On Friday I was given the Distinguished Alumni Award from The Shipley School, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. I am posting my speech, a request from some of my classmates who weren't able to be there. We had a very happy time seeing each other. We were at school during the hippie era and during the Vietnam War, the Civil and Women's Rights movements. We were all girls, a situation not as given to pschosexual violence as movies would have you believe. Everyone has had rough moments since, and everyone is incredibly distinguished, with jawdropping jobs. I will write my Shipley book one of these days.
Thank you so much for this honor. It means a lot coming from Shipley, because Shipley is where I was formed, and Shipley has formed hundreds of other distinguished alumni as well. The girls in my class alone are extraordinarily accomplished: I have never again met a group of people as smart and focused. So that this year this distinction comes to me is necessarily something I have to think about and learn to accept over time. I deeply appreciate it.
I arrived at Shipley as a kindergartner in the spring of 1958. My mother and aunt are Shipley alumnae, so it was natural that my sister and I should go here as well. Since that first day at Beechwood House, I haven’t really ever left. Thirteen years of childhood and youth in an institution with a strong philosophy cannot be separated from who you are.
Some of you may have literary aspirations, so I’m going to cite four ways--out of many--that Shipley helped me become a writer.
The first is friends. I still know a lot of my Shipley classmates—some are here today. I knew them when they were five and all the way through until they were 18. Not only that, we knew each other’s families. That gave us an intimacy that doesn’t happen later in life, except with one’s spouse. I spent so much time at their houses, and they mine, that there were no secrets between us. We still can pick up where we left off, even after years pass without talking. We spent dozens of nights staying up, telling each other stories. I was known to stay awake talking even after friends had fallen asleep. I tried to be interesting enough to keep sleepy girls awake. This was a lesson in the importance of dramatic tension and suspense; it is important to keep the reader awake.
The second is the teachers. One expects a high level of teacher from college, but I only had two professors at Penn who were the equal of the teachers I had here. We are in the Reilly theater, and I find it no wonder Mrs. Reilly has been honored with an auditorium. She took me in hand when I most needed it. I was a very rebellious girl and never wrote the assignment she asked. She would literally hunt me down in the school to hand me back whatever version of the assignment I had done for her, which she took seriously, and commented on as if I’d followed instructions. At the end of these chats, she’d always stand up straight, give me a stern stare, and say. “Now, Alice, go home and do it my way.” I owe Mrs. Reilly my revision skills.
The third debt I owe to Shipley comes of the honor system. Does that still exist? (No, it doesn't.) It held a huge place in my imagination when I was here, and I spent many hours in discernment figuring out what to report myself for, what to say when I was caught in a wrong doing, and what to write in the school newspaper that might change some of the rules. It was a great source of pressure and soul searching to have to live up to an honor system, and it helped form some of my ideas about theme, and about the existence of a parallel universe where everyone behaves as she should.
The fourth lasting influence I will mention is the two great headmistresses who ran the school during my years, Miss Speer and Mrs. Epes, both true intellectuals. Mrs. Epes shared her love of poetry in assemblies such as this, and her poetic sensibility allowed her to see potential in me that would have been overlooked in many other schools. She let me stay in school when my behavior really warranted a different outcome. These women did not have easy personal lives, but they set a high standard for scholarship and independence. Mrs. Epes encouraged me far more than I deserved, but it took. She told me I was a good poet, and I believed her. Not many people have that kind of power, and both these headmistresses did. Miss Speer’s stories of her girlhood in China, which I heard before I was even ten, surely influenced me to become a Chinese major in college.
I hope that you all appreciate being students at Shipley. I don’t think what college you go to matters nearly as much as having spent your early years in a great school. Shipley was a great school, and from everything I hear it still is--although I am a little bummed out to have just heard it is a better school now than it was when I was here. In any case, I am glad I ended up doing a few things to repay what I got from being here. I wouldn’t say that my ending up being distinguished was entirely predictable—but you are all being prepared for the unknown. I was.