I was done with Washington & Lee.
In the tender post-graduation years when I could barely afford housing and was living with two roommates in Bayside, Queens, I was helping the University and being a good little alumnus. The first of the Sallie Mae coupon books had arrived, and I obediently surrendered to the “SelectStep” program, which was pretty much designed to make student loan payments palatable to someone in an entry-level job, while moving the more egregious debt slavery to the back of the loan. But I digress. Point is, I didn’t have two nickels to rub together.
That didn’t stop me from putting in 10 years helping the Class of 1994 earn something called the Bierer Trophy. It might sound impressive, but it’s literally a participation trophy. It goes to the class that has graduated in the past 10 years that exhibits the highest participation rate of alumni giving. The Class of 1994 had a perfect streak and locked it up for a decade – every year it was eligible.
One of my contributions was to move a lot of the class communication online. The World Wide Web was just hitting after graduation, and people were starting to have web browsers on their computers at work and were signing on to AOL and Compuserve at home. But we were like every other class that had come before us – doing most of our fundraising and disseminating class news through the mail.
I had brought to the table the notion that we should have our own class website. I helped secured some space on the wlu.edu server for it and had started laying the groundwork for issuing class updates on a website. While eCommerce hadn’t washed over us yet, we were the first class to allow alumni to make their Annual Fund pledge online. I remember having to talk to support folks at W&L about CGI scripts and how we would do it, and we did get it done.
I think it was an important first. Non Incautus futuri, indeed. Here’s a school that’s infatuated with the Civil War and has one foot perhaps too entrenched in the past, and it’s among the first to engage alumni online. Really cool stuff, even if it was basic.
Not long after this, though, I began to feel like our class cared less about why we were giving and more about gamifying the Annual Fund. I had very little money early on, but was making contributions and trying to innovate while being treated as if the effort I was putting into the website was something I somehow “owed” to the school. Nobody seemed to want to talk about this seemingly arbitrary goal our class had of winning a participation trophy, what we wanted to do next and how we were going to innovate going forward. People stopped asking me what I though we might want to do next, and the conversations shifted to focus largely on where my check was.
I felt very much like an outsider, especially up in the liberal oasis of New York City, over 400 miles away from W&L. I became even more isolated after the pet project of the class website was inexplicably taken away from me. While I was still financially getting back on my feet, it became tougher and tougher to look at class news, with some of our classmates somehow able to give five figures to the Annual Fund right after graduation.
Whatever. I’m not a child of southern privilege. It’s something you wrestle with as a student, even as a white male, that there are all these people from legacy families walking around with the ability to stride into a car dealership and plunk a truck down on their daddy’s credit card. I’m probably just jealous, but I found it really distasteful when we’d look at who contributed in what amounts during those early years right after graduation, and somebody had decided that an alumnus from our class who had given more than I made in two years deserved to have their name appear in the “thanks for your contribution” section of the class newsletter in bold, underlined, italicized and with asterisks all over it.
Forgive the language, but the whole thing had turned into a dick-measuring contest. And I was no longer interested in it.
I was also uninterested in it because I was noticing people would make assumptions about me when I’d wear W&L gear to work. A buddy of mine at the ad agency I worked for at the time asked me why I had a Maserati symbol on my tie, and I told him that no – it was the W&L Trident I was sporting. The more I told him, the more horrified he seemed.
I stopped wearing the W&L belts from the bookstore, that tie, the sweatshirts. I took some W&L plastic cups to the office after I got promoted, then decided it was better to leave them at home.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that this romanticized version of Robert E. Lee seemed to exist only in the South. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to friends and co-workers in New York when I explained to them that no, Robert E. Lee wasn’t a traitor to his country who took up arms against the United States to preserve a way of life that centered on slavery for African-Americans. He was a repentant former slaveowner who focused on healing the country after the Civil War and showed it by becoming an educator and instilling gentlemanly values among students at this small, elite school I went to.
It’s horseshit. All of it. Most of the stories of Lee I heard on campus turned out to be apocryphal. The Lost Cause was a false narrative designed to convince people that their insistence on the right to own black people was somehow noble. And I didn’t realize most of this until well after graduation, which is a source of great embarrassment and a failure on my part.
When I did realize it, though, I became a member of what I referred to as the “Not Another Dime Club.” I washed my hands of Washington & Lee. When I moved, I didn’t give the university my address, and I felt dismay when they managed to track me down and send the alumni magazine my way.
When a close friend of mine became a class agent, I didn’t hold back about my decision to dissociate from W&L. People knew about why I was out. It was my perception of W&L’s culture that I found most distasteful.
I entrenched myself in the Not Another Dime Club right up until my 25th reunion. I hit a tipping point with that reunion, where I knew many of my valued friends would travel to Lexington for the event, and the need to reunite with some of those people on campus outweighed my dedication to dissociating from the school.
I did reunite with many of them, but it took some convincing. The thing that put me over the edge was hearing stories about the W&L experience from a black classmate. Hearing things like how he was treated poorly due to the color of his skin at a clothing shop in town deeply affected me. I cried.
Then I learned about how these stories my classmate told were the genesis of the idea behind our class gift – about how contrasting his W&L experience with that of white students led the Class of 1994 to earmark their contribution for the Office of Inclusion and Engagement, with the goal of ensuring that every W&L student is able to have the W&L experience. I think it’s a noble goal to want to see people of all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds get to experience the full W&L.
I got behind that effort. Late one night during a band party at the Liberty Hall Ruins, I even pulled out my phone and made my first donation in years.
Why? Mostly because my classmates surprised me. I went down to campus thinking that I would still be running into obstinate racists who would continue to bolster Lost Cause ideology. Largely, I didn’t.
In fact, the people I expected that from – yes, the people who had been flagrantly racist during the early 90s at school and had even celebrated it – went out of their way to talk to their classmates about the class gift and why they thought it was important.
I had not given them enough credit. By imagining them stuck in this early-90s version of themselves, I had discounted the notion that their thinking about the Lost Cause and about racism may have evolved. I was floored by how wrong I was thinking about my own classmates frozen in time like that.
It took a lot to get me to Lexington after such a long period of time. I wanted reassurances before I hitched up my camper to my truck and made a beeline for the Lexington/Natural Bridge KOA. (Yeah, I waited waaaaay too long to book a hotel room and knew it was hopeless, so I did something different.)
I wanted to know that certain people were going to be there – mostly my friends who worked with me on The Ring-tum Phi. I wanted to be able to work with those friends ahead of time to put out a special edition of the Phi that looked at the progress W&L had (or hadn’t) made when it came to key issues facing the student body that we had identified during our senior year – student diversity, sexual assault, the Honor System, and yes – racism. I wanted to be free of the whole class agent culture and the pressure to measure one’s monetary contributions against that of other classmates.
I feel like I got most of that, and I got to reconnect with friends I hadn’t seen face-to-face since graduation. But one of the most valuable experiences of the reunion was seeing how our class took up inclusion as a goal. That so surprised me that I considered myself back in the circle as I drove back to New York. I saw things in motion at W&L that I thought were forever chained down, and that gave me hope.
That might have been the end of the story, and the story might have had a happy ending.
But I had engaged with some of my W&L friends and acquaintances after Charlottesville. There were some painful discussions on social media, some of which had resulted in alienation and ended friendships. If you know me well, you know my thoughts on the “but Antifa…” crowd and on the people who would excuse literal Nazis marching in the streets with tiki torches. I won’t belabor it further.
But with the opportunity to discuss Black Lives Matter and how Lee’s presence on campus and in the school’s name alienates people of color, I see a lot of the same behavior I saw in the wake of Charlottesville, and it breaks my heart.
I posted publicly about the prospect of a name change, knowing full well it was going to pull people out of the woodwork – people I considered friends – to defend Lee, or at least to defend taking yet more time to consider the ramifications of changing the name.
It’s depressing. I realize suggesting to my friends raised under Lost Cause ideology that Robert E. Lee isn’t the hero they believed him to be is like telling a New Yorker like me that Joe DiMaggio was a Communist. But there are still a lot of people who won’t even consider the notion that alienating minority students and creating an environment that excludes them is secondary to things like keeping Lee enshrined.
Every morning now, I get up and wonder to myself whether it’s just easier to let them have it. One of my best friends asked me last night about how much effort I want to put into a campaign for a name change, and I didn’t have a good answer for him. And he’s right. I keep thinking that maybe it’s just easier to let W&L continue to venerate Lee – what one of my professors back then called “worshipping Saint Bob” – and let them deal with the consequences.
But the things keeping me working on this campaign are:
- The truth spoken by my black classmates who had challenging times at W&L, and
- The glimmer of hope I saw when I went back to campus and saw formerly racist classmates rally behind inclusion and making W&L a better place.
It bears repeating, so I’ll say it again. I wake up every morning now, wondering what I’m doing by participating in this campaign, and trying to convince myself it would be easier to just let the racists have W&L.
I don’t know whether I’ll even have the fortitude to see it through to any sort of conclusion, good or bad, but I’m looking for inspiration in the words and deeds of my schoolmates.