Friday, April 22, 2016

Friday Tea In The Cloud: Smith College

Question: what do the following women have in common: Madeleine L'Engle, Jane Yolen, Natalie Babbitt, Anne M. Martin, Cynthia Voigt, Elizabeth George Speare, and me?

Answer: We are all graduates of Smith College. Oh, and we're all also writers who have been honored by the children's department of the American Library Association, either with a Caldecott (Jane Yolen) or a Newbery or Newbery Honor (all the rest of us). I don't know if it's a record number of award winners from a particular institution, but it's certainly an amazingly high percentage. If you want to be a children's book author, go to Smith!

Smith was the first women's college in the country to give actually academic degrees. (Oberlin, co-ed, admitted women earlier; Mount Holyoke and other colleges began earlier as finishing-school type places and eventually became fully academic.) It was founded in 1871. It was, and I hope still is, a radically inclusive place, where an introverted midwestern Catholic could feel at home in a campus that tilted in a completely opposite direction. I had four marvelous years at Smith, and I treasure all I learned there.

Students at Smith live primarily on-campus for all four years, in houses that range in size from 16 to 90 students. When I was a student each house had its own dining room. That's no longer the case, but Friday house teas endure. On Friday afternoon, in the living room of each house, students would gather for tea and cookies, hang out, and enjoy the close to the week. It was a terrific tradition.

So now some of us are gathering online, to share our choice of beverage, our best of the week, and our worst of the week. My best of the week right now is that it's raining. My pastures desperately need rain, and after suffering a horrible drought several years ago I am pretty much happy each and every time it rains. My worst of the week is the amount of work I've got to do on that book of mine. I know it's better to take the time and effort to write the best book possible; I know I'm lucky to work as a writer; I know I can do the work. I know this book can be good. I just don't want to have to work that hard. There you are.

But I've got my sisters' examples: Elizabeth, Cynthia, Natalie, Anne. Madeleine L'Engle, who was the hero of my childhood, and who I got to have dinner with while at Smith. (Madeleine was coming to speak at an event sponsored by the college chapel. The Catholic Chaplain called me up and asked, "Have you ever heard of Madeleine L'Engle?" "Uh, yes," I stammered. [A Wrinkle in Time was the first book I ever finished and then immediately began reading again, because I wanted to know WHY I liked it so much. I mark this as the first step toward my becoming a writer]. "Well," said the chaplain, "would you mind very much accompanying her to dinner?" This, my young friends, is the sort of reward you get for attending Mass while at college.) Jane, who not only taught me the ins and outs of writing for publication but who would still kick my ass for complaining. So I won't complain. I'll sip my tea (coffee), think of my fellow Smithies, and smile.