By Beverley Catlett
Sewanee’s recent decision to begin a cycle of replacing dorm matrons with student proctors has left some students asking, “What about our dorm moms?” I have heard many a tale of the wonderful dorm mothers who have truly made a difference in the residential lives of students at Sewanee, and I applaud that. I also assume that the Sewanee students asking the aforementioned question were the ones who lived on the dorms with those dorm moms. In my own experience, dorm matrons can be problematic. Sometimes people are bad at their jobs. Thus I assume that the students asking the aforementioned question had those types of dorm matrons. I didn’t, nor do I stay up to date with shifts in residential policy, so I never wondered; but to the question I answer, “Everything happens for a reason.” Having a bad experience with a dorm mother doesn’t necessarily cast a shadow on the entire profession, but to be honest for me it did. I’ve had enough dorm mothers, and while I’m sure that the good ones will redirect to fortunate students at other institutions, the bad ones need to go. Sometimes people take their jobs too seriously, or take the liberty of their authoritative titles a step too far. Think about it: mothers—don’t we all already have one? Among other things, the term mother brings to mind a more or less required duty of motherly love. Your mother loves you and thinks you are special. Someone who is hired to “mother” a building’s worth of eighteen to twenty-two year olds has a fair share of interpretative liberty in assuming what her title entails. My dorm mother’s interpretation of her top rank in the mighty two-level dorm hierarchy was analogous to the mall cop who considers himself part of law enforcement. Mothering becomes smothering; the watchful eye of the concerned mother becomes the curmudgeonly eye of the stalker; and in this day and age, the stalker who happens to take her nightly watch with an iPad in hand. Things get creepy.
I do not contend that this is specific to Sewanee. I have had only one dorm mother here. She was bad, but my assistant proctors have been great; kudos to Sewanee for the much-needed switch. I had several dorm mothers in high school—some were great, greeted me on my way in to the building, answered my questions, and were pleasant to encounter around campus. Some were mediocre, and one was a heavily medicated woman who we will call Ms. Barton. Of my many experiences with Ms. Barton, some amusing, some surreal, I recount one particularly memorable instance in which I awoke at midnight to discover large, round figure standing at the foot of my bed. Her thick-rimmed spectacles refracted light to form two luminescent white orbs in the darkness, like a pair of demented disembodied eyeballs glistening in a vegetative state. I scrambled to turn on my bedside lamp and stared in open mouthed silence: Ms. Barton, like an enormous sweatsuit-clad possum, froze in the headlights then scattered, off on her next nocturnal journey to do God knows what; something along the lines of making people uncomfortable and rummaging through trash. The image will never escape my mind, and luckily—as the experience was non-traumatic, and, I later learned, commonplace—is laughable. But if the eyes are, as they say, the windows to the soul, then Ms. Barton was a Quaalude.
I tell you about Ms. Barton to perhaps soften the angle of my opinion about dorm motherhood in Sewanee. I have had only one dorm mother at this university, and she was, indeed, a bad one. On lucidity, she had Ms. Barton beat. I can say for certain that she took none of the heavy sedatives that quelled my former rodent of a surrogate mother, although I don’t discourage dorm-matron-sedation and found, quite to the contrary, that Ms. Barton was far more agreeable, even for her lapses in speech, action, and judgment. I have heard many a tale about the cookie-baking, community-service granting angels who have treated their dorm-children as if they were their very own. These stories are wonderful, and I truly wish these women the best. As for the bad ones, I can only say that this cycling-out will be a blessing in disguise to the aforementioned dorm mother to leave Sewanee and pursue a career as a spy for the C.I.A.. If that doesn’t work out she might try moving to L.A. and working for US Weekly as a paparazzi; I will write her a letter of recommendation.