The Things That Make Us Who We Are: A Memory of Lois Langland

This is a bit of a memoir I wrote Saturday.  I am deeply uncomfortable writing about myself; the greater part of me remains painfully shy and unable to speak about myself – in other words, an awful lot like many writers.  Now, in SF/F, there are plenty willing to blare about themselves from dawn to dusk.  None such, however, found here at Book View Cafe.

Last year, I seriously considered developing a program for Scripps College’s Alumna in Residence week, which is an annual spring event that brings together students, faculty and alumnae (you did read that correctly – Scripps is a women’s college) for a week of learning and growth.  I contacted Susan Anderson, after learning of an outstanding week in 2006 that she presented on the African-American independent community of Allensworth, CA.

Susan provided me with outstanding feedback and input; I proceeded to scratch a few itches, repeat the phrase “Free Your Mind” several times, and take Badger for a walk.

Hence, there will be a brilliant, lovely week this year created by the journalist and memoirist Alison Singh Gee (’86).

In the intervening months, Scripps professor emeritus in psychology Lois Langland, who is the namesake and inspiration for the event, passed away.  A memorial service for her is one of the key events of the week.  The picture of her illustrating the week is very much as I remember her, particularly her necklace.  I think even so, that the photo is “older” and taken quite a bit before I met her, but it echoes the day that I met her, the first day I set foot on the Scripps campus.  This was a crisp spring day in 1979.  I think I had just turned 17, and Lois Langland was one of the first to greet me.  She was the first person I really spoke to at Scripps, and she stayed with me off and on for most of the whirlwind of that first day’s tour and events.

So, thirty years ago.

And thirty years later, the little girl whose hand she took, thereby welcoming her to a new life, is going to try to assemble the shards of memory into something like a true reflection.

Some remember days by the weather, others by what was said, and still others by the people they met. I remember most of these things from that long-ago day, from the robins-egg blueness of the sky to the impossible green and ivory beauty of the Scripps campus, to the crowds of girls – some sophisticated, some athletic, some chattering happily, and others – perhaps just one – standing in frozen terror and awe, the least of the little ones, taking hesitant steps over the cut-stone threshold into a world utterly unlike any she had ever imagined before.

Shard after shard after shard –

Student_writing_at_scripps As I’ve often told people, I’m the shallowest person they’ll ever know, and the second-strongest memory of I have of that day was what I was wearing.  It was a small, sleeveless beige nylon dress, covered with a tiny floral print.  I remember a darker beige, silky knotted cord belt that refused to stay tied, even while secured by the tightest knot I could make.  As to shoes?  I’m quite sure my memory has erased all but their excruciating unattractiveness and discomfort.

This was the nicest, most stylish thing that I owned; I also wore it to the Senior Awards ceremony at Redlands High School.  My memory of that evening?  Mark Blankenship tripping while leaving the stage and stumbling down the steps in Clock Auditorium.

I was afraid that I’d slip and fall on the slippery tile floor of Balch Hall.  The shadows fell in unusual places; it was cool in the stone interior.  I saw the green lawn of the campus first, marveling at the huge eucalyptus tree – its creamy bark peeling back from its broad, elegant trunk.  There came a smell of spring, and the loud milling jabber of a considerable crowd.  It was all so beautiful.

I suppose we signed in.  My grandmother suddenly seemed very small, less the vital force that she usually was.

This is Ms. Blah Blah and Mr. Bler-de-Bler.  That’s Dr. Whasbo and the mumbledy-mumble-brr-brr.  Over there is the slmmm-r-de-gubble (Seal Court).  Across the campus is tuh-wall-hull.

Scripps_college Looking north toward the familiar mountains, this is what I saw – tuh-wall-hull – Toll Hall – the place that would be my home for the next two years.

Inside my head, a small voice said, “This is heaven.”

Then came this lovely kind face, a sandy-haired lady, not at all tall, wearing a simple knit suit and a lovely pearl necklace.  She pointed at my neck, where the only item of any sort of worth I owned hung – and not really owned yet – had borrowed from my grandmother.  It was the copper leaf-link necklace that had belonged to my mother.

“What a lovely necklace,” she said, and I noticed that her very kind gray-blue eyes twinkled. “Where did you get it?”

This was Lois Langland.

My grandmother answered of course.  Upon asking my name, the gray-blue eyes twinkled yet more.  With a charming smile, Lois stepped toward me and took my hand in both of hers.  No one had ever taken my hand quite that way before.  I instantly knew that she was good; not just kind – one of the world’s truly good people – and brilliant and decent and – a word that I knew from books – but not truly as a way of being in the real world – humane.  A person who knew what cruelty and lies and indecency were, who saw them and understood them, but who consciously chose never, ever to let them harm her life or others around her in any way.

“Do come with me,” she said, “there are people you should meet.”

She led me over to the very handsome then-Scripps President John Chandler, tan skin, bright eyes, brilliant smile, and several others – I’m sure all people I came to know well over the next four years, but I don’t recall who was in that first group, when Lois Langland physically led me a short distance away from my grandmother and toward the people of Scripps.

“There’s someone you must meet,” she told the group who mostly towered over me, who out-sophisticated me, who were at ease, at home, in their place in the world, and I standing outside the dancefloor, not ever expecting to be asked to the slightest pas-de-deux.  They turned and smiled with that look I now know so well, but which at the time, struck me even more silent than usual.  What did they want? I wondered.  Why is she so eager to introduce me?  I was just the least, the shyest, obviously not as bright as all of the other girls, why I was lucky they were going to let me go to this school.  I would be lucky to –

“I found her,” she said to the group of tall, curiously-blinking peacocks.  “This is Amy Glasband, our four-year National Merit Scholar.”

* * * * *

There are moments upon which our lives turn.  Moments from which we take a step that leads us down a main path in the broad and endless garden of forking paths that are our lives.

This was one of those moments for me.  It was the first, and I still think, perhaps one of the greatest. During the next four years at Scripps – I took one class with Lois Langland, Introduction to Psychology, and I doubt I did better than a “B” – I developed a deep trust and reliance upon her guidance and insight.  Of the humanity she possessed, and her great empathy and insight, I can only hope that in some small measure, a part of that has come to me.

* * * * *

It is strange how such feelings can rest in an object.  For me, it’s that copper necklace that Lois Langland noticed, and always liked.  I will never look at it without thinking of her.

On that day, this great woman and great lady, took me physically by the hand and led me from my child’s life into the life of a young woman.  She led me into the life of the academy, the life of the mind, and the precious experience that was and is Scripps.

A simple gesture, really.  Yet something that only those of us with genuine grace, like Lois Langland would do, or think to do.

That day, I received many things, but of them, the greatest of all, was that Lois imparted to me a feeling I had never known before.  It was the first spark of a sense of self that enabled me to grow beyond the shy, self-conscious, frightened and uncertain young girl that I was.  It was a vitally-important feeling that every person needs to experience in their lives.  Having experienced it myself, I came to decide that I too wanted to give this gift back to others.  It’s a very simple thing.  Looking at someone, noticing, paying attention to who they are and responding to them, and not to our own selfish, isolated selves.  That was Lois Langland’s great gift, I believe, and one she gave freely to so many in her long and wonderful life.

What was it that she did for me on that long-ago day?  For the first time in my life, Lois Langland made me feel special.

* * * * *

If this resonates, here are links to some of my stories at Book View Cafe that speak to the theme of loving empathy, growing up, or who we are and our memories.  “The Renascence of Memory,” “To Kiss the Star” and hmn . . . of course, the ever-idiotic “Mad for the Mints” (part of “Free Your Mind”).

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The Things That Make Us Who We Are: A Memory of Lois Langland — 3 Comments

  1. What a beautiful tribute.

    Whenever the daily grind wears at me or horrible things are done by people, I really need to be reminded that God has put people like her on earth, too.
    So thank you very much for sharing this with the craft in you to make me catch a glimpse of how and why you cherish this person.

  2. Estara, thank you so much! The upcoming week’s events reminded me so strongly that Lois was a very important inspiration to my sense of empathy and graciousness.

    Another Scripps person (among the many) who inspired me was Prof. Brad Blaine. I had the opportunity to tell him that a few years ago. He was a history professor and taught “The Medieval World,” which, great apologies to all here who are experts in Medieval history, was definitely NOT my interest as a student. I only took this class because it was one of the required humanities courses, and due to my extreme schedule of classes and work, it was the only one available at registration. All the “popular” classes had already filled (Renaissance & Reformation, etc).

    Not only did Prof. Blaine succeed in interesting me in a subject I thought I hated, years later when I became a teacher myself, it was he who I first thought of emulating. He did the basics: always on time, always prepared, always dressed appropriately and focused 100% on class, not outside/extraneous matters. He did the non-basics – i.e. he used what for me is the “right” approach with young students. For him, there were no “wrong” answers, and he subtly rewarded the engaged and prepared students, while encouraging those who were not-so-engaged, and not-so-well-prepared. That semester, he fell off the roof of his house while attempting home repair and broke his arm. Did he miss a class? No. He came straight from the emergency room to class and laughed off the giant cast. Truly one of the world’s greatest teachers.

  3. Wow. Even getting just the “basics” right isn’t the norm at my school. And I’m talking from as one of the teachers and not excepting myself, either.

    I think I’ll put those four criteria up on a poster above my pc ^^