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Boundaries, Edges, and Centers

ekthorp's picture

            I began my journey by walking across Senior Row, and stepping up and over the Moon Bench. Through the course of my walk, I became aware of the difference between Inner and Outer borders. To me, the moon bench is a gateway; it marks the end of the inner campus and the beginning of the outer edges. By going over it, instead of around, I felt as if I had transitioned from walking to sauntering. While I may not have had a set route or destination, I had a purpose.  The entire point of the walk was that I didn’t know where I was going, because I had never been there before. I had never explored the physical boundaries of Bryn Mawr, and had absolutely no idea what I would find, or even where they were. But had I known, I would have no reason to go there. The entire point of exploration is to see what is to be discovered, regardless of whom else has seen it before. I could now call myself a saunterer in the Thoreauvian sense- I had a purpose, a mental destination. My trek transformed from one of complete aimlessness to one with a point. Had I known where I was going, that point would be mute.  

            This was most clearly illustrated by my favorite discovery of my voyage. Having spent many evenings and afternoons in Batten house during this past summer, I assumed I knew everything about the area. I had always known that it was surrounded by jungle-like greenery and was very close to a stream. I had always presumed that, due to the thick vegetation, the creek was impossible to get to. This is not even close to true. I found out that by going around Batten in a different way, I could easily access the creek, and even a small bank that would make a lovely landing to sit with friends on upcoming sunny days. Had I been content to let the woods surround me, instead of inserting myself into them, this place, while perhaps previously discovered by other Bryn Mawr students, would remain a mystery to me.

             As I roved around the corners of our campus, I came across many manifestations of borders broken. The most memorable rests along the northwestern rim of our school, by Batten house. In order to separate the campus from the nearby houses, both the school and our neighbors had posted chain-link fences, with barbed wire atop the Bryn Mawr side. This created a narrow alleyway between the two barriers, easily walked between. However, an indeterminate number of years ago, a large tree had crashed across the fences, creating an easily crossed bridge between the two properties. I hoisted myself up onto the branch and passed from the alleyway to the back of Bryn Mawr’s campus, wondering where the hell I had been just seconds earlier. I wasn’t quite on campus, but I was definitely not on a stranger’s property either. While it was easy enough for me to pass through, had I visited that place maybe just a few years ago, navigating this border by crossing those two fences would have been a much more challenging experience.

            Unfortunately, not all opened passageways end in fruitful forays. The woods beyond the fences yielded very little travel before a bay of thick bushes and shrubs cut me off. But the space before the thicket yielded an array of entertaining material. I found several glass bottles, some broken, some whole, that had clearly been resting there for quite some time. It was obvious that someone had been camping out here, but for how long was quite uncertain. Given the vintage of some of the bottles, whoever was there had left long ago. Whether out of necessity or desire, whoever was camping here had very little regard for the meaningless boundaries that had been established between public and private property. They utilized the woods for what they needed, ignoring the divisions created by fences and forests.

            After returning across the branch-bridge, I made my way behind Brecon and around a nearby small athletic field, on which I have suffered many brutal rugby practices. Of course, my experience on the field was incredibly different this time. This was nothing “akin to exercise,” even though I had been in that exact location for that explicit purpose before. One location can be utilized for several purposes, according to the intentions of those using it. I expected my experience of the field to be tainted by memories of endless practices, but I felt surprisingly clear headed while on the pitch.  I think this may be because of the stark difference between the two activities. When using this place for rugby, I am incredibly focused, expending all my mental and physical energy on the sport.  While sauntering, I felt completely free and unfocused. I casually meandered around the edge of the field, contemplating the thinly veiled border of sparse bushes separating the field from the surrounding houses. The purpose of my journey had changed the experience of my destination entirely.

            As I was walking behind the Psychology department I re-realized that Bryn Mawr is bordered by two other private academic institutions. Of course, I had known this, but before balancing between the three worlds, I did not see meaning in this. However, it is an incredibly interesting phenomenon that three separate academic programs were all founded with barely any boundaries between the three. What makes this area so magnetic to schools? Baldwin was established just three years after Bryn Mawr, while Shipley was founded in 1894. The realm of academia around Bryn Mawr is inescapable, as if the infamous Bryn Mawr bubble is engorged by the presence of other schools.  Beyond the effects all three schools play on each other, their presence acts as an indicator of the past; a living history of social norms and necessities. The narrow borders between the three campuses points to the booming economic life, and rise of the middle class, in the late 19th century. While I’m sure a variety of factors influenced the academic establishments in the area, this new social grade found themselves living in the suburbs without any quality places to educate their children. As they had the money to make it happen, they were able to create three new schools for their daughters. The close proximity between the three schools indicates how the area at the time was affluent enough to become a thriving academic area.

The schools also mark a significant moment in the Women’s Rights movement. At the time of establishment, all three schools were institutions for young women, marking a moment when women were given more academic options. Perhaps by keeping all three schools approximate to each other, though, the hope was to contain this advancement within a walled space. Of course, this is all just speculation on my part, but still points to some kind of change in the social environment that required the rise of academic institutions for women.

            After circling the entire campus, running into several spider webs and getting many mosquito bites along the way, I reemerged within the inner-campus feeling a little disoriented. I had spent so long along the edges, I was discomforted by the thought of finding the center. No place I could think of seemed logical to me. Everywhere my mind brought before me was either too far away from one corner or another, or was a completely arbitrary spot that could not adequately represent all the Bryn Mawr means to me. That is what a real center is, at least to me. It must be at once part of the physical and emotional landscape, resting upon a spot that ties together emotional value with a geographical location.

 I emerged from the English House woods, tenuously crossing the small street and submerging myself into the sunlight, wandering aimlessly in the general direction of Thomas Great Hall. I had been thinking about locating the center of the campus on the Senior Steps of Taylor, but could not settle that in my brain for some reason. It did not unite all the requirements. That place only ever seems central to me when there is a mob of people singing wildly there. I stumbled up the stairs to the Great Hall, shocked by the sudden shade and climate control, and felt immediately pulled to the Northwestern corner, where Athena stands guard. This is not an unusual occurrence; I almost always feel magnetized to the spot where she stands whenever I enter the Great Hall. However, I had not even considered her as the possible center of campus. The second I was standing at her feet, though, I knew I was in the right place.

Beyond the physical and sentimental standards I had set up, I felt centered when around Athena. Retrospectively, I guess I always do. As if I must be reverent because this is the spirit of Bryn Mawr right here. Even if that feeling is completely created by my own attachment to the school, it still exists within me. I had still discovered what it was that made this one place sacred to me. I was standing at the center of a school that seemingly stayed constant while everything about me and around me changed. The student population may change, the landscape may become altered, but the core of Bryn Mawr will always seem the same to me. Accepting, challenging, and a little smothering, in the best way possible, Bryn Mawr has altered me, while I have done very little to alter it. But by sauntering in the direction of discovery, I have at least clarified what I can change. 



Anne Dalke's picture

On finding what is constant

I share w/ Nan a pleasure in your purposeful "saunter" into places you hadn't gone (or even known existed!) before, and found myself grinning @ the image of your hoisting yourself up on that fortuitous "branch-bridge," re-crossing the rugby field, and noticing that Bryn Mawr is bordered on two sides by other girls' schools. Do you think that your review of the history of 19th century women's education re-locates your attention from what is just before you--or that it "bores down," giving some historical layering to what is here now?

What interests me most, though, is your finally finding your "center" with Athena, who marks for you the ways in which BMC stays "constant," never-changing. But do you know the story of Athena's being stolen by HC students?  For one account, see Goddess of Wisdom is a Broken Woman; for another, see Students Will Pay....And here's the story of her repair: Athena. When this first happened, some of my gender studies students tried to steal "Running Man," in retaliation, but he was (ironically) unmoveable! What does this do to your story, to know that Athena's not so steady, or so long-standing, as you figure her here to be?

Where I'd also like to go on listening to you is @ the very end, where you say that you "have at least clarified what I can change." That isn't clear to me--@ all--from the essay you've written so far. Say more!

Nan's picture

An Explorer

What an explorer you are! With the Moon Bench as a "gateway"! Beautiful. It is daring and perhaps a little scary to venture out into a place we have not been before, don't you think?  I like that you say, "Had I known where I was going, that point would be mute." There is often some delight in penetrating places heretofore unknown to us.  I enjoyed accompanying you on your Thoreauvian saunter.