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Tears on the Bench

In 2001 I got a great job.  Young and freshly minted, I landed a tenure track professorship at Bryn Mawr College, a women’s liberal arts college – a “Seven Sister” – outside of Philadelphia. I have no memories of my first day of teaching.  On the second day I walked across the turreted and gargoyled campus to teach a freshman seminar in a fieldstone mansion set among gigantic trees.  My class was waiting for me, and we began to play, babies together, at professor-and-students.  Then a colleague appeared at the door.  “You all need to come with me,” she said.  The date was 9/11, and the first tower had been struck . . . Two vast and trunkless legs of stone . . . My colleague ushered us into a packed classroom and we watched as that smoking monument, soon joined in flames by its twin, fell.  I grew up as a teacher that day.  My colleagues and I collectively invented a new, non-game: “how to be fully present for young women, some in their first days away from home, many of them from New York City, on 9/11.”  I did a lot of things before the sun set.  But I didn’t cry.

I can’t read Walt Whitman’s “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field Last Night” without wanting to cry.  I teach the poem in an upper-level seminar called “Dead Presidents,” a class about the cult of Founding Fathers.  The class looks at the years between the funerals of George Washington in 1799, and Abraham Lincoln in 1865.  We read all sorts of great stuff, like Hawthorne’s  House of the 7 Gablesand Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” and Apess’ “Eulogy on King Philip.”  We end with a deep dive into Whitman, especially his Lincoln poems, but we spend a lot of time with Drum Taps and especially “Vigil Strange.”  . . . Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battle-field spreading. . . I read it out loud to my students, every time.  I’m sure my voice quavers.  But I’ve never actually shed a tear.


Here’s a little lesson about crying – historical crying – from another class I teach, “Literatures of American Indian Removal.”  Once upon a time, the State of New Hampshire tried to claim Dartmouth College as its state university.  In 1818, the case went to the Supreme Court, where John Marshall, as chief justice, presided.  Dartmouth was represented by Daniel Webster. . . . It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college, and yet, there are those who love it . . .  In an impassioned speech, Webster cited love as the private passion that draws a fairy circle of protection around the small college, keeping away publics that cannot possibly feel correctly.  Webster’s oratory was so moving that the great judge wept openly on the bench.  John Marshall, who shaped the Supreme Court into the powerful third arm of government that we now rely on it to be, was moved to tears.

Dartmouth was founded to educate Native men, but immediately abandoned that project.  That abandonment was partly why New Hampshire felt it could be claimed as public.  But Marshall’s court decided it would remain private.  The decision is a cornerstone of the American corporation.  The corporation, he wrote, “is chiefly for the purpose of clothing bodies of men, in succession, with these qualities and capacities that corporations were invented, and are in use. By these means, a perpetual succession of individuals are capable of acting for the promotion of the particular object like one immortal being.”  Corporations are immortal bodies, made up of successive generations of white men clothed in the invisibility cloak of power.

I teach this decision alongside Marshall’s Cherokee cases, partly because “Dartmouth v. Woodward” is about Native Americans, and partly to enable a discussion about the emotions of immortal “fathers,” and the ways that the “body corporate,” as Marshall described it, disciplines and disperses the bodies, and the emotions, of those who do not fit.  In 1831, Marshall rejected the Cherokee Nation’s case against the State of Georgia, which wanted to force them to remove.  Marshall’s decision ends with these words; “If it be true that wrongs have been inflicted and that still greater are to be apprehended, this is not the tribunal which can redress the past or prevent the future.”

Among other things, Marshall is saying that his courtroom is not the place for having feelings about the violence of US expansion across Native land.  A small college and the men who love it, yes.  An entire nation facing removal, no. . . The college is become a grand College for the White people. You know, and all England knows that we went through England, beging for poor Helpless Indians; not for able White People. – In every deed I have nothing to do to help that Institution; If I had twenty sons I would not send one there to be educated I would not do it that Honour . . . My students immediately understand the tracks of the judge’s tears. The emotions and actions of white men in private institutions exclusive to themselves and protected by themselves (courts, colleges, just for example), are sacred and immortal.  But the suffering and feelings of those upon whom those same men enact wrongs?  Those are not ever to be heard, neither in the past nor the future.

The fact is, I sometimes fight tears while lecturing about Native American history.  The Ghost Dance particularly.   And I fight those tears hard, for several reasons.  Non Native Americans know how to feel gently sad about Indians being “gone.” Sometimes that sadness might well up in a tear or two.  We’re taught how to have those feelings very early on.  Actual Native history demands much more than sadness.  It involves acknowledging the reality of five centuries and counting of genocide and dispossession; it turns the very idea of being American upside down.

But it also requires recognizing that Native people aren’t gone, that they are in the unfolding process of being here, still themselves, and that studying the past must be in the service of Native people serving the Native future.  This is hard work.  Tears are the last thing required of white teachers.  Second, as any scholar of American literature of the 18thand 19thcenturies should be able to tell you, the tears of white women writers and readers (and teachers) are never neutral, and entire schools of thought are dedicated to understanding the peculiarly political role of those crystal droplets . . .There are in this world blessed souls, whose sorrows all spring up into joys for others; whose earthly hopes, laid in the grave with many tears, are the seed from which spring healing flowers and balm for the desolate and distressed . . .Me standing up there boo-hooing would tap into a long and complicated history of crying that I, white minister’s daughter as I am, feel conditioned in my very bones to repeat.  And I choose not to.  Luckily, repressing feelings is part and parcel of being a teacher.  I can go without lunch if I have to.  I can mediate arguments.  I can stay up beyond the point of exhaustion to grade.  I can keep myself from laughing – lovingly! -when the passions of my students charm me in ways that would offend their dignity.  I can refrain from weeping.


But yesterday I did cry, as I’m sure, gentle reader, you could see coming a mile away.  It was the sort of crying that comes upon you suddenly and fully, that you cannot repress because it’s over almost before you know it’s begun.  I froze, mid-sentence, before my class.  My throat constricted.  I was choked, silenced.  I could only stare at the shocked faces of my students through the tears that welled in an instant, then spilled down my cheeks. . . But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt . . . it was yesterday, and today is Thursday, September 27, 2018.

As I write, Dr Christine Blasey is testifying before a Senate Judiciary Committee, a panel comprised of 17 male and just 4 female senators.  All eleven Republicans on the Committee are white men.  The man she accuses listens, and will be allowed to respond.This past two weeks leading up to this moment have been harrowing.  The things we share with each other on Facebook and in hallways and on the street are prefaced, often, with content warnings. Some of us still cannot tell. Others tell again and again.  And everywhere, the deafening barrage of disbelief and sneering contempt which has always been there as a dull roar, but the din of battle is upon us now.

But that’s not what I cried over, though of course yes, it is what I cried over.  The seminar I teach is called “Philadelphia Freedom:  Slavery, Liberty, Literature 1682-1857.”  We were reading several things in preparation for a field trip this Saturday to visit the Bell, the State House, and all the other monuments to liberty that stand on a grassy plot of National Park land in the center of the city.  It isn’t how the city really looked in 1776, but it hints at Penn’s founding fantasy of open spaces . . . yet it may be a greene Country Towne, which will never be burnt, and always be wholesome . . . We’ll be given a tour by “Beyond the Bell,” a new company begun by Haverford alums, that tells a different story of a city inhabited and built and imagined forward by men and women of color, enslaved and free, and white women, as well as by your Ben Franklin types.  A tour that remembers that Philadelphia had lenient laws governing women’s lives and choices, a city with a culture of sex and gender diversity supported in large part by the expansive understanding of “freedom” set in place by Quakers.

To prepare them for this tour, I assigned a difficult essay about how monuments to founding fathers interact with tourists and passersby.  The passing human crowd flows around the monument, always changing.  The passing crowd needs the monument to define and fix it, and the monument needs the crowd to give its heft meaning.  Think of the opening sequence of House of Cards, in which a seated statue of Chief Justice John Marshall is illuminated by the sped-up lights of flowing traffic as the sun sets on Washington DC.  Time and human traffic flow around him, but his bulk only gains solidity as the moment lingers and the light fades.  He looms darker even than the pathetic fallacy of an American night.  This interaction between the passersby and the monument perpetuates the statue as the thing that ties the immortal past of the founding fathers to an immortal future of the same.  Meanwhile the passing moment of now, the moment of women being attacked, for instance . . . a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action . . .flees, again and again, from specificity, from lastingness, from belief.  We also read“Ozymandias,” a poem that tells us how mighty monuments to founding fathers need the passerby.  Without the soft, breathing, living being, the Founding Father cannot press “the hand that mocked them” against screaming mouths.  Instead, the statue crumbles and falls.

We worked our way through the difficult essay, and found it easiest to understand if we turned from Founding Fathers to Founding Mothers.  Bryn Mawr College, you see, has a very troubling founding mother.  M. Carey Thomas, lesbian, tireless warrior for women’s education, harrowingly vicious racist and anti-Semitic.  The truth of her racism has long been suppressed, more successfully than the bit about her being a lesbian, though the College hasn’t ever quite been comfortable with that, either.  The heroics are impressive.  Thomas wrested the college from the control of men who wanted it to be little more than a finishing school for good Quaker wives.  She commissioned the Oxbridge-inspired stone buildings that invented the “collegiate gothic” style that now looks to students like Hogwarts. Which is fitting, since Thomas called Bryn Mawr her “fairy college.”  Having gained power, she re-dedicated Bryn Mawr to the actual education of women.  She sought out brilliant young women who busted into the all-male confines of, for example, courts and colleges.   Bryn Mawr women began to appear throughout the professoriate, in the courts, in the hospitals.  But no black women and no Jews.  Thomas went to great lengths to keep them out.  And she made her beliefs perfectly clear, in public speeches, and in unforgiveable language that does not bear repeating: no italics in this paragraph.

A few years ago the invisibility cloak afforded Thomas was taken from her.  A research project which became an ongoing movement emerged, called “Black at Bryn Mawr,” was started by Emma Kioko and Grace Pusey, both class of 2015.  They painstakingly documented the centrality of African American labor to building those gorgeous buildings, cleaning them, cooking in them.  The open secret of Thomas’ repellent beliefs, long known and felt by students of color and Jewish students but largely ignored in the body corporate, began to be voiced.  Students objected to the veneration of Thomas in college lore, and the use of her name for the most Oxfordy of all the Oxfordy buildings on campus.  Walking past that building, speaking its name, reiterated the hurt, reinscribed the historical fact of race-based exclusion.

“Black at Bryn Mawr” understands and acts upon the argument that passersby of the monument are always in (non-consensual) interaction with that monument and its claims to supremacy. The name must go! After decades of hurt and some years of protest, the name is now gone from our tongues.  The building is renamed.  But the building is there.  The monument itself remains, the portal to the secret cloister.  Above the door, the sinister fairy queen’s name is carved in stone.   OK, let’s have some italics after all.  Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

As we talked about Thomas, it became clear that the students thought she was the founder of the college.  “Founding Mother, Founding Mother . . .”  the words passed from mouth to mouth.

I asked them, “Was M. Carey Thomas actually Bryn Mawr’s first president?”

“Yes,” they said.

“She wasn’t though,” I said.  “The first President was a man.   You’re never heard of him, but you say his name every day.  His name was James Rhoades.  That dorm down the hill is named for him.   We do have a Founding Father here, and he was a white supremacist too.”

“What did he do?”  they asked.

When I opened my mouth to answer, the tears came.  I choked.

What I couldn’t seem to tell them was that James Rhoades was a member of “The Friends of the Indian,” a group which wanted to bring ‘the Indian into his true and rightful manhood and citizenship through legislation.’  Native people, whose kinship structures, genders and land use were incomprehensible to white Americans, were to be forced into nuclear families headed up by one man.  The work of cultural decimation could be done in one generation, the “Friends” argued. Men with several wives had to choose one and families were shattered and separated.  Structures of gender multiplicity could not survive the nuclear family.  Children were sent away to boarding schools for years on end where they were forced to speak English, to cut their hair, to forget their culture.

There was a cruel method to this madness and of course it had to do with land grabbing. The “Friends” were architects of the Dawes Act, part of a longer project of “Allotment,” which turned vast Native lands into enforced segments of private property.   These segments were distributed to the newly legislated “families,” represented by only one man in each group, rather than to each member of the Nation regardless of gender or age… I must say I am opposed to giving the husband a certain quantity, and to the wife a certain quantity, and to the child another. I want for the Indians to be brought together in families. There will never be any civilization without families . . .Indian land shrank overnight, swallowed by the phobic vortex of what the “Friends” believed to be the three pillars of “civilization,” but only if defined in law by them; family, home, property.

So instead of explaining this, I cried.  In all the ways I didn’t want to.  Choked, momentarily, into silence.  Did Rhoades’ cold hand stop my throat, enraged that I would accuse him  . . . this is not the tribunal. . . ?  Or was it simply that I was trapped, breathless, between the monumental weight of the past and the weight of the future, a future in which a bad mother may be toppled, but a bad father raised up again and again and again forever?  The future which begins, as Trump’s Presidency continues and as the Supreme Court decision looms, to look more and more like the past?  Title 9 allows women’s colleges to exist, in spite of the fact that they seem to discriminate against men, as long as the world is sexist. We who work in women’s colleges laugh about that.  We are immortal, we believe, because sexism will never end.  We are a monument to women’s education, our past and our future assured by the students who pass in endless succession through and among the stone mansions of our grand purpose.  But yesterday I think I felt it differently.  I felt it all fleeting away.

My teaching of women, trans men and non-binary folk at this college is made possible by a Supreme Court Decision about the immortality of the corporation.  Privacy.  Privilege. Invisible power.  Long dead parent figures haunt us.  The college continues to struggle with its history, fighting for its future.  Still, it is beautiful and I love the passing daily details of my job, which I am desperately lucky to have.  I engage with my colleagues to perfect our work of being present for our students in a post 9-11 world.  I never underestimate the extraordinary gift of thinking alongside such wonderful young people.  I do love it. But yesterday I was squeezed, panicked. We are disappearing into the shadow of the monument.  . . . Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand in hand, / For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand. . . 

It’s getting dark outside.  This day is drawing to an end.  I’ve now tuned in to the news, and I’ve learned that she was composed, and calm, and respectful.  Tears were almost there, but held back.  He, the man who would be judge, railed and snarled and wept.   We shall see what tomorrow brings.

–Bethany Schneider is Associate Professor of English at Bryn Mawr College and, as Bee Ridgway, author of THE RIVER OF NO RETURN, a corporate spy time travel romance

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  1. Beautiful discusion of very painful issues. No, we cannot change the past. But we can certainly work to change the future. How dangerous are the myths we’ve grown up with?

  2. What a wonderful essay! I will give it to my Constructing Coeducation class. Also, what is the name of the “difficult essay” on monuments of founding fathers? I would like to read that too!

  3. I cried yesterday as I refreshed my last online course. The project of Indigenizing the Academy seems so ironic in the face of the above. Esp. when old white men and others of similar ilk are still trying to recreate Indigenous people in their own image and sanctifying them/us through the academy. Whitewashing even as they “red wash” the funded issues so that the can continue to define Indigenous people through racist, supremest rhetoric. The old bait and switch continues as do the lies. Survivance requires intergenerational Native American/Indigenous vigilance precisely because there is a corporate progression programmed on destruction.

    • Yes. The legal definition of the corporation AND the small liberal arts college are both, and together, founded on the explicit exclusion of indigenous people from higher ed. Not only are we being consumed by ravenous corporate interests now as we try to indigenize the academy — but our institutions sit at the origins of that ravening.

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