Thursday, June 9, 2016

Just Call Me Eponine

Victor Hugo Wasn’t Around for This One

In the first part of Eli’s Heart, Eli Levin and Krissy Porter have just reconnected after three years. Through letters and then phone calls they resume a friendship which seemed to be blossoming into something more but was brought to an end by his interfering mother. He’s in college in Westchester County, New York; she’s at a music conservatory in Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s a brilliant pianist, she’s a voice student.

There is a growing drama on Krissy’s campus; one of the school administrators is making a power play which is creating turmoil. He has brought two new faculty members on board for obviously personal reasons, and in order to provide them with stellar performers in their studios, he attempts to raid the studios of established faculty members.

Back in the 1950s, when I was a student at the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, studio loyalty was fierce and sometimes fanatical. Your applied music teacher was one of the most important people in your life. Often students of a teacher referred to them as “Mama” or “Papa” … my late husband’s excellent voice teacher, Robert Powell, was highly esteemed and was “Papa Powell.” My teacher, Fenton Pugh, was “Pappy” to his students.

I’ve had a private studio of my own since 1979 so have long been on the other side of this. There is a unique bond between a music teacher and her private students unlike that of a classroom teacher. There has to be complete trust. Your teacher is asking you to use your music to share your soul. Music is meant to live, and the finest musicians make that happen and take audiences with them to beautiful places.

So for this man to use coercion and intimidation to lure students away from this person who is vital to what they are attempting to do with their entire lives was a cause for concern, among not only the student body but among the faculty as well. In addition, some faculty were threatened with being replaced as directors of various performing groups.

The story is all there in Eli’s Heart, pretty much as it unfolded. Things came to a head not with an explosion, but with a massive toilet paper prank one night in December, after this had been simmering since September. We awoke the next morning to find nearly every tree on the small campus festooned with toilet paper, and while it was hysterically funny, it woke the board of directors up to the seriousness of the situation. Music students didn’t toilet paper trees in those days. We were far too busy practicing our butts off and dealing with music theory.

A call went out to the student body via faculty members (who were as disgruntled as we were … the school’s reputation was at stake, in their opinion, and I think they were correct) for any student who had specific grievances to speak to the Dean of the school. So Krissy decided to play advocate, and she circulated throughout the small women’s dorm, collecting information, writing it all down. She let the Dean of Men know she had this impromptu document, and was called before the Dean, the Assistant Dean, the Dean of Men, and the very administrator she was hoping to help unseat.

I know exactly how she felt when she walked into the Dean’s office and saw those four people sitting there. Krissy … well, okay, Susan Moore was only a first semester sophomore, and the consequences could have been bad if this went the wrong way and the bad guy won. Fortunately, the troops were rallying in the distance in the form of student body leaders, mostly male graduate students, who surrounded me when I left the office and after I’d been debriefed, they took over. Okay, Eponine, you fired the first salvo, now the real troops have arrived.

What convinced the board that Fred Smith had to go was the very real threat from both students and faculty that if he were not removed, we were prepared to not return to school after Christmas break, and most of the faculty stood with us. I have what I believe was the only piece of publicity our rebellion received in an article in the Cincinnati Enquirer from mid-December, 1956, upper left hand corner of the front page, headlined “Smith Quits, Conservatory Rebellion Ends.”

In part it reads: “Faculty members said they believed the resignation will end the turmoil among both students and teachers who had demanded Mr. Smith’s ouster … (Walter) Schmidt, (president of the board of trustees) confirmed the resignation, but refused further comment on what he called ‘a student rebellion.’ ‘I won’t say another word,’ he said. ‘I’ve had enough trouble.’ … ‘It was a case of Mr. Smith going or there being no more school,’ a faculty member said. ‘The great majority of both students and teachers were ready to quit and go elsewhere.’”

Eli’s Heart includes the student resolution presented to the board of trustees listing our grievances against Mr. Smith (he’s referred to by another name in the book), which states in part “he has impeded educational processes by coercion, intimidation, pitting student against student, faculty against faculty, and deception of the board of directors. The administrator has sought to use his power and office to satiate his appetite for complete control and dominance.”

There’s quite a bit about what actually went on during all this in the book. Krissy was not a rebel by nature, and for her to jump into the fray as she did showed some strength I don’t think she realized she had. She had no problem with the men taking the reins after that first skirmish.

Remember, it was 1956. I have to wonder how something like this would play out in 2016.

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1 comment:

  1. Such mild civil disobedience! I agree that it would probably play out much differently today.

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