A Way to Live

 

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“A Great Love”

Conclusion of Phyllis Mannocchi’s speech upon receiving the Bassett Teaching Award from the Class of 2007 on May 8, 2007:

“As our leave-taking approaches it may feel as if a grand love affair is ending. It’s lasted four wonderful years, but it won’t end tragically, because of the gifts it has brought. Let me single out just two of them. First, I have always been in awe of Colby friendships—of the caring that friends have for each other here and the loyalty you demonstrate. Your friendships are a great love that will last a lifetime, extending over the miles and throughout the stages of your life. During my thirty years here I have learned what friendship really means from watching you—friends together. The second gift is the close bond you have formed with your professors. This place is a very special community of great teachers who have devoted their lives to attain excellence in teaching, and you have benefited from their commitment not just to teaching but to caring about the kind of people you are becoming. They have taught you well, and you should never forget that and all that they have taught you. Finally, to paraphrase James Baldwin in Giovanni’s Room—the great goal of love in all of its manifestations is to learn how to say ‘yes’ to life. If you have learned that lesson here, if we have done our job, you now have the power to go off into the world. Live life lovingly. Goodbye, my students, and my love to you all.”

On campus she is known for her American studies course American Dreams: The Documentary Film Perspective, which culminates every spring when students present short documentaries of their own creation. Since the late 1970s it has evolved from a women’s studies course using slide tapes into a four-credit video-production course that studies the documentary form and classics of the genre, particularly as they reflect the experience of marginalized groups in America.

Recent subjects of student-produced films have included people in the Maine Handicapped Skiing Program, Maine National Guardsmen serving in Iraq and their families coping at home, and the regulars at Bonnie’s Diner in Winslow and the community bonds they share. Students have made films about the Good Will-Hinckley alternative school in Hinckley, Maine, and about the experience of immigrants in Portland.

The course is a powerful experience for students and their professor. “There’s nothing like being in the editing room at one o’clock in the morning with kids who have been up for hours and are about ready to scream and throw their work out the window,” Mannocchi said. It is those raw, emotional moments—the “suffering” part of passion—when she feels students and teacher connect best and move forward.

“What’s really rewarding is when you see kids over the years and how they change. They come in as one kind of person and by the time they leave there are all these different dimensions to them. You’re amazed at how in four years they’re transformed.”

“What’s really rewarding is when you see kids over the years and how they change. They come in as one kind of person and by the time they leave there are all these different dimensions to them. You’re amazed at how in four years they’re transformed.” 

Phyllis Mannocchi, professor of English

It’s a transformation fostered by the special environment at Colby in Waterville, she says. “I think it’s encouraged by our isolation. Kids have to make a real effort to go out into the world—to go to Africa, say—and they value it differently because of where we are. And I think kids are very sensitive to the way that we live with the environment.”

Mannocchi’s view of Colby is hardy utopian. There are struggles to get technical support for her video-production class, the slings and arrows aimed at department chairs, challenges raising black children in northern New England. But in the end she gets sustenance from the students and the way they respond. And she is encouraged by the attitudes students bring to her classes. “I get less and less resistance to new ideas. They’re much more open-minded than they’ve ever been. They’re much more thoughtful.”

And she is loyal to them. “You know, I also get the very best. You give them something and they really think about it, and you realize the thinking is going on out of the classroom. They look to you for ways to live.”

 
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