling one at that. From her (unarticulated, subconscious) viewpoint, who else gives her such careful attention, never dismisses problems as trivial, or ignores a complaint? There is nothing and no one competing for her attention in that exam room, a condition that is unlikely to be equalled in any other daily contact. It is understood that the office visit is a constructed situation, not a spontaneous interaction.

Nevertheless, it is still enticing for her to become emotionally trapped in a one-way attachment for her doctor because of the conditions superimposed on an office visit.

Of course, most adults play a good game of reason over emotion, saying "Dr. So-and-so, I’m sure you don’t remember me, but….." Don’t fool yourself, patient, we all inwardly would love nothing better than to be the one that stands out in the doctor’s mind. The remembered one. The significant one.

Because the doctor means so much to us, we inwardly long to mean something to him.

I might easily dismiss the irrational attachment people have to those like doctors, in positions of authority-service….except that in this first year returning to college, it is precisely how I have come to feel about those who educate me. Yes, teacher, you were hired by the college to teach students, and I came here to learn. It is understood that you are entitled to rummage through the drawers of my thoughts, shine a light onto my shadowy memories, you have the authority to work over my raw and unfinished ideas, dismantling them and piecing them back together. Yes, I pour it all out in my papers. In effect, I lay myself bare for your attentive going over. The pain of your medicine works: You show me how to reshape my thoughts, redirect my ideas.

You test their strength. Sometimes they are broken in the process, other times they are made stronger and surer. You are my mind-trainer, making me strong. Giving me access to the tools of education.

And to that end, you give me focused, singular attention—like the physician.

Our time together in conference, like a private consultation, is solely for my use and benefit. Sometimes I feel a flush come over me to have my private, never-yet-spoken ideas to be laid so bare on the exam table before you—never mind that it is your job to probe and evaluate, and that you do it for 16 students a week. It makes no earthly difference. My mind tells me that you are like a good doctor going from room to room, and I should accept the inequality. But it is of no use. Herein is the frustration of one-way relationships: As teacher, you are the single most important influence on what matters most to me—my mind and my education, and I am but one of your many students.

This passage describes the intense early months of one McBride’s return to college. Reading it three years later, though I well remember the author, I hardly recognize her in me today. But I wrote this piece. It arose out of personal reflection on the process of education, a major theme in my first class at Bryn Mawr.

Interestingly enough, I happened to return to this theme in another course recently. In class discussion, we addressed related problems of inequality in the classroom. Our concerns tended to focus on the teacher-role: How does a teacher handle the differing needs of all of her students at once? The needy, the aggressive, the pleaser, the attached, the despondent, the confident, the shy? Should a teacher try to be all things to every student? Can she be? In searching for a paradigm, we tried on "teacher as parent," "teacher as psychologist," "teacher as coach" and others, but none of them seemed to fit. Finally, before I was aware of it, I invoked the physician metaphor again, but with a different emphasis this time. I said, "Perhaps a successful teacher can be seen as a general practitioner. The job of primary care giver is not necessarily to be all things to patients, but to manage their overall care, using all available resources to do so. If a teacher can mobilize a whole network of resources for students’ differing needs, like a general practitioner does with patients, she’s likely to be more effective, and less at risk of taking on too much responsibility and eventually burning out emotionally."

This may or may not be a realistic assessment of classroom management or teacher-role. The point here is how much my perspective has changed—from an overly-invested student concerned with very personal and individual issues, to one who is more interested in the nuts and bolts of education itself. I’ve come to think that "becoming educated" is really about both things—the personal and the formal, and especially the student’s progression from one to the other. It is this transformation, I think, that best characterizes my experience at Bryn Mawr.

In my college application I wrote, "My goal in returning to college most certainly includes, but is not solely, degree completion. At this point in my life, I want not only a challenging academic standard, but an education that recognizes the process of learning is as important as the product." True enough. But exactly what process were we talking about here? The process of acquiring academic knowledge? That’s likely how I envisioned it at the time.

Within weeks of my first class, however, I began to realize that the motivation driving me back to school was not only an enthusiastic appreciation for the formal aspects of education. It was also nothing short of large scale personal transformation.

According to Erik Erikson’s theory of development, the fundamental challenge that begins in adolescence and continues through young adulthood is one of identity. He proposes this time is typically one of trying on various roles before eventually appropriating one, a process he termed "identity formation." In 1986, at 18, I entered art school as a drawing major. It was exhilarating. But in between semesters of my sophomore year, I married, moved, and made plans to return when my partner finished his program. Instead, I left school all together, amid a difficult pregnancy and ambivalence about the program I was in, taking by default at age 19, a place in the adult world. This is what has been called "identity foreclosure." Those who prematurely adopt a role often seem "very mature for their age." This was certainly true of me. And though it seems positive, the conflict (and its resolution) had been put off, and still needed to happen.

In 1996, I returned to college. On the first day of class, I brought, unaware, a truckload of unfinished business. The instructor asked us, "what do you want to happen here?" My answer—"I want to learn to see through many more eyes than my own, not to let my perspective be a limiting factor, but a starting point"—unconsciously heralded what was to ensure, the mental trying on of a multiplicity of roles in search of a stable identity. The 1996 vignette is testimony to that as well as to the strong force professors and teachers often play in that process. I see the second doctor-vignette as evidence of its successful resolution.

McBrides’ sense of educational purpose may often be more explicit than that of our traditionally-aged counterparts—we’ve had time to articulate our ideas about schooling, but our internal search for identity is perhaps less acknowledged and perhaps also more extreme. I think both of these reasons contribute to the evident intensity we bring to college and to the classroom. When one classmate mentioned intensity as a characteristic typical of McBrides, I told her, "It’s true. I invest this education with so much more….it’s a living thing, a piece of the self."

Andréa Miller is a junior pyschology major.


Risks on the path
By Jeanne-Rachel Salomon ’00
Soul afloat
By Minna Canton Duchovnay ’98, M.A. ’99
The exam room
By Andréa Miller
Regaining a community: Myra Reichel ’95
By Lynn Litterine ’96
'The process never stops'
By Grace Fonda ’98


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