So long, Farewell, auf wiedersehen, adieu

by Jane O'Donnell

After 29 years at Scripps, I have graded my last exam, taught my last voice lesson, chaired my last search committee, and marshaled my last commencement. I am happy and very content. I’m ready to do new things, like read all the books I wanted to read while having to read Gilgamesh, The Poor Fiddler, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Foucault,or Rousseau for the humanities classes I taught or team-taught in one of the many “reincarnations” of the Humanities Program. Despite my stacks of unread books, there was great value in each of those programs because of the learning we shared together as faculty and students. I still have the copy of Robert Silverberg’s Gilgamesh the King, sent to me in 1985 by Gail Greiner ’84, who was working at Arbor Housing Publishing Co., which published the book. Gall noted.”I think of the infamous Humanities Core class every time I see this title, so I had to send it to you!” Maybe it will be one of the first readings in my newfound leisure?

I am often amazed at how, when looking back, after-the-fact, one can see the connection of disperse events that preceded a turning point in one’s life. Prior to my retirement party, I thought back to 1975, the year I decided to come to Scripps. In recalling the events that led to that decision. I was astounded at the convergence of so many persons and circumstances. In December 1974, I received word that my request to leave the religious commnity I had belonged to since 1959 had been granted by the vatican, (yes, I did have communication with hierarchy at the highest levels.) I was in my third year of doctoral study a t the University of Iowa, had passed all the exams, was planning to finish my dissertation by the end of the year, and I had begun to look at job opportunities through the University Placement Service. Earlier in the fall, one of the composers on the faculty approached me with the news that a joint national meeting of the College Music Society and the American Society of Uinversity Composers was to take place at the university in February 1975. As a part of the program for that meeting, a concert of American music being planned for the opening night. One of the works they hoped to present was Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Three Songs on poems by Carl Sandburg for contralto, oboe, piano, and percussion with optional orchestra.The plan had been for the mezzo member of the voice faculty to sing the piece, but she had just lost her battle with cancer the summer before. Everyone wanted to include it on the program in remembrance of her, and the faculty member asked if I would be willing to do the singing, of course, I said “yes” and recall spending all of Thanksgiving vacation and winter break getting the pitches in my head and into my voice. I knew this was a great opportunlty, but I didn’t realize at the time how great!

In January, Albert Gammon, my voice teacher and major advisor mentioned to me the announcement he had seen of an opening at Scripps College. He knew about The Claremont Colleges, having spent some time at Pomona College, and thought the job description was perfect for me. He told me to look at it and apply. I did apply-I was applying to everything that looked even faintly possible, although I really didn’t want to move west (or so I thought). In the end, the Scripps position and one at Central College in Pella, Iowa, were two that seemed to speak directly to me. The convergence of events had begun.

One of the first communications I had from Scripps was a letter asking if I would be available to talk with members of the music faculty who were planning to attend the CMS-ASUC meeting in February. I wrote and said I would love to talk to them on Saturday and hoped they would attend the concert Friday evening on which I was singing. How lucky could I be? Another mezzo at the University had also applied for the Scripps job and was scheduled to talk with them, too, but she wasn’t singing with the Orchestra at the national conference the night before! On Saturday, I met with Alice Shapiro and Chris Lengefeld, and soon after, was asked to come to campus (my first trip to California) for the otficial interview. In the end, I got offers from both Central and Scripps. I am so glad I got rid of the silly notion about the west!

Recalling this story led me back to those songs of Kuth Crawford Seeger and the Sandburg poems she set. In reading them anew, I mused how they resonated about these past 29 years. The first poem is “Rat Riddles.”

Rate Riddles

There was a gray rat looked at me with green eyes out of a rathole.

“Hello,rat,” I said

“Is there any chance for me to get on to the language of the rats?”

“Come again,” I said, “Slip me a couple of riddles;

there must be riddles among the rats.”

And the green eyes blinked at me

As a whisper came from the gray rathole

“Who do you think you are and why is a rat?

Where did you sleep last night and why do you sneeze on Tuesdays?

And why is the grave of a rat no deeper than the grave of a man?”

And the tail of a green-eyed rat

Whipped and was gone at a gray rathole.

The poem brought back memories of those early academic assemblies, with administrators, faculty, staff, and student representatives altogether in one room. The discussions often seemed to be dealing with rat riddles! Even now, we faculty occasionally become engaged in those kinds of deep philosophical questions! And, how many of my former students, I wonder, have thought of me as that “green-eyed rat,” who asked the seemingly impossible of them? I hope the number is very large, because they have continually produced at levels that have always made me proud.

The second poem is “Prayers of Steel.”

Prayers of Steel

Lay me on an anvil, O God.

Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar.

Let me pry loose old walls.

Let me lift and loosen old foundatoins.

Lay me on an anvil, O God.

Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike.

Drive me into the girders that hold a skyscraper together.

Take red-hot rivets and fasten me into the central girders.

Let me be the great nail holding a skyscraper through

blue nights into white stars.

In 1975, those words spoke to me of the life I had just 1eft. They now, ewen in their violence, speak of a hope that, just maybe, in these 29 ycars I have helped “to pry loose old walls” or lifted and loosened old foundations in order to build new ones. The most rewarding of all tributes for a teacher, I think, comes from the former student, who says that what you did made a difference. We all hope, as faculty, to help each young Scripps woman find her own “voice.” My job, as voice teacher, was to help find the literal voice as well as the figurative one. When one student tells me that because I taught her “never to settle,” she has grown and will continue to grow as a singer, I feel that new foundations have been built. When another tells me that my Vienna humanities course led her to major in music, I know that I have made a differce. In an e-mail a few years ago, Marsha Genensky ’80 one of the founding members of Anonymous 4, wrote:

I have realized after the fact that we Scripps students really did have a wonderful opportunity to learn to create our own niches. The faculty/staff supported us no matter what weird things we wanted to explore, and we felt encouraged to do this at the highest level. For many years, when I tried the career planning-related experiment of listing my accomplishments (and believe me I did this a number of times), my senior thesis remained at the top of the page…And very early on in the history of Anonymous 4, I realized that I was using the very same “interdisciplinary niching behavior” as I contributed to the research, development, rehearsal, and performance of the group’s programs.

We, as faculty, can ask for no more.

The last Sandburg poem,”In Tall Grass,” was a puzzle to me in 1975-today it makes more sense as I look to retirement.

In Tall Grasses

Bees and honeycomb in the dried head of a horse in a pasture corner

-a skull in the tall grass and a buzz and a buzz

of the yellow honey-hunters.

And I ask no better a winding sheet (over the earth and under the sun).

Let the bees go honey-hunting with yellow blur of wings in

the dome of my head, in the rumbling, signing arch of my skull.

Let there be wings and yellow dust and the drone of dreams of honey

who loses and remembers?-who keeps and forgets?

In a blue sheen of moon over the bones and under the hanging

honey-comb the bees come home and the bees sleep.

What fun it has been to look back and see these things with new, older eyes. They are the bits of yellow dust the bees will gather into honey. I have kept them and they won’t be forgotten. Nor will the rest of my Scripps family be forgotten. What would my teaching have been without Paul Bishop? How proud and thrilled I was when he received a well-deserved staff recognition award this spring! He will continue to inspire and help young singers for years to come. And, my music dcpartment colleagues, what good times we have had. They far outnumber those that were, shall we say, “challenging.” We have a wonderful new facility, and I predict the future will be bright and full. To thc rest of the faculty, thanks for allowing me to be a part of such a talented and dedicated group. The administration and the Board deserve our appreciation not only for providing the means but, most of all, for trusting us to realize our dreams of what learning should and can be. And, to the staff, unending thanks for making our workplace one of order and everchanging beauty.

But now I look forward-to a wonderful and new time. At my retirement party I concluded what had somehow become a kind of “poetry reading” by quoting from Jenny Joseph’s work titled Warninq. It hang in my bedroom and seems to capture best the spirit with which I want to embrace this new chapter in my life.

When I Am an Old Woman

When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple

With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,

And I shall spend my retirement money on brandy

and summer gloves

And satin sandals, and say I have no money for butter.

I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired

And gobble up samples in the shops and press alarm bells

And run my cane along the public railings

And make up for the sobriety of my youth.

I shall go out in my slippers in the rain

And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens

And learn to spit [my emphasis]

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat

And eat three pounds of sausages at a go

Or only bread and pickles for a week

And hoard pens and pencils and beer mats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes to that keep us dry

And pay our rent and not swear in the street

And set a good example for “the children.”

I will have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?

So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised

When suddenly I am old and start to wear purple.

Please indulge me one small postscript. A short time after the retirement festivities: the Los Angeles Times had a special article in the “Senior Living” section about thc Red Hat Society, begun in 1997 and inspired by the Jenny Joseph poem. I had no idea! And, did you know that Claremont has six (yes, six) chapters of this august society? No telling how many Scripps alums belong to one of the 22,000 chapters, worldwide. I think I should become a member, don’t you?

Through the generosity of Jane’s many friends, the College has established the Jane O’Donnell Endowed Scholarship in Vocal Music, which will be made available to a student who is eligible for student aid. Preference will be given to a student majoring in vocal music.

 

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