Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Dear Trustees of Smith College: Please Don't Close The Barn

Dear Trustees of Smith College:

When I was a little girl, every morning, while I brushed my teeth, I looked out our bathroom window into the backyard and checked to see if a pony had showed up overnight. My backyard was surrounded by a chain-link fence and a suburban Indiana subdivision: not only was there never a pony, there was never going to be a pony. I didn't know any ponies. It didn't matter. I checked every morning anyhow, and I let myself dream. "what if there was a pony? What if I woke up one morning to a pony?"

I had a difficult, traumatic childhood, and I escaped into books from an early age. My local library put horse stickers on the spines of any books about horses. I used to run my finger down the rows of books, checking only for that sticker. I physically sat on a horse perhaps half a dozen times, growing up. Most of those times were at the pony ride at the zoo, but in my mind I galloped.

I was the first person from my family to graduate college. My parents opened the world to me: any college I could gain admission to they promised to send me to. Even better, they insisted I consider schools I never would have thought of on my own--places like Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, and Smith. They drove me from Indiana to look at all of these East coast schools girls from my hometown never heard of, much less attended.

I loved Smith from the start, all of it, but I especially loved Smith's barn. I toured it as an admitted student, met the team coach, Sue Payne, and met the captain of the riding team. I would love to be on the riding team, I said to my father on the drive home. He smiled but shook his head at me. This man who encouraged every one of my childhood ambitions told me regretfully that the riding team at a place like Smith would be limited to people who had grown up differently from me, who had ridden all their lives. He was sure I could take lessons, but the team was out of the question.

Undaunted, I wrote a letter to Sue. (I was class of '89; this is long before email.) She wrote back immediately, a letter I not only still have, but can lay my hands on instantly, as I immediately put it into my box of treasures (my acceptance to Smith is in there also, along with my grades from each semester, the tassel from my graduation cap, and the astonishing letter that reads, "Dear Kim, Congratulations! You have made the riding team--") Sue assured me that due to the IHSA's unique structure, I absolutely had a chance at making the riding team after taking lessons for a year.

There was a place for me at Smith, and I took it.

Freshmen who had never taken riding lessons were supposed to sign up for beginner lessons. Duh. But if you had ridden before, you were supposed to ride in front of the instructors as a sort of placement test. It didn't take a genius to understand that the placement test was a free opportunity to ride (I would pay for every one of my lessons myself, as my parents were more than tapped out with tuition) so I headed down to the barn in a soaking rain wearing my best jeans and my L.L. Bean Boots. The groom made me change out the Bean boots for paddock boots she unearthed somewhere, but no one could give me actual skills--I'd really only ever read about riding. I fell off Tara, the steadiest, oldest pony in the barn. And then I got back on. Honestly, that day was magic--I was riding, I was so happy.

I could tell you story after story. I remember every moment at the barn. I could tell you how it felt when I couldn't hear my name called the first time I won a class, because my teammates cheered so hard when the announcer called my number. I could tell you about the long ride I took the morning of my graduation. I could tell you about doing night checks at the barn, about how we saved a horse named Cocoa from dying of colic, how my teammates lifted me and taught me and changed me from a frightened asthmatic bookworm into someone who called herself an athlete, because she was one. I could show you my desk today, where, on the left, my Eastern College Athletic Conference Scholar Athlete Award sits beside the small brass Pegasus that Molly Keenan, the captain who took me to the barn as an admitted prospective, gave me when she graduated, for luck.

I never stopped riding. I compete in the Olympic sport of eventing, as does my daughter. My current bathroom window faces our orchard, but when I look out my bedroom window every morning I see our horses in their field. And if you want to understand how horses can heal a traumatized child, all you have to do is read my latest novel, The War That Saved My Life. If you've heard of it it's because it won a Newbery Honor award in 2016 and spent half the year on the New York Times bestseller list.

My name is on two of the trophies in the Smith Barn: most improved my sophomore year, best sportsmanship as a senior. 

The barn is important, and the team is important, to ever so many students like me. Please don't continue your plans to shut them down.

Yours sincerely,

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Smith Class of 1989