Archive for May, 2013

I’m now back from a week spent banding gulls on Appledore Island in Maine. The work is part of Dr. Julie Ellis’ long-term study on the ecology of these charismatic seabirds (and it goes well beyond the stealing of french fries, I assure you.) But the gull study is only one of many projects going on at the Shoals Marine Lab, which encompasses almost the entire island. A songbird banding station is running full tilt this time of year, and on any given afternoon you might encounter grad students with buckets of crabs out on the seaweed strewn rocks or undergraduate interns scrabbling under buildings looking for barn swallow nests. Life on Appledore is like summer camp for biology geeks. We live in dorms, develop a weird intimacy of inside jokes that wouldn’t be funny on the mainland, and take our meals in a communal space known as Kiggins.

IMG_3782One day last week, I was sitting by myself in Kiggins having a rare moment of quiet away from screaming gulls and over-caffeinated humans. The room is large and high ceilinged, with the skeleton of a Minke whale* suspended from the rafters. From my angle, I could see through the inside of the whale’s rib cage through to its small, cross-shaped sternum. Maybe it was that cue, or maybe it was the quiet and the space, but I was transported to the Catholic church of my childhood. I am not religious, nor would I even call myself “spiritual” in any sense, but I went to Mass every week until I was away at school. I was an altar server, offering the priest water to wash his hands, tending the candles, swinging the smoking censer at my own grandfather’s funeral service. When I was much younger, we sometimes went to the Congregational Church of my mother’s tradition. It was a beautiful old New England church with white clapboards and a soaring roof and light and air. But I never came to love it. It was so scrubbed down, puritanical in its simplicity and so spare. God was an idea in that space. In my Catholic church, he was looming over us all the time in the crucified Christ angled over the altar. Catholicism is a corporeal, almost forensic religion. His ladder rung ribs jutting through the skin, blood at the wrist and ankle, a slice in the chest letting the trickle of fluid escape the pericardial sac. We learned from a nun exactly which bones in the arm were strong enough to support the weight of a dying man, and so where the nails would have been placed.

None of this ever bothered me. I was transfixed by it. No surprise then that I grew up into a job mucking around inside dead animals, wondering at the body itself, its machinery, and how that machinery winds down and then finally stops. I am a bone collector, a dissector, a dealer in body parts. And when I sit in Kiggins Commons on Appledore, I am in my own church. Out the great north facing windows you might see a circle of excited bird banders snapping pictures of a rare thrush, or a small knot of bicycle helmet clad students dodging the thwacks and feces of gulls defending their nests. Somewhere under the floorboards, a grad student is at work in a basement lab on small parasitic flatworms. My interests are not unusual out here. We gather under the cross-sternumed whale to eat, and talk, and tweak study designs. We laugh uproariously at jokes that are really only moderately funny, because people become giddy here, some having found the first place they’ve ever belonged.

And as for the soul, I’ve considered that too. While sitting at the bottom of a granite ledge one day, sheltering from a strong wind, I looked up to see the gulls lifting off the ground and soaring in place into that wind. Gray backs to the sky, effortlessly hanging in place seemingly for the sheer pleasure of it–what more could you ask of a soul but to be such a white feathered thing, suspended in the air high above this pile of rocks at the edge of the sea.

IMG_3772*I am mostly confident as to species

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This weekend, we went to our 15th high school reunion. We visit the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy frequently, living only one town away, so the physical nostalgia did not press in on us as it did on those coming back for the first time in more than a decade. Still, there are the small things: the window I would sit under on warm nights listening to the mysterious music coming from the Afro-Latino Exonian Society’s room; the corners and alcoves that seemed to my hormone-addled teenage mind more than secluded enough for making out, but which are revealed, in the stark light of adulthood, to be as public as a mall food court.
Twice over the course of the weekend, I found myself alone with my kids in the cage. The cage is a decrepit, dim, earthen floored indoor track with a high glass ceiling and dirt caked brick walls. The cage has a creaking, wooden, elevated deck for runners looking to keep out of the fray of whatever is happening on the ground floor. It has a concrete floored bathroom with a single toilet, a barred and cracked window, and a grime streaked towel for drying your hands. The cage is the underbelly of Exeter, as far as one can get from the life-sized whale skeleton hung in the sunny atrium of the new science building, or the bright airy spaces of the new student center. Fifteen minutes in the cage leaves a film of gray dirt on your teeth and blackened snot in your nose. I ran in the cage almost every day of every winter of the four years I was on the track team. I know the cage’s days are numbered, and I will mourn it when it’s gone. Or renovated, and bright and airy, which is as good as gone.

I came to Exeter from Amesbury, a town 10 miles south. I was a day student, dropped off every morning and fetched every evening by my father. I had no experience with privilege, wealth, foreign travel, and had previously met perhaps four people who were not white. I was mute in every class, taken unawares by the school’s Harkness system, a small group discussion format that paralyzed me with an anxiety that did not abate in the four years I was a student. I was bewildered, and intimidated, and very definitely in the wrong math class.

The cage's sole window, in the bathroom cell.

The cage’s sole window, in the bathroom cell.

I was also a somewhat feckless member of the track team. A naturally quick sprinter, fast out of the blocks, I was nonetheless a bane to my tirelessly enthusiastic coach. I had little interest in actually training. I failed to reach my “potential” by a fair distance. Despite that, the cage was my refuge, and my freedom. Before practice, I would arrive early and lie flat on my back on the pole vault mats in my second-hand running shoes and stare up at the slant winter light filtering through the dust-gray glass roof, thinking about math class, or my boyfriend, or whatever fresh horror had befallen me in class that day. Then I would rise with my teammates and plod around the track for training laps, waiting for the command to open it up and sprint. I could fly around the dark, banked corners of that track, and best people who were smarter, and richer, and much, much savvier about just about everything in the world.

My sons ran with me in the cage this weekend, and I taught them long jump in the same pit where I learned, and where I competed until a false step sheared my pelvis just a little ways from my spine and that was that, as far as jumping went.

When the cage is gone, the physical memory will go too. I will have the memory itself, but the ghosts will go, having nowhere left to haunt. I’m not against progress; I have progress to thank for Exeter in the first place, since girls weren’t admitted until 1970. And there have been decades of other good, though often slow, changes. But I’m not against tradition either, or the austere past, the scooped depressions worn into the Academy Building’s marble steps by generations of WASP boys, then Catholic and Jewish boys, black ones, then girls too, then all in every color and creed, from every quarter. The place itself has a long memory.

IMG_3658I have a picture of myself from the school newspaper hurtling into that same long jump pit, with my owlish glasses and frizzy pouf of hair. The walls bear the wooden, hand-lettered plaques with the names of hall of fame runners in the 40 yard dash, the 300 yard, all the races before things became modern, and metric. In the cage this weekend, I could almost see myself there as that girl again, racing down the runway to plant her toe on the board. I could almost touch her in the rush of air as my own son ran and leapt, over and over, through my own cold shade, the dust rising from his heels.

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The following is a recommendation letter I wrote in response to a request from one of my students. I have changed the student’s name to protect her privacy. Let this serve as a lesson as to why one must choose one’s recommenders wisely. I told Christina that I doubted she would like what I had to say in my letter, but that I would send it if she wished. In one of her only wise actions of the semester, she declined.


Dear members of the admissions committee,

It is always a challenge to write a recommendation letter for a mediocre student. Fortunately, Christina is no mediocre student, and I write in full-throated opposition to her admission to your institution. I hesitated to write this letter, particularly because I received Christina’s request for it last night in an email reading, in its entirety, “So, I need a rec letter by tomorrow at 11am. Whatever you can do.” I thought about those lines, and indeed about what I could do, and decided to write.

Christina has made herself conspicuous in my class all semester. She is reliably fifteen to thirty minutes late. When she does arrive, it is with a great disruptive heaving of belongings, inexplicable switching off or on of the classroom lights, and several loud sighs. She frequently spends what time she is in class talking to classmates, though this is to be expected after she gave me fair warning during our first week: “I’m a total chatterbox; I just can’t shut up! So I’ll be the one in the back talking all the time.” She has delivered on this promise.

Christina suffers from a dangerously high level of self-esteem and a deep conviction that she is extremely cute and endearing in her foibles. She is also convinced that she is a very shrewd and keen student held back only by unfortunate circumstance. I maintain that Christina is an unfortunate circumstance.

I understand that she is applying to your veterinary technician program. When I consider that the life of the slenderest, quivering nematode might someday lie in her hands, I feel a compulsion to bar her entry to your buildings with my physical person.

I do not suffer fools gladly, and though I am writing this at 1am in order to meet Christina’s deadline in a scant few hours, I felt it my duty to provide this letter so that you might not need to suffer this particular fool at all.

Should you have any questions, I would be delighted to speak with you in further detail about Christina’s candidacy. I would find it deeply cathartic.


Sarah Courchesne

Adjunct Instructor in Biology and Animal Science

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