Monday, December 21, 2009

Bard College, 1959?

Having been thoroughly brainwashed (I think co-opted is a better phrase because that's the more polite word for what happens in families) by my father's disdain for social norms, the only school I would consider was Bard. It had, I'd heard, great freedom and no grades. That was the proper approach. I made fun of Cornell where a course in gracious living was mandatory. (Could this be true? Was there really such a course? And were women students required to wear skirts?)

Actually, I wasn't able to leave for school that fall, just after my father had sold and packed up the house, vowing never to mow another lawn. I was too sick with ulcerative colitis. Another story, blah and blah and blah, more blah, which, interesting as it might be, I'm going to ignore in order to get to Bard --

and the worst possible choice I could have made. There was great freedom and no grades and many young New Yorkers from disrupted families who were more obviously crazy than I was. (Mine was carefully hidden under a demure appearance, though I was rampantly hopeless.) I'm sure that many of them were thoughtful and studious, as was my friend Jane who I'm quite sure took these photos of Kemper and me. But, there was a swilling atmosphere of sex, before the sexual revolution, lots of chaos and I had no ability to focus on anything of substance. My unconscious goal was sliding downward toward the mess I was going to create for myself during the next ten years, though I didn't know that.

At that point, Bard (formerly St. Stephens) was called the little red whore house on the hill. Fine people taught there like Ralph Ellison. Of course I didn't have the sense to take a course with him (he taught quite formal traditional courses, Shakespeare, I think, ((which I took with someone else,)) and nothing about what was then called the negro experience), though a few years later, he greeted me kindly on the street when we met walking on the Upper West Side of New York. I was astonished that he'd remember me, a no one who he didn't know, and considered it an example of his generalized kindness. 

Perhaps Jean Erdman was teaching at Bard, then, but I'd given up my fascination for dance under the pretext that at Bard, rules, steps, concepts would be taught and I would no longer have the freedom of the Isadora Duncan type dance classes that my mother had enrolled me in. 

Elizabeth Stambler, my advisor, thought she could trick me into concentrating by requesting that I read poems out loud to her, perhaps by Herbert? Herburt?, during our meeting. The flow of my speech would indicate whether I'd studied them. I never did. It would have been pointless because I knew virtually nothing of the heavy Christian symbolism. It wouldn't have dawned on her that I might have been raised as an agnostic, kept from much connection with any religious symbolism. I was evidentially able to fool her. For some reason, not connected to my performance of the poems, she got very annoyed, said that I reminded her of her daughter, a passive exterior, a volcano inside. She was right, of course, but I had no access to those boiling feelings.

I was an English major who fancied that she would write stories. I do remember a plaintive note from Donald Finkle, a poet, asking why on earth that  woman was living in a cabin on the dunes. What had brought her there? There was no way I could answer that question because I was not wrestling with what on earth was taking me where I was heading. 

Actually I was majoring in screwing around and in being screwed, which I could manage in the vaguest way, though I imagine that whatever diaries I wrote, if I wrote any, would make it seem as if I was present. I could stack words together, nothing under them.

Because I liked sculpture and spent hours in the damp studio Harvey Fite had set up, creating forms that looked very much like me (ah ha, here is the forerunner of the endless nude self-portrait photographs!), I was invited to become an Art major. But I cleverly dodged having to make a big choice like that by getting pregnant, having a legal abortion, planning to marry Kemper when he graduated which meant I quit after my sophomore year to wander off and do nothing much.

In general, I have not ever wanted much, not made plans, but have tried to work with whatever befell me through this awkward way of approaching life. Going to Bard was a conscious decision. A dreadful one. I have to say that for Kemper it was the best choice he could have made, a school that really allowed him to function without narrow restrictions.


  1. Why not show yourself some tender mercy, dear Melissa? The Melissa you once were and are no longer--I'd be kind to her. Kemper looks charming and so does the young Melissa.

  2. Wonderful images here that match the photo of your younger self.

    Your writing is haunting. You still write stories with a powerful voice. I love to hear about past lives, educations, hopes and expectations dashed or wasted, exploited whatever.

    Memory carries it all, reconstructed over time, though the photos cannot be reconstructed, can they? Photos not lie, or do they?

    The words and images present such a mixed image of the way things might have been. We'll never really know, except as reinterpreted through your memory.

    Yours is wonderful writing, Melissa. I read with awe.

  3. fascinating. i loved this. i don't know anything about anything except playing the violin.

  4. Notes on a couple of your Bard professors. I still live at, and take care of, Opus 40, the masterwork of my stepfather Harvey Fite.
    I stayed close to Donald Finkel, the wisest and kindest man I ever knew, throughout his life, and he always asked me questions like that, pointing out every weak spot in my work. He fell victim to Alzheimer's in the years before his death last year.

  5. I just wrote a note on Tad Richard's blog Opus 40, a sculpture site that I have never seen. My sense is that Harvey Fite was so modest, or so private, that he didn't discuss this in class. I can't even remember what the class was like, though he carefully guided me through making plaster casts from the clay models, spoke of how master craftsmen could toss the plaster up against the shims without a drop spilling. I assume that he was the one who managed to get me invited to become an art major.
    Donald Finkel was remarkable..

  6. My daughter and I visited Bard a couple of years ago. At that time she thought she wanted to study photography. I loved it, especially because they insist on a common underpinning of classical education. She rejected it; considered it too "crunchy". She made the right choice. She's thrilled to be in New Orleans, near a bevy of relatives.

    I love hearing how you still remember your professor's words. A great teacher will do that.