One of my students is currently researching coeducation at Washington and Lee, a guy whose father graduated in W&L’s last all-male class (’88) and whose mother studied here for a semester after women were finally admitted (class of ’89). He’s writing a series of poems based on interviews, newspaper articles, and even obnoxious graffiti from that era, so I gave him a copy of the bookmark pictured above. When an Associate Dean was asked in 2005-ish to organize a celebration of 20 years of coeducation, she asked me to write a poem for the occasion. I was originally supposed to read it aloud at an event but a poetry-phobe in Development nixed that idea. Ergo, bookmark.
The poem printed on that slip of blue cardstock is mostly sweet, remembering the aspect of coeducation I am wholly unambivalent about: all the great women students I’ve worked with during however many office hours I’ve held here in the past 24 years (if you do the math, don’t tell me). Before it, however, I wrote a spitting-mad sestina based on the research I did on coeducation in Special Collections. The phrases in quotes are all things W&L faculty and students said to the media.
I told my student about having to write my way through a poem inappropriate to the occasion before I could get to more celebratory language. He asked me if he could see it and I lost track of his request until this afternoon, when I finally finished a massive piece of committee work. It took some digging.
A veteran professor declared, seriously, ‘The education of women is a trivial matter. The education of men is a serious matter. I don’t think the frivolous and the serious should mix.’ -from a Newsweek article by Ron Givens on co-education at Washington and Lee University, October 1985
The banner, a bedsheet really, cleared its throat as day-
light changed George Washington to gold: “NO
MARTHAS,” it politely recommended. Serious
banter draped beneath a finial, a wooden gentleman,
whose once-warm original gave a useful sum,
and his name, to Washington Academy. Tradition
honors his largesse even though, says tradition,
George liked Marthas. “A Roll in the Hay, but Not All Day,”
bumperstickers prescribed, heedless of allergy, but some
feared that constant exposure to women, with no
respite from estrogen, could harm young gentlemen
more than sexually-transmitted rhinitis. Serious
fears in frivolous words but frivolity is seriously
funny, admit it, while shocking, too, as if tradition
might really mean privilege only for gentlemen,
gentlemanly in wallet more than character, not today
of course but back in the eighties, when privilege brought not
just good cars, shoes, and liquor but keys to some
fraternity-shaped hay barn. Respectable capital, sums
and debits, eventually admitted women. Serious
money ebbs and flows with SAT scores, and, no
joke, Goshen was in drought. Wealth is a tradition,
too. Brushing hayseeds off the sheets, Yesterday
went to bed low on cash; Tomorrow woke the gentlemen
with pink curtains and higher enrollments. A gentleman
does not lie, cheat, or steal, suggested somebody.
Or gripe about “girls” during African famine. So days
of swimming naked in the gym pool sank into serious
dusk. Of course, we still pontificate about tradition
with little frivolity and less sense of history. No
school year stumbles by without slurs and assault; no
one drinks bourbon in legwarmers or whines, ungentlemanly,
that “everybody is worried about academics” now. Tradition
originally meant surrender or betrayal. Some
say it does still. Is Martha lucky to be here, seriously,
or does she surrender, betrayed, every day?
The gentlemen were seriously lucky that Martha
respected no tradition, marched in past Gorbachev,
Reagan, New Coke. Like some kind of day, breaking.