A little more than eight years ago, I began working at a unique little college nestled in the Swannanoa Valley in Western North Carolina. Surrounded by mountains, equipped with a full working farm, and populated by students who came to the place knowing full well that their education was going to necessarily include fifteen hours each week devoted to keeping the operations of the college going, in every facet from office work to heavy-duty landscaping to cleaning floors and toilets. I’d come from an institution of higher learning with a fair number of enrollees who were just checking boxes in their education, securing the degree needed to help rationalize the cushy jobs being held for them in the robust family business. The swimming pool — designed more for lounging than exercise — often seemed busier than the library. That wasn’t the case at my new gig. There was an uncommon dedication to the totality of the institution from absolutely everyone who could rightfully consider themselves part of the community. Frustrations existed, even abounded at times, but the affection most students felt for their college was profound and inspiring.
The difference was driven home for me early on. I was in charge of campus programming. At this school, a key strategy for filling the evening hours involved staging open mic nights. While that old standby can lead to painful processions of earnest, amateurish troubadours at other colleges, at my new place there was a true collection of supremely gifted, endearingly humble performers, toting up battered, beloved guitars and banjos to regale their peers with songs that obviously meant the world to them. And the audiences were different, too. I was accustomed to hearty pockets of snark-armed spectators at such events, taking shady spots towards the back of the room with an eagerness to see others struggle and fail. In our student-run coffeehouse, where the open mic almost invariably took place, those who’d come to watch were consistently supportive, often reserving their loudest cheers of encouragement for the individuals who courageously shared still-fledgling skills. They supported each other. They believed in each other.
That place isn’t my professional home any longer. After around a decade-and-a-half, I’ve returned to the chilly, convivial, sudsy, cheese-laden, semi-frozen tundra that spawned me. It was a bittersweet choice, but undoubtedly the right one to make at this time. I hold warm, wondrous memories, even as I sadly leave behind some of the dearest friends and colleagues I’ve ever known, including a sizable number of life-changing students, many of whom will graduate next May and begin putting big, beautiful dents in the world outside their idyllic valley. The only suitable way to bid farewell is with a song that was a staple of those bygone open mic nights, at least until the student who penned this paean to Warren Wilson College claimed his diploma.
Until we meet again….
Listen or download –> Dan Rousseau, “Good Morning Swannanoa”
(Disclaimer: This is the spot where I typically offer an agonized justification for flouting copyright law to share a song, noting how it’s out of print and passive aggressively railing against the rampant fiscal injustices of the music industry. In this case, Mr. Rousseau’s song is available for free alongside a few other on the fine gentleman’s compositions, so I assume it is a-okay to also post it here. Should the alumnus is question take umbrage with the track’s available existence here, I will gladly and promptly remove it.)