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Archive for January, 2014

What follows is a letter I wrote to the administrators currently debating the fate of the English Department at UMass-Amherst. The new building, proposed to take the place of the crumbling old Bartlett Hall, traditional home to the department, is designed to house almost exclusively large lecture halls. This is anathema to we humanities sorts. To my fellow UMass alums, if you’re willing to join your voice to this fight, please do it quickly. Public hearings on the plan options are slated for next week. Leave a comment if you need contact information for the powers that be.

Bartlett Hall, dubbed "worst building on campus" by the college newspaper. But once it's gone, what will be left us?

Bartlett Hall, dubbed “worst building on campus” by the college newspaper. But once it’s gone, what will be left us?

Dear Dean Hayes, Associate Dean Bartolomeo, and Associate Provost Harvey,

I was an English major at UMass Amherst. The decision to become one remains one of the best I have ever made. Our ranks may be dwindling, and the clamor for more STEM graduates seems, at first glance, to further threaten us, to elbow us from the table, but I have always felt confident in UMass’ continued commitment to the English course of study, for what it gives its graduates, and for what they, in turn, give to society.

When I arrived at UMass, I feared I would be subsumed by it, swallowed up. Anxious and diffident, I didn’t make friends easily, and on a massive campus thronged by more than 20,000 students, it was hard to keep track of anyone anyway. A person could melt into the crowds there and not be seen for days. The exception, for me, was Bartlett Hall. Crumbling, musty, but beloved to me in its dingy decrepitude, it became the center of my life my four years at UMass. I was never the sort of student to swagger into a professor’s office to chat, or discuss a reading, not because I didn’t want to, but because I was terrified. The only thing that saved me from slinking through my entire course of study without speaking to much of anyone outside of classes was that building. I sold coffee and donuts in the lobby on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to raise money for the English Society’s small literary magazine. Most everyone–faculty, undergrad, bleary-eyed grad students–stopped by our stand for the sludgy brew from our vat-like percolator one time or another, and we’d talk. I ran into professors and poets and students as I tramped up and down the stairs posting flyers about Open Mic mights, book signings, and one giddy March, the impending visit of Seamus Heaney. I spent my free afternoons reading in our closet-like English Society office, taken up mostly by bookshelves. With the door standing open, anyone might stop by, or no one might, but the simple, companionable feeling of occupying a common space started me feeling like I had a home there.

Now, that home’s continued existence is in jeopardy. I won’t mourn the physical  building of Bartlett itself, but the building set to replace it, the SCAF, concerns me greatly. As currently planned, the SCAF will offer almost none of the sort of classroom space English majors require. Our needs are modest: a small room with desks ranged round in a circle, so that we might be facing each other and within speaking range. We read, we speak, and we listen. We are hamstrung by large lecture halls with their chairs bolted to the floor.

Since I graduated from UMass with my B.A., I went on to become a veterinarian and now teach biology and animal sciences at a local community college. If my college brought forward a plan eliminating all laboratory space, I would join all my colleagues in righteous outrage. Laboratory space is fundamental to science education. Microscopes, bench-tops, dissection space, Bunsen burners, the litany of things we need to teach science–if our administration bustled in, bagged it all up and told us to figure out some other way, I’d follow them right out the door and off campus to find another job. English majors need their basic supplies too. The technology is simple, and the list modest: something to read, a group of other readers, and a room small enough to hear themselves think.

The request before you is modest in the extreme: reserve at least 6,125 square feet in the proposed SCAF building for that sort of small room. We are a low-tech people, with simple needs. I hope that the school I love and to which I owe so much will deem our small but fervent ranks worthy of this small consideration. Without it, I fear for our survival, and the world needs its English majors.

Sincerely,

Sarah (Fahey) Courchesne, DVM
Class of 2002

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When I was pregnant with my second son, I spent many hours alone with my first son, reading boring baby books and playing repetitive baby games, and feeling deep ambivalence about doing it all over again. I wanted two kids, but in an abstract sense; I envisioned a future with two kids in it. But the thought of raising a second baby, that often led me into deep despondency. Now, I live in the early years of that shining future I had envisioned. My two boys play together for hours at a stretch, with no intervention from me. I read to them, usually at least an hour each day, but beyond that, they play with each other and away from me, and that is a very great wonder indeed.

This semester, my teaching schedule worked out that I have no classes on Fridays. To save money, we pulled my younger son, Simon, out of preschool that day as well, so he and I are on our own a full day each week. Sometimes, I take him on little enriching experiences to the library or the art museum. Other times, he watches two and a half movies back to back while I do other things. Sometimes he plays on his own, punctuated by occasional games of Guess Who? or Candyland with me, under duress.

Caring for young children is about the most boring job I can imagine, so when I’m playing Candyland, I am often thinking of how lovely it would be to be vacuuming or folding laundry, able to think my thoughts without being interrupted by indignant shouts of, “Mom! Did you hear me? I said, ‘I got Princess Frostine!” The other day, I mentioned to someone that I often fantasize about just disappearing. Driving off without a word to anyone. “Oh,” she said, “Me too. Like to the Caribbean? Or Costa Rica? And lie on the beach and get away from the cold…” I looked at her in a mild state of confusion. The cold? The cold isn’t even on my radar of things to flee. My escape fantasies rarely take me farther than a meagerly furnished room on the outer reaches of the Cape, or a cabin in the wooded border between Maine and Canada. It’s not the cold, it’s the need I dream of leaving sometimes.

_MG_8257Coming home after work, or being home on the weekends is not unpleasant, and I have no babies anymore, so the intensity of my children’s needs is thankfully more bearable now. But there is still never a day where I am responsible only for brushing my own teeth, or finding my own socks or feeding my own self. I don’t need a warm beach, and I’m not looking to do nothing. I’m just looking to be able to choose vacuuming, or tooth-brushing, or laundry folding on my own time, and without interruption.

On our most recent Friday together, Simon was playing by himself while I stitched a hem onto some curtains I was making as a wedding present for my sister. It was, for a short span, quiet, aside from intermittent sounds he was making as his action figures crashed into things or were dissolved in a river of lava. For a moment, I was choosing to sew. Then Simon came in and asked me to play something with him. Feeling put upon, I sighed and told him to wait. “Just let me do this line.” I said to him. “Of stitches,” I said in my head. I’m doing a line of stitches. And suddenly I was feeling much better. Some days he may watch too much tv or play computer games too long before I remember to stop him. But sometimes I take him to the museum, and we read a long time everyday, and I feed him good food. And above all, I’m not snorting coke.

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Four year old children are predictably irrational. Their fixations, meltdowns, and obsessions frequently border on the bizarre. This is normal for them.

I consider myself to be in remission from anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders, but I find myself keenly attuned to symptoms in both myself and my kids. Part of being in remission, of course, involves periodic check-ups, and I do these almost sub-consciously now, evaluating myself for signs many times a day, and making small adjustments. There is the potential that my kids might one day exhibit signs of such disorders too, but since I’ve been in remission, I genuinely don’t worry about it. And though nature may dictate that they have a predisposition to it, nurture will argue against it since I no longer model anxious behaviors to them.

IMG_5149When a person doesn’t suffer from anxiety and obsessions, it can be hard to understand them in others. The anxieties are irrational, often seeming silly or ridiculous. From the outside, it seems absurd that a person would worry about such things at all, much less be reduced to a sniveling wretch rocking on the bathroom floor over them. Such is the nature of anxiety. Simon, my four year old, has been talking about his own worries lately, and they mirror the workings of the anxious person’s mind. “Mom?” he’ll say from the back seat of the car, “How does a package delivery guy deliver really big things?” “With a little cart called a dolly,” I tell him. “What if the dolly breaks?” he asks. “He’ll get another,” I tell him. “But Mom, what if all the dollies are broken and the man who fixes the dollies is dead?”

This is almost comical in its resemblance to the thinking of an anxious person. The what-ifs accumulate and snowball until a series of improbable possibilities have accumulated into an inevitable catastrophe. I’ve been there, and I can envision this world he’s describing, where everything that can go wrong, does.

The other day, as he was getting ready for bed, he turned to me and said, “Mom? What if my lunchbox falls down a deep cavern and you can’t reach it and Malcolm can’t reach it and Dad can’t reach it?” “Then we’ll get a new one,” I said. “What if I loved it?” he asked, his voice breaking, and I know the cavern he’s thinking of; I’ve spent years fretting over what I might lose irretrievably too.

What I can teach Simon is the practiced skill of managing these fears. I will probably be fine-tuning these skills for the rest of my life. After all, it’s a remission, not a cure. But what I love about Simon’s worldview is that while the fear of losing his lunchbox can send him into a tailspin of dread, the big questions, he’s got settled. Yesterday, I was eating lunch with him and he said, “Mom, if there are too many Asian Long-horned Beetles wrecking the trees, we’ll just call some woodpeckers to eat them until no beetles remain.” Seemingly insoluble ecological disasters like invasive species threatening entire ecosystems? Fret not, citizens, for Simon shall call down an army of woodpeckers.

On the way to school the other day, though, came the ultimate. Simon, who worries about the UPS man’s dolly, told me, “Mom, my friend at school doesn’t know where God lives.” “Well,” I said, “I don’t think anyone really knows where God lives, Simon,” (and certainly not this atheist). “Mom,” he answered sternly, “God lives in your heart.”

Of course. How could I be so stupid. I must not have been thinking. Or maybe I was too busy checking the ropes that lead down into that cavern where I can just make out the glint of a lunchbox in the deep gloom.

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