Requiem for Montreat College, Fitt the First
The needle rose and fell, repetitively slamming into my ribcage. I lay stock still— arm outstretched above my head; shirtless and immune to everything but the “purrrr” of Markita’s gun. She was Ukrainian, fully sleeved with original artwork, hunched over me like an archeologist. But instead of uncovering artifacts, she was creating one. On the bench under the fluorescent lights of Headington’s Oxford Ink Markita carefully traced the words I dictated to her earlier in the evening: “Therefore though the best is bad/ Stand and do the best my lad.” When she finished, I walked back to C.S. Lewis’ house. It was 2012 and I was finally in possession of my Undergraduate degree from Montreat College.
I was staying at the Kiln’s in Risinghurst, one village over from Markita’s tattoo parlor and studying at Oxford University’s Bodleian library. In 2012 I was 39, almost 40. My five children were back home in Black Mountain with my husband. Dr. Don King and Dr. Rich Gray from the Montreat English department facilitated and coached me during the application process for the study grant allowing me an extended stay in Oxfordshire. While there I honed the research skills that prepared me for success in graduate school and post-graduate PhD work.
The top layer of Markita’s ink still smeared across my ribcage when I pulled the bandage off to look at her work more closely. The words etched into my bone and skin represented everything I went through to obtain my undergraduate degree. The two poetry lines marking my body begin the final stanza of AE Housman’s “The Day of Battle. ” Written as a reflection on the generation of men lost in World War One due in part to stubborn trench warfare tactics and poor communication, Housman posits that running away from one’s problems only exacerbates the need to fight. Better, then, to face the battle head-on, with no assurance of victory.
In the early 1990s I tried college three times and the bodies stacked neatly and deeply: Christopher Newport University (then College); George Mason University and finally my first stab at Montreat College. I entered Montreat angry, agnostic and articulate. Housman delineates in skeletal clarity the horrific realities of war in his poetry. At Montreat in 1992 I was at war with myself, with God, with the administration, with all authority. But the administration and my professors kept trying to love me . . . and give me boundaries . . . which I needed but promptly bulldozed over. Ed Bonner played dual roles of campus chaplain and Bible department professor, tirelessly showing me the person, politics, and path of Christ without ever once mentioning my need for salvation. He loved me when I nodded out in his Survey of the New Testament class; he loved me when my eyes were blood red; he loved me when I did not love myself.
Aside from Ed Bonner my first semester at Montreat coincided with a now (2019) Faculty Fellow of the Montreat History Department’s first semester teaching. I loved and respected this professor. He was real and smart and taught History with a rawness that made me feel like standing on my desk and shouting “O Captain; My Captain!” He knew I was a wreck; he had eyes in his head, but he loved me. He checked on me; he championed me; he shared beers with me (settle down, I had a birthday— I was 21). He never once tried to *save* me. He just walked out the red letters of the New Testament. Every. Single. Day. And I noticed. My short time at Montreat -Anderson College cracked me. Finally, I hit my knees and I prayed one thing: “God, you said I could come as I am. So here I am.”
I got thrown out of Montreat College shortly thereafter, and believe me, Charlie Lance tried every other way to get me to be able to stay. He tried so hard to give me loving and logical boundaries; he tried showing me my strengths; he tried to inspire me; he never EVER judged me. But I did it to myself (Newsflash: throwing a keg party and selling the Dixie cups rather than the beer will still get you thrown out of school . . . just trying to drop some knowledge on yall millennials. . .).
In my 37th year I came back to Montreat College. I called the admissions office and a cheery young man answered the phone. After exchanging pleasantries, I told him that I wanted to finish my degree begun in 1992. He asked me to wait while he pulled up my records. Clickety Clickety Clickety then Louder than Bombs Silence. “Ummmmmmmm,” he stalled, “We don’t usually readmit students who have a GPA THIS low.” So, I did what I would later tell my Montreat Composition students to do – I wrote. I used ethos, logos, pathos, argumentation theory, personal narrative, and straight-up-no holds barred-begging. I wrote my truth and defended my assertion that I would and could represent Montreat with veritas and victory. And they let me back in.
The cracking of the soul I experienced in 1992 gave way to the cracking of a scholar. Dr. Don King became my mentor and he expected scholarly greatness out of me, and I worked my fingers and brain to the bone to give it to him. Dr. Patrick Connelly expected wisdom and high- level research and I gave it to him. Dr. Mark Wells expected logic and academic intersection and I tried to give it to him (although I will admit I still do not fully grasp the Nicomachean Ethics, sorry Dr. Wells). Dr. Kimberly Angle modeled love and grace in her classroom and counseled me. My History professor from 1992, on the fateful day when dozens of Montreat College faculty and staff were let go in order to conform to SACS accreditation, took my class outside to fire Civil War guns until all our tears were dry; he modeled respectful rage for me.
I took my GPA and brought it up to an A. I was a wife and mother, a full-time student with two jobs and I was still a rebel—I thought about most things differently than others. My instructors knew it; the staff knew it; Marshall Flowers knew it and they embraced it. I was a product of intellectual inquiry and I was a Montreat success story. When I wrote my letter to Montreat detailing my intent to make them proud of my academic achievements and spiritual growth if only they would give me a second chance, I wrote the truth— and I signed my name to that letter. My name, and all reputation attached to it, was on the hook if I did not speak the truth.
Montreat is full of second-chancers just like me. Students who need professors to challenge, believe in, love them and walk out—not talk about—the red letters of the New Testament. What the administration and my professors did for me during my two tenures as a student at Montreat College was both force and encourage me to stand and do my best. I got to Oxford, and then to graduate school, and then finally received a position in the English department at Montreat College (full props to Dr. King and Dr. Gray). Back with students like me. I heard Markita’s voice as her needle lifted at the last flourish of the last letter of the last stanza of AE Housman’s poem: “Now girl, you have what you came for.”