I received word of the planned Colby Magazine story about the painting and tradition of Elsie the Cow prior to its publication from my good friend Adrienne Clay ’97. I am calling her “my good friend” despite the absence of communication between us for over 20 years. In 1994, when I attended Colby, she was an upperclassman who was worldly and socially conscious (awake?) about issues for which I had limited language that was disproportionate to my encounter throughout my public high school experience. Needless to say, I looked up to her immensely.
In 1994 Colby existed with President William Cotter and his wife, Linda, and without the Pugh Center or the present-day Colby pub or Alfond Apartments. I have little sense of Colby’s newest facilities. In 1994 the Colby pub sold nachos with microwave-melted cheese for $3, and most of us black and brown students worked at the little store or drove the jitney because it was the only way we had access to snacks on campus or to the Walmart (Kmart?) in Waterville. I was happily surprised to see Adrienne’s name and email address pop into my inbox, and I felt a wave of nostalgia when she told me that Colby Magazine was looking to feature a story about Elsie the Cow.
The wave of nostalgia passed rather quickly and turned into dread. What had happened to that cow? I remembered Elsie. I remembered Adrienne giving the portrait to me. I remembered the honor I felt that Adrienne had chosen me; in fact, to be chosen by Adrienne Clay meant more than anything ever could at that time in my life. I was a sophomore and crawling my way out of academic probation, trying to figure out whether I had made the correct choice to remain at Colby. Colby would not break me, I had told myself, and I opted to stay rather than leave, though I probably should have done the latter when I had had the chance. I was fighting ghosts it seemed, and Colby was winning. Yet, receiving Elsie was an honorable moment, not because of its tradition or the opportunity I would have to pass it forward, but because it affirmed connection. There were people on that campus who cared about me, and the Cow was a noteworthy reminder. I remembered the mixed emotions at receiving this “honor.” I remembered the many ways I felt isolated, racially and ethnically, and how academically unprepared I had been as a Colby student.
I remembered being left to flounder by professors who scoffed at my not knowing how to write a thesis statement. Yes, as a freshman, I had no idea what a thesis statement was. In my efforts to seek help, much of my academic inadequacies met condescending pity. I remembered the arguments with white students about whether or not having a group or a building was in itself a form of self-inflicted marginalization. I remembered the stigma of sitting together in Dana Dining Hall long before Beverly Daniel Tatum, the author of the book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, unmasked us in the cafeteria. I remembered the daily interactions that made painfully clear the ways that Colby was an institution that was not made for us, by us, or in unison. When I received the Cow, I did not care about Colby tradition. I cared about survival, and at that time I could barely attest to an experience where I felt affirmed and welcomed. I was not a part of Colby; there were always too many fights for breath and belonging. Elsie, Elsie, Elsie … the irony of this tradition in the face of those who preferred its disappearance is poetic even now.
My days at Colby got better, one G.P.A. point and friend at a time. I was then, and continue now, to be forever indebted to creative writing professor Ira Sadoff, who believed in me when I could not believe in myself during that Jan Plan course freshman year. Professor Sandy Grande and my voice and public speaking professor, David Mills, exist within that debt as well. For me, Colby was a time of self-discovery and realization that in order to succeed, I had to continue to fight. I did, I suppose, as many did and will continue to do, at whatever cost. Now that I am an older adult with a greater sense of my naiveté, pride, and self-centeredness then, I recognize now how a bulk of my sadness and bitterness at Colby were in many ways self-imposed; and, for those, I take full account. I would be remiss, however, if alongside my own faults, I did not hold Colby at fault for perpetuating the systematic and institutionalized forms of racism embedded in my experiences. Given the current state of race relations in our country, I can’t imagine (sadly) that my experience at Colby over 20 years ago won’t resonate for students of color in some form today.
So, the Colby tradition of Elsie fell upon my deaf ears, and I unapologetically handed the portrait to a classmate, also a woman of color, who left it somewhere in the abyss of a storage room. I never signed my name. I opted out of a tradition that diminished significant portions of my identity and sense of being. I am happy the portrait was found and that the story allows me an opportunity to add to the narrative. Whether you publish this part of the story—probably one of its richest parts—is up to you. I do not regret having been a Colby student or the lessons I learned as a result. In fact, for that experience, I take great pride. If Colby should create an homage for Elsie the Cow—and it should—they should do so knowing that its story is greater than any display of famous signatures could ever capture. The story of Elsie the Cow is far richer, and hopefully now, more complete.
—Mayra Elise Diaz ’98
Editor’s note: Mayra Diaz is assistant principal of the middle school at
Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C.
Article wrong to attribute this passing of painting to race of recipient
It is generous to attribute my sentiments regarding passing the “painting into the hands of women of color” to me at the time, because it was only in hindsight that I was able to appreciate the racial history of Elsie’s recipients.