Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Voices That Have Gone, Part 2

Many years ago I was a student in a small, exclusive, private liberal-arts college, which ironically is very close to where I now live, but might as well be a million miles away. The college was in a beautiful green bower separated from the daily world of dirt and commerce, and my current neighborhood, just down the road a few miles, is mired in that daily world (as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil”). The college was rich, and even the poor girls there, like me, were able to feel that we were in some intellectual aerie where we could live joyously in the realm of our lofty thoughts. My neighborhood, on the other hand, is mainly working- to middle-class, and you don’t get the sense of much lofty thinking going on in these parts (though lofty drinking is another story). Sometimes, in fact, I feel discouraged to be writing my dissertation in such an anti-intellectual milieu. But I suppose we should bloom where we’re planted.

In spite of all the beauty and the intellectual cosseting, I really hated that small private college. First of all, I was one of the aforementioned poor girls, and it pained me that I could never have the beautiful things, wear the beautiful clothes, or even be as beautiful as the rich girls who dominated the student population. And rich girls are indeed beautiful, because, as my friend Robert explained, powerful men marry beautiful women. But the place was also seething with darkness, with a kind of extreme adolescent amorality. Hard drugs and outré sexual experimentation abounded. Although I was not immune to their powerful allure, at the same time I felt an almost physical repulsion for the things I saw in my midst. I think that on the whole, the college was a very sad place, full of students on antidepressants and professors desperate to feel that what they were doing – educating the decadent rich – was a morally important endeavor.

At this college, however, I learned to sing. My happiest times were spent in the music building, where I would practice late into the night. I had a work-study job in the music library, and my Friday night shift was an orgy of delight as I raided the LP collection, discovering Puccini, Satie, and Harry Partch. A young graduate of the college worked there too, Mary L., who was then getting her master’s in voice at another institution. She became a lifelong friend and mentor to me, and her voice remains to this day the absolutely most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard in my lifetime. My hair used to stand on end whenever I heard her sing. She excelled especially at French mélodie. She never had a career in music; a difficult divorce, and later the demands of mothering a large family, preempted the energies that would have gone into making a career if that had been her priority. Her voice is one of the great, overwhelming secrets hidden from and by the world.


maguey2 said...

Your friend Robert sez that meeting that singer and learning to sing yourself were two of the things that the college you so scorn provided. I hated a lot of things about it too, but it also gave me an intellectual boost I would have never gotten anywhere else. The professors you dismiss were from backgrounds similar to mine and saw educating people like me - and you - as a worth endeavor. The dumb rich kids they put up with, a necessary evil.

BTW: You had great clothes in college. You were a beautiful goth witch.

Pentimento said...

Robert, I feel somewhat chastened by your comment. I always thought that whatever good I got there was sort of found good, something like a little jewel fallen out of someone else's bracelet and gotten by me completely by accident. But I suppose I feel this way about most things. Maybe I'm wrong.

Did you know that some of our professors, including one you were close to, had a cooperative restaurant together in Greenwich Village in the 1960s?

marina said...

Julia, the perversion of our school was glaring because of it's size. think of any other school the whole of the college and it's lotharios could have been a tiny clique, a segment of an otherwise balanced institution.
But I love your jewel analogy! And hey...we met there.

Pentimento said...

Props to marina and maguey2. I met you both there. Glass half full!

Anonymous said...

Since the college in question is a well-known creative arts college, it is by definition a collecting ground for what much of American society thinks of as the freaks. And good for that. I'd rather be a freak, and if the sex and drugs and posing means that someplace in America one can still get a Liberal Arts education, an education in thinking and human values, then by all means.

As for the drama, well, that's whatever we make up.

Pentimento said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pentimento said...

Yes, but the merits of freakdom are not my point. If you're a rich kid you can be a freak or not, without many consequences; and I don't think freakhood has much bearing on one's creativity. I think discipline is the main thing there. And besides, you can get an excellent liberal arts education at many other places too, such as the college where I'm teaching, which is ten miles away from the college in question, but, as an inner-city college in a sprawling urban public university serving a largely working-class/poor student body might as well be a million miles away.