My two daughters and I live in a 900-square foot duplex on the 1,000-acre campus of a college in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Our rental house has more square feet than the college has undergraduates. The cattle herd that grazes on campus is twice as large in number as our faculty of full-time professors.
Much like the opening lyrics of the TV show “Cheers,” this is a place “where everybody knows your name” – and what you placed in your recycling bin last week.
Washing dishes in my kitchen sink, I look east out my window at a men’s dormitory with 18 windows staring back at me. My living room faces west, so I sometimes see my students sunning themselves in various states of undress in a nearby field at dusk.
“I couldn’t do it,” a friend said last week. “I just couldn’t live where I teach. And what are you going to do when your daughters hit high school and want to hang out in the dorms or smoke pot in the pastures?”
This is not a rhetorical question. My 14-year old daughter Maya will be in high school in the fall. But as a single mother of two girls, I have chosen this domestic life at Warren Wilson College because of the connection to community, work, and place – concepts that seem both quaint and unfamiliar in our time.
As one of only seven work colleges in the country, Warren Wilson College requires each student to work 15 hours a week on crews such as the farm crew, dining crew, and recycling crew (hence the insider’s scoop on our recycling bins). Students also engage in community service, from volunteering in a domestic violence shelter to restoring eroded stream banks.
Founded in 1894, it’s a place with history. Houses on campus are referenced, not by street number, but by the name of the last occupant. About 12 percent of full-time faculty and staff live in campus housing. Four years after I moved into my duplex, colleagues would still say, “Oh, you’re living in Donna’s house!” (Donna hadn’t lived on campus in years.)
Thirty-five years ago, Rodney Lytle, an alum and staff member, lived in our house with his family. Last month, my daughter Maya began a History Day project on Alma Shippy, the first African-American student to attend Warren Wilson College in 1952 and two years before Brown vs. Board of Education. Rodney took Maya and her friend Emma to visit Alma’s brother, who gave them first-hand accounts of desegregation on the campus they call home. When they won third place in the contest, the girls called Rodney’s office on campus to share their news.
While this community can be quirky, like a small town with a predictable cast of characters, my children are known and feel at home.
When I enter the classroom, it’s not unusual for a student to say, “Oh Mallory, I was just at your house and fixed that leaking toilet.” (Or the student may report that the toilet has not been repaired yet.)
Since students work for the school, in exchange for a tuition reduction, undergraduates weed the gardens, stack books in the library, and serve hamburgers in the cafeteria. With the help of gifted supervisors, students might go from knowing nothing about auto mechanics to changing the oil on the campus fleet of vehicles during their first semester.
Walking to the bus stop, my daughters routinely see their female babysitters driving tractors at 7:00 in the morning. Like paparazzi, my children take mental snapshots of their favorite students working to maintain the campus.
It’s an educational context fraught with failure and innovation, but one that most staff and faculty believe in deeply, even if we complain about the pace of repairs or the work ethic of selected students. Some days, life at this college reminds me of my former role as a Peace Corps volunteer when I was in my twenties and first learned to accept consistent imperfection as a cultural reality.
Given our uncertain future, one with fiscal cliffs and global warming, I want my children to value sustained work that creates even imperfect community.
Author Wendell Berry writes: “What I stand for is what I stand on.” By living in this place, I pray that my children will develop connections to campus landmarks like the Swannanoa River, Dam Pasture, and River Trail.
Yet after 13 years at the same small college, I worry that I could become jaded, one of those professors who appears animated only when complaining about the perpetual decline of today’s students. For perspective, I look away from the dorms and the academic drama-of-the-day and remember the graduates who are growing their own food, starting organic mechanic shops, and teaching in classrooms across the country.
We are connected to people and places. In Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris notes: “The spirit of the land is not an abstraction in western Dakota, but a real presence.” From the Plains to the Appalachian Mountains, our children will cherish the places where they feel that spiritual presence, in rural, urban, or even suburban landscapes.
Just as the song from “Cheers” reveals that “making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got,” sometimes, staying in one place, as a mother and a teacher, takes more work and grit than moving where no one knows your name.
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