Last weekend I found myself sitting in front of a fire, drinking a glass of pinot noir with a good friend and mentor. It was a languorous Saturday evening. She turned to me and said, “you know, we had very similar childhoods.” The woman I was lucky to be sitting across from was Dean Claudia Highbaugh. For those who haven’t attended Connecticut College, or Harvard or Yale while she was there, this will mean nothing. Those fortunate enough to know Claudia might burst out laughing. Because on the surface, Claudia and I are nothing alike.
She’s black, I’m white. I was born in 1989 and Claudia was born, well, before that and grew up in the tumultuous era of the Sixties. She believes in god, I don’t. I am tall, she is short. She’s from the South Side of Chicago and I’m from Greenwich Village, Manhattan. I am a student, she is a teacher.
Claudia Highbaugh occasionally teaches a freshman seminar at Connecticut College. This was how I met her; I, an unsure, unstable young woman in a class called Examining Art Through Religion and Culture. Our first field trip was to a cemetery. Our final papers required us to write from the point of view of one of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird. And thus we imagined ourselves as someone else, in another time and place. This, I think, broadened our understanding of our own selves.
When I began working for her, I had little sense of self. What I did have was a facility for language and a curiosity about the world that soon endeared me to Claudia. I could listen to her talk for hours; about her childhood, her all-black primary school, her all-black ballet school, her family, education, friends. Her shock when she went to high school and the world she’d grown up in was radically different. I wanted to know her understanding of the world – of her place in it as a black woman, as being black, as being a woman.
She is one of the most articulate people I know. Her opinions and views are made new by the information she learns – and boy does she learn. Claudia doesn’t seek out information that reaffirms her own viewpoints. She searches for a greater understanding of the world around her, knowing she can only do that by listening to others’ experiences.
“Poetry is a way to investigate cultures and stories, art and history. A poem takes the mystery of difference to a place of experience.”
I stayed working in that small basement office in the beautiful chapel for all four years of college, and the year after. Through this time (three family deaths, upheavals in all my relationships, graduating, applying for graduate school, finding my own place in the world) Claudia was always there to listen. I would go down to her office and eat M&Ms and cry, and laugh, and run my fingers over the endless supply of books on her shelves. We talked about religion, about life, about being women. We talked about growing up in special places, at special times, and thus entering the world feeling slightly out of place.
This was her point. She and I grew up aware of our place in the world when we were young. Then the world shifted and our place no longer made sense. Since that shift, we have been trying to find that feeling of home again; where our selves make sense in a larger context. In this way we are similar. We both love the Rolling Stones and Mo-Town, we love to cook and go to the theatre. We have an affinity for deep and intimate conversation. We both love wine, too.
“I challenge you to look back at the stories of our lives and our histories with new eyes, eyes that search for the whole story; memories that name persons that risk all to overcome the power of corporate evil with the power of love.”
By the time I met Claudia she was set in her ways a bit. I still have to force her to let me carry her groceries, for one. I cleaned out her garage – which is now a mess again. I send her links to articles I think she would enjoy. I helped her pick out her mobile phone – I helped her pick out her car. I like to repay her in these little ways – and by listening to everything she has to say.
“Be nice to your mother” was one I’ll never forget.
At Connecticut College, Claudia has become a quiet fixture for those lucky and keen enough to seek her out. I would implore students of any race, ethnicity, gender assignations, religious affiliation or not, to knock on her door. She has a lot to offer the world – particularly students.
We don’t pick our mentors because they look like us. We pick them out of a feeling of kinship – of a connection of spirit and mind, where both are nurtured and grow because of the other. I have and will continue to change, irrevocably for the better, by knowing, and learning, from Claudia Highbaugh.