Dear Sarah Lawrence: On the Contradictions of Being with You

photo 1

Dear Sarah Lawrence,

I should begin with an admission: I haven’t been thinking about you. I have been far too busy living the dreams I dreamed of when I was with you, being part of the social movements I studied by your side, and being the person I carved from the multiplicity of post-modernist crises of identity I experienced with you to actually sit back and reflect on our relationship all that much. I have been too busy trying to avoid the student loans I took out for you, and to give up the idea you instilled in me that I have to live in New York City. Yes, I have been far too busy to think of you.

But, alas, I am forcing myself to write this letter to you and to your student “body” for two reasons.

For one, a common acquaintance of ours, a student of yours, wrote me asking to send him an old article I penned back when we were together, and after I did he said I should submit it to “SLCSpeaks”. It felt somewhat like an underage kid had just asked me to buy him beer. My initial reaction was “no” (because, of course, I am too busy). But then, I remembered what it is to be a young mohawked kid in search of a high in a shitty little town, and I remembered that I cursed those who used to refuse me the favor but pledged to never be “too busy,” or too conservative to help a kid out. So I feel it is my duty in a sense to send that article, and not become just another passerby who is “too busy” for the kids, another activist who has become too radical or too grassroots to re-connect with their liberal-arts foundations.

The second reason for my writing this letter and submitting this article is that I feel a spiritual sort of calling to be in emotional solidarity with those who have found their way into your arms. I just read the article, “Call to the SLC Campus,” and have heard tidbits here and there about contention and confusion in your community. The article I am submitting talks about the insecurity and impermanence of all memory and activity on a college campus–but it does not talk about some of the very enduring legacies at Sarah Lawrence: the silencing of deep pains and traumas, the underlying micro and macro oppressions that lie at the foundation of the institution, and the intense, sometimes overwhelming confusion of holding a nearly constant cognitive dissonance that feels enforced by the social atmosphere.

It is easy enough to point out the contradiction of going to the most expensive school in the country to study radical political movements, feminist theory, and broke beat poets. But it is much harder to actually take this fact seriously, to investigate what it means to be in a place of such incredible privilege, while simultaneously striving to learn how to undue the very institutions and sets of social relations that create the staggering inequalities and oppressions that this privilege is based upon (or at least trying to learn how to make art like a starving artist). If, Sarah Lawrence, your students don’t daily struggle with this confusing, complex contradiction in more than a surface, jesting sort of way, then they are engaging in a frightening sort of cognitive dissonance that silences very needed conversations and confrontations, and in turn marginalizes those who more directly feel the weight of inequity and oppression. I fear that, as when we were together, most of the community does not take this work seriously, and if they do they are made to feel unsophisticated, naive and like a bombastic distraction from the real work of the high academy. I fear that you are still a site of incredible social anxiety.

I am writing this because, I have to admit, I actually did think about you recently. It was about six months ago that I had a tinge of nostalgia for that last semester of senior year, when I could still imbibe more than three beers and not have a hangover, and when we had a pretty solid little group of radical activist friends. I got caught up in a daydream of the days when I could organize a rally that the people in power had to at least acknowledge, and where I could create my own, student-taught course about democratic and alternative education for full credit. But that romanticized and selective memory was quickly invaded by memories of being deeply frustrated and offended by the apathy and the privilege soaked racism, sexism and classism of my peers that was thinly veiled as sarcasm or satire. There was a lot of beauty to remember, but even the power of my strong nostalgic tendencies couldn’t suppress the memory of the stress that was living with you.

So I also write this letter to you and yours to say that the deep hurt and confusion of being in a relationship with you is nothing new, not a novel circumstance created by specific contentious individuals or events. While the particular flavor of the mess that you find yourself in now may be new, Sarah Lawrence, you have never been an easy bed-mate. And like a true Alum of yours, I will dare to bring in some Marxist theory and say that the pain, struggle and confrontation you consistently experience is a sort of historical dialectic that plays out, trying to eliminate the contradictions inherent in your very being. You are a microcosm in so many beautiful and frightening ways– a microcosm of the failure of liberalism and of the intricate ways in which we can hurt and silence each other using smart words and supposedly liberating theories.

But I am not here to instill pessimism or depression, because I believe that as a microcosm you can be an incredible learning ground, like a university, but not in the way you intended. Despite yourself, you have created an environment that mirrors the complex oppressions of the world, but simultaneously offers many incredible tools for support and comprehension. Today, I find myself much more capable of navigating the world after having been with you for four long years. But as with all relationships, the learned lessons were not the ones I thought I was learning.

I am not stronger for your diploma (I often find it is better to omit my education on my resume), nor for the community you fostered through sponsored events and student government. I am stronger because I learned the language of oppression utilized by educated power, the sneaky strategies of white-supremacist patriarchy at work within my own mind and in society, and because I learned to endure and find/build beautiful, resilient community within an alienating and often openly hostile environment. All of this is possible with you, Sarah Lawrence, in a way that it is not possible in most of the rest of the world where failure generally cuts deeper and wise mentors are fewer and further between.

So I write this letter to say that you have given me something that I don’t think you intended to give me, and something I didn’t know I was receiving at the time, as I felt the confusion and frustration of navigating your contradictions and sometimes your outright, blatant bullshit. I hope that those who are close to you now can find some solace in hearing about my experience. I hope they can find some comfort in the commonality of our experience (if there is any) and that they can wield their struggle as a weapon, own their pain and shape it into something useful. To be predictably a product of you again, I will quote Bell Hooks, “Contrary to what we may have been taught to think, unnecessary and unchosen suffering wounds us but need not scar us for life. It does mark us. What we allow the mark of our suffering to become is in our own hands.”

All of that said, I hope everyone who struggles to be with you also knows that you are not the sole arbiter of any knowledge or lesson; that if you are too abusive, too unpredictable and contradictory to deal with, they should leave your ass, outright and without regret or shame. I guess, ultimately, what I want to say is that from my point of view having graduated almost two full years ago, I see that our awkward relationship was very useful to me in so many ways, but that it also was nothing so irreplaceable or invaluable– our relationship was a great tool for learning how to be the person I wanted to be, a tool that I was able to recognize and wield powerfully because I had certain dispositions and privileges, a tool that worked very well for me but may not work so well for others.

So, Sarah Lawrence, I hope you can receive this letter in good faith, and I hope that it finds you well. I really do. I have enclosed the article that I spoke of, I hope that you can enjoy it and forgive the tone (which I find kind of annoying), for I was just a young, idealistic undergraduate student. And, finally, I hope that you will continue to try to be too many things at once, and continue to contradict yourself—it is far more valuable than succumbing to the alternative, which these days seems to be an unabashed embrace of a fully consumeristic and atomized vision of education.

Take care,
-Easton Smith

 

 

Red Room Article

2/15/10

 

On the bottom shelf of my bookcase in my tiny apartment there are stacks of videos, CDs and publications. The reading material ranges from early issues of Dark? Phrases, a Sarah Lawrence student of color publication, to make-shift pamphlets put out by Sarah Lawrence Students for a Democratic Society. The CDs and tapes are of anarcho-punk bands and the movies, like “They Can’t Break Our Union,” are about class struggle and activism. This half shelf of radical material is all that survives today of a once thriving space, the Red Room.

Like so many things on a college campus, from faces to traditions, the Red Room has been slowly and quietly erased from the students’ collective consciousness. Most of the students at Sarah Lawrence cannot tell you that a “Red Room” ever existed where there is now a television room. In fact, to find information about the room requires an investigative journey. Any knowledge of the room seems hidden like a dying legend; there are no pictures or official documents to validate its history.

The Red Room was located in the Siegel Center, the multi-purpose lounge and food court facility on campus. The college archives explain the long history of this building. It was built originally by Mr. Lawrence himself in 1916 as a home for his head gardener and became part of the college in 1926. Then it briefly housed the infirmary from 1929 through the “famous” measles epidemic in 1935. There were renovations and additions added to the center in 1930, 1983 and 1998. The archives contain detailed information on this history, from city approvals for construction to budgets to handwritten letters and architect designs. However, there is no mention of the “Red Room” in these archives, nor in any archives on student activism.

The space that was the Red Room has been painted a two-toned blue. There are four couches and two lounge chairs facing a large flat-screened television. On a recent Friday night, the 2010 Olympics opening ceremony was screening to an audience of sixteen students. The students either looked bored watching the ceremony, or were talking amongst themselves about campus gossip and the parties that were happening that night. Years ago, when the walls were red, students might have been arguing the merits of anarchy versus those of socialism, or perhaps they would have talked about race and class dynamics on the campus, or maybe they would have been planning a sit-in, like the famous 1969 and ’89 sit-ins. But that Friday, as the USA flag carrier was announced and he walked out into the patriotic frenzy of a ceremony, the students in the room “oohed” and “aahed” until one started up a chant of “USA,” “USA”.

“As far as I know the Red Room disappeared in 2004… I only saw it as a prospective student,” said Vera, one of the few current students that is still aware of the space’s existence. The only reason people still know as much as they do is “because it was the single greatest loss of space on this campus,” she explained. In her recollection, the room had a large bookcase where the television now hangs, which contained a sort of student-run library. She said student volunteers managed the room and it acted as an autonomous collective space, free from the bureaucracy of the college administration.

Vera, a graduating senior, became visibly irritated as she explained how the space was lost. “Right when they [the administration] took it down, it was just non-functional, it looked like a fucking wood-shop work studio… people were pissed, it felt like literally they had just dismantled it in the most violent way possible, what was arguably one of the best and most utilized spaces on campus”. Kaz, a Sarah Lawrence Alum, recounted his memories of losing the space: “Something happened with the keys to the space…my sophomore year whoever was supposed to be the manager of the space couldn’t open it up, and the school said that the space wasn’t being utilized. This was not true, people would kick us out during our meetings to watch TV in there, and then they said we weren’t using the space.”.

Micheal Rengers, the vice president of operations on campus, recounted the loss of space from an administrative standpoint. “There was a proposal to create a PAC, political action coalition, resource room. It was called the red room because the walls were red…but I think it may have been a sort of double entendre as well,” Rengers stated.

He said that despite winning approval for the space, the students in charge, “never really got it together,” to finish the renovations they proposed. Micheal explained that student senate’s student life committee “voted to not have it continue being the red room.”.

Space has always been an issue on Sarah Lawrence’s small campus. The old buildings generally serve multiple purposes, from dorms to classrooms to food service space. Old common rooms have been converted into dorms and new additions have been made to some buildings, but the battle for meeting and classroom space always persists. As Micheal Rengers explains, “I think when you have less than optimal amounts of social space…the tendencies are to make your nest and protect it”.

The lost history of the Red Room illustrates the especially short-term memory of a college and the constant adaptation and alteration that a small campus experiences. The different spaces that come and go, and the stories behind how they are won and lost tell much about the ever-changing character of the campus.

Sarah Lawrence’s own website boasts, “student activism has been a strong part of the College, even as it has sometimes been at odds with accepted practice”. However, one college information website, the College Prowler, explains, “Despite a history of political activism, students often complain that the campus, on the whole, is apathetic to political happenings and too lazy to get involved… That being said, there are on-campus groups that organize trips to political rallies and protests, hold fundraisers, and meet in the Red Room”. The loss of the Red Room as both a space and as a memory further challenges the conception of Sarah Lawrence as an activist school.

There is no official account of how the room was converted into a TV viewing room, but Kaz and Vera remember that all the surviving materials of the room were thrown into a dumpster at one point. “So we loaded up my car,” Kaz said. The materials ended up in a collection of milk crates, and Vera explains, “that was all we were holding on to, those milk crates”.  She continued to say, “I was close to older students at the time, and to hear their pain and frustration over the loss of that space was devastating. And you know, I had this very positive ‘lovy dovey’ image of SLC and this was where was I was going to do the work that I always dreamed of doing in an institution that supported that. And that dream was kind of killed”.

The milk crates that carried the surviving radical materials were moved around, from dorm room to dorm room and from apartment to apartment. Somehow, just like the memory of the room itself, the materials slowly dissipated. The surviving bits of literature and media now only fill half of one shelf, rather than a collection of milk crates. These bits of history, the movies, publications, CDs and tapes, will surely float on to be housed elsewhere when I graduate, and will eventually end up in some freshman activist’s hands or in some dumpster. Either way, whether the Red Room is remembered or forgotten, the cycle of college life and activism that renders all institutions and struggles fundamentally insecure and impermanent, will continue.

 

Photo by Amit Sankaran

 

3 Comments

  • Reply February 19, 2014

    Deborah

    Thank you for writing this Easton. The parallels you draw between SLC and an abusive relationship certainly ring true for me as an alum who also happens to be a PoC.

  • Reply February 20, 2014

    Zach

    This hit me on so many levels.

  • Reply February 21, 2014

    Allison

    This is so pretentious. I am a current Sarah Lawrence student with absolutely no hurt, confusion, misery, stress, or whatever else. No cognitive dissonance here because I didn’t come to college to “undue” [sic] any institutions, and I find that presumption bizarre. If your goal is to dismantle institutions, then enrolling in higher education (AKA a particularly well-ingrained social institution) is probably not your best bet. Sorry you had such a negative experience. I hope you continue to leave SLC off your resume.

Leave a Reply