Posted on May 21, 2014
Seriously? Did you think I was going to leave without writing one more d-Log to you, my adoring/not-so-adoring (depending on the day) public? Then you haven’t been paying attention, because if you had, you’d know I’d never pass up an opportunity to wax nostalgic and/or didactic on this, the eve of my departure from Wheaton.
Of course, the college owns the website on which you are reading this, so there are limits to what I can say, but the truth is, even without limits, I’d pretty much tell you the same thing: it’s been fun… on many days. It’s been hard on others. But every day has taught me something, and for that I’m grateful.
I came to Wheaton from the University of Connecticut, drawn by the opportunity to return to small college life, a life I knew as an undergraduate student myself, one that shaped much of who I am today. I longed for the snugness I knew then, the sense that I was tucked in at night, that I fit into a space not much larger than myself, one that provided boundaries I knew I was in need of at that moment in my life. I had wonderful professors who invited me to their homes for dinner, a dean of students who did the same and became a life-long friend, and classmates I saw in the dining hall, on the playing field, in the lounge of my residence hall. I felt known, and while that had its downside, it provided a sense of belonging that wore grooves into who I was and created in me a chronic need for that kind of community. I found that kind of place again at Wheaton. What I didn’t count on was how much the outside world had changed, and how those changes would impact the work I do and the relationships I have been able to build and maintain.
I don’t mean to sound vague. I’m thinking aloud here (something I don’t recommend in written form).
A million years ago—okay, about nine—I walked onto this campus for a visit. I was here for a regular gathering of people who did dean-of-students work at mostly small colleges around New England. I was the outlier, being then the DOS at UConn, but the group had always welcomed me and I craved the camaraderie of an objective, funny, smart gang of colleagues who loved to talk about their work. The fact that my job at UConn, and the horror stories I contributed to our conversations, served to make them feel better about being at small colleges, didn’t deter me from trekking to different campuses for their meetings. And one of those meetings was here at Wheaton, in the May Room, actually. Dean Jack, who was Wheaton’s member of the group, was hosting and shared the story of the college’s move to co-education. He spoke with passion and obvious affection about his experience here, and so a few years later, when this job became available, I thought, “What the heck? Norton. It could be fun!”
Jack’s description of the depth of community-ness here was on target. “This place just gets into you,” he told me once. And after a couple of years, I realized it had indeed gotten into me. I found among students, staff, faculty, alums and trustees a true and steady regard for the Wheaton way, even if there were disagreements about what that “way” actually was. I found myself saying things like, “That’s not very Wheaton,” and realizing I had adopted the shorthand of my colleagues for describing sins of commission and omission among us: someone who was not nice, some inflexibility, some lack of concern for students’ well-being. “That’s not very Wheaton.”
There were, though, some dark moments and some very hard days. On a campus where many people feel such intense investment in the community ethos, it’s not surprising that opinions are proffered regularly and sometimes without regard for someone’s intentions or feelings. On the whole, this came from students, never from colleagues. In fact, at my moments of greatest frustration or despair at the reaction of students to something or other with which I may or may not have had any hand in, the faculty and staff members of Wheaton never failed to buoy my spirits with emails, knowing eye-rolls while passing on the Dimple, kind comments and shared laughter. Eventually, after what I’m sure was a fair amount of churning through the student body, a small student voice would also join the chorus of support: “Hi Dean Lee. I just want you to know that I don’t agree with the things people are saying about you. I know you work hard for us,” etc. And again, I would be buoyed. Or maybe it was more of a life preserver tossed in my direction. Whatever. I always grabbed it gratefully and swam back toward the boat.
After five years, though, I have found myself waterlogged, and a little weary of swimming. This is a job that requires near-constant vigilance, and that, my friends, is hard. Every conflict between students, every inebriated bone-headed action, every new federal regulation necessitates a careful analysis from two directions: What is best for this student? What is best for this college? Sometimes those two things are in sync, sometimes there’s enough commonality to call a truce, and sometimes, they are wildly variant and feel like a case study introduced by a sadistic graduate professor.
This is also a job that requires transparency, visibility and accessibility of the sort that provokes celebrities to haul off and swing at a pushy photographer. It took me about three years to fully understand how everyone on campus knows me, even if 1) I don’t know them and 2) they do not acknowledge me when they see me. After my third year, having been accused of being “aloof” several times for not greeting someone on the Dimple, I became the Overachiever of Hello. Have I passed you on the Dimple and said “Hey there” despite the fact that you were wearing earbuds and didn’t make eye contact with me? Thanks to my own insecurity, I believed you might have felt slighted if I didn’t do so. To those of you who looked back at me and returned the greeting: thanks. To those of you who just kept walking: I think you are aloof, and I might not like you. I’m not sure. But I might still post something about it on Facebook...anonymously, of course.
Regrets? I’ve had a few. Here’s the biggest one: I spent too damn much time in front of my computer trying without success to keep my inbox under control. I wish I had instead wandered the campus, sitting down with you in the café or even making the rounds in Chase or Emerson where I might have engaged in more of the conversations I found fun and fascinating when I finally got to have them. But it didn’t work that way. An hour spent walking the campus and talking with staff or students meant 20 emails waiting for me, and then an hour to answer them late at night. I confess: once I decided to leave Wheaton last month, I sort of let my inbox go. I still read everything, and try to respond to the critical stuff, but I no longer diligently file every email under a student’s name, or a topic, or a committee so I can find it later. It has been a liberating few weeks and made me realize how absolutely ensnared I have been in the email trap.
Another regret is related to the first one. I wish I had attended more events. I went to many, but also skipped some that I’m sorry I missed. About three years ago, I went to a play, one of the mainstage performances of our excellent Theater department. I was, after a very long day that included attendance at an earlier event, exhausted and could barely keep my eyes open. I left at intermission, went home and was asleep minutes after walking in the door. In the morning, I awoke to an email screed from a student who had gone to the trouble of creating an anonymous Yahoo account and who took me to task for leaving early. She wrote (I know it was a she because she owned up to it the next day—good for her), “Students worked so hard to put on this performance, and it was disrespectful of you to walk out at intermission.” I remember the tears of anger that welled in my eyes—never a good way to start the day. I wrote back my own screed, listing the events I had attended that week and the hours I had put in by that point (Thursday) of the week. So yes, she wrote back, this time from her Wheaton account, apologizing and saying she had no idea of the kind of schedule this job required.
I appreciated her candor and her apology, though wish she had been able to learn this valuable lesson at someone else’s expense. I bounced back…sort of. Honestly, I started becoming more selective about events, realizing that if I went and left early, it would be noticed and condemned, and it was probably better not to go at all. I justified it to myself, of course, telling myself that I’m up at 6 am and a play or concert or dance performance or event in Balfour that would keep me up past 10 was not going to help me be effective the next day (at my desk, answering email—yes, I see the stupidity of this way of managing my time). I’m sorry for all the events I missed because I was afraid of being criticized for leaving early, whether it was to go home to bed or go to another event on campus. I missed some good work that students and faculty have done over the years.
So yes, I wish I had done these things differently: spent less time answering email and more wandering the campus and attending events. I might then know more of the students whose names I called at commencement last Saturday. I knew some—SGA members, RAs, a few athletes—but not well. I knew others—students who had found themselves in serious trouble for one reason or another—better, but still not well. I had eight marvelous students who took my class last fall that I knew best of all, and for that I am grateful. But the rest of you? The combination of my job’s demands and my tendency toward introversion meant I never knew you the way you deserved—the Wheaton way. I hope that you were known by others here, the faculty and staff with whom you interacted more frequently. I hope you know that I was paying attention in other ways: long conversations with parents, reading everything about you on the college website, figuring out, in the company of colleagues, how best to help you stay, or leave, or sort out your issues. I have had to admit to myself that the structure of my job limits what access I have to you, but I’ve never quite stopped, in my heart, being the residence hall director or student activities director I was earlier in my career, and I often wished I could shed the administrative burdens of the vice presidency and just hang out with you.
And so the Dean exits, stage north. I am bound for Burlington, VT, a place that many of you have told me you know and love, and I have to agree: it’s a great place to have a life, which I fully intend to do. I will work with a small organization that serves students in need of structure and support that their colleges can’t quite provide, students who want, like you, to be successful at college. When I’m not working (which I hope will be more time than I am working), I will hike and sail and paddle and see movies and enjoy long conversations over good food with friends I have and don’t have yet, but will. I will walk on Church Street and see the many students who call Burlington home—UVM, St. Mike’s, Champlain students, and wonder if they need some free-lance deaning, because I suspect I will have a hankering to do some problem-solving, some mediation, some encouraging. Maybe they’ll even let me call their parents! Or not.
Should you find yourself there too, look me up (you can find me on Facebook or firstname.lastname@example.org, and the folks in Wheaton’s Dean’s office will always know how to reach me).
I will miss the Wheaton community, the Wheaton way, and know I will always bear a Lyon logo on my chest (the new logo, because God knows I have scars from that particular process). And I will miss you…most of you…many of you. Or more accurately, I will miss the idea of you: students doing interesting work, figuring out how the world works, finding your place in it. There are some things I won’t miss, but I’ll let you speculate about those yourselves.
Now, what great poem should I leave you with? St. Vincent Millay? Audre Lourde? Richard Wilbur? I’m torn between two, both from contemporary poets. The first is from the band Semisonic's 1998 mega-hit, “Closing Time” Sing it with me:
Time for you to go out to the places you will be from
This room won't be open till your brothers or your sisters come
So gather up your jackets, move it to the exits
I hope you have found a friend
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end
Take care of each other, be nice to Dean Kate (don’t blame her for Norton’s water), and revel in this time of your life. All things considered, it’s pretty great.