That Exhilarating Sense of "Aha!"
Elizabeth "Lee" Smith Ingram '66
The meaning of Swarthmore began for me when I was 9 years old and my father became president of the College. I spent my childhood in the president's house on the edge of the campus. I spent my childhood and teenage years attending wonderful choral and orchestral concerts, student plays, and the Hamburg Show in Clothier Memorial Hall. On Sunday mornings, I walked with my family to the Friends Meetinghouse and was always amazed at the number of College students who joined us there for worship. Often I returned on Sunday evenings to a packed meetinghouse to hear a speaker or panel discussion sponsored by the College on some controversial or interesting topic. I never tired of the beautiful campus with the Crum Woods, rose garden, arboretum, and especially the smell of lilacs in the springtime. In my senior year in high school, I went on a blind date with a Swarthmore freshman who ended up being my husband of 36 years (at this writing).
Applying to Swarthmore as a senior in high school was a natural progression for me. I remember having an interview with Bob Barr '56, the dean of admissions, and coming out of it convinced more than ever that this was the place for me. I might add parenthetically that my husband, my son, and almost everyone else I know who was interviewed by Bob Barr ended up making the College his or her first choice! Alas, my family persuaded me to go elsewhere my freshman year, so I set off north to college. Fortunately, I was able to return to Swarthmore my sophomore year, and, I must admit, it truly felt like coming home.
Being a student at Swarthmore was like being a child in a candy store: so many rich choices of courses and areas of study. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat in classes where such professors as Hedley Rhys introduced art history or Tom Blackburn and Harold Pagliaro conveyed the excitement of English literature. Choosing a major at Swarthmore proved to be a precursor to choosing a career-you try out different areas until you find the major or career that is the best intersection between what you are good at and what you like to do. I settled on English literature.
Majoring in English and taking an education course with Alice Brodhead played a big part in my career choice. In typical Swarthmore fashion, Professor Brodhead fired her students up about the issues, needs, and challenges of elementary and secondary education, then sent us into the neighboring classrooms to give it a try. I was assigned to Swarthmore High School to teach The Merchant of Venice to a 10th-grade honors class. To the horror of Professor Sam Hynes' daughter, who happened to be in the class and recognized me as one of her neighbors, the teacher handed the whole unit and class over to me and left the room. That's how my teaching career was launched. Here, and in other classrooms in England, Massachusetts, and D.C., I experienced the thrill and satisfaction of taking a piece of literature I had studied and using it to spark discussions and excite students about literature in the same way that Swarthmore professors had inspired me.
I describe myself as an educator at this point because my career has gone in several directions, with education the unifying theme. Besides teaching English literature, I have trained teachers, been an adjunct professor at a university, coordinated programs, and worked as an educational researcher and consultant. In addition, in my search for a professional niche where I could work part time while raising three children, I discovered the world of educational diagnosis and have spent many years helping children and adults understand why learning is difficult for them and how they can overcome their learning challenges. Again, I feel a gratitude for my Swarthmore education as an English major. The same skills that were brought to bear in analyzing a poem or a novel-the piecing together of clues of character, setting, and plot that led to the full understanding of the theme of the piece of literature-have been transferable to analyzing the clues and patterns that shed light on an individual's learning disability. And there is that same exhilarating sense of "Aha!" when the pieces seem to fall into place and reveal the whole.
Swarthmore also taught me another important lesson: that balance in life matters even when work is a priority. Sports was my outlet, and I have fond memories of playing hockey and lacrosse all of my years at Swarthmore. Our coach, Pete Hess, projected such a healthy attitude about the place of athletics at Swarthmore. Under her guidance, we practiced rigorously, played our games with spirit and a keen desire to win, but always knew that she would understand if an important science lab or exam became the higher priority. Years later, in my 40s, I joined a women's soccer team, complete with official uniforms, referees, and even yellow cards for misbehavior. As we practiced and played our games, running around outdoors on a beautiful fall or spring day, memories came flooding back to me of my Swarthmore days and the wonderful feeling of camaraderie and well-being that playing on a sports team brings.
But Swarthmore has never been just about ourselves. The campus culture always encouraged the use of one's education to make the world a better place. As the country struggled with issues of civil rights and social justice, we students tried to do our own bit. I remember vividly the excitement and satisfaction when a group of us participated in the College's first Upward Bound Program in the summer after my sophomore year. Our job was to teach a group of Chester students math, English, drama, and other subjects in ways that would give them a taste of the excitement of learning and help motivate them to higher achievement. Then, during the year, we tutored many of these students. I think this experience set the stage for my community activities. As a PTA leader and activist in my children's schools and in our county school system, I grappled with the issues of how to improve the educational opportunities and success rate of children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. My work in these areas led to my Ph.D. dissertation topic, which concerned the ways to increase enrollment in honors and Advanced Placement classes of African American and Hispanic students.
However, no discussion of the meaning of Swarthmore would be complete without reference to the wonderful people who were fellow students or with whom I had contact later as alums. I remember the lively and thought-provoking discussions in the dining hall or in the dorms, and the whimsical and humorous moments, such as the "Midnight Mile" run around the track behind the Lamb-Miller Field House (which, I confess, I watched appreciatively rather than ran) and the time during the Centennial Fund Campaign when The Phoenix announced on April 1 that the president had inadvertently sold the College to the Ford Foundation. Many of the friendships begun there have endured and enriched my life. At reunions, as our class moves closer and closer to the front of the alumni parade, I realize how our common Swarthmore experience bonds us together in very meaningful ways. Sometimes in my community, while serving on a task force or on the board of a school, I unexpectedly find another Swarthmore graduate in the room; or I find that another alum is a member of my Friends Meeting; or I discover a fellow Swarthmorean running for Congress, as was the case in this past election. It is always a pleasant surprise when this happens because I realize that I am working or interacting with another like-minded person who shares Swarthmore's values of being open to new ideas, reasoning a problem through in a creative way, and seeking action to ameliorate societal problems that we care deeply about.
Perhaps the truest meaning of Swarthmore was captured, however, when my oldest child decided to attend the College. When my husband and I helped him move into his Wharton dormitory room, we were surprised at how excited we both felt. Part of our excitement stemmed from the realization that we would gain yet another excuse to visit the beautiful campus, hear firsthand about Swarthmore events and issues, and come to know a new generation of Swarthmore students. But most important, we realized that our son was going to continue the Swarthmore tradition for our family and have the same chance that we were given to spend undergraduate years at this truly extraordinary college.
Lee Ingram is an educational diagnostician, researcher, and consultant based in Washington, D.C.