August 2020: Holly Worthen '60

Proud Laurel Class of 1960 grad Holly Worthen attended her class’s virtual reunion gathering this spring, and hearing her classmates’ stories inspired her to spearhead an incredible project finding common ground in their post-Laurel histories, sharing what they’ve learned and experienced since graduating and hopefully using that collective knowledge to benefit students today. As a labor educator, Holly brings a multidisciplinary approach to reading each contribution to the project and drawing out the common themes and ties to events of the time, including the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements. She has great hope for the future of our country, having seen the strength of people who are often discounted, and encourages Laurel girls to tackle a changing world and make it better. Read on to find out more about Holly’s life journey—from navigating the streets of Paris using the freehand maps Laurel French teacher Miss Gerfen had students draw to being the only female creative writing fellow at Stanford to the healing experience of returning photographs of the Vietnam War to a museum in Ho Chi Minh City.

Why did you/your family choose Laurel? 
My mother taught piano and music theory at Laurel. She and my father, who taught at Western Reserve Academy, met at a Glee Club dance where they were both chaperones. Talk about how much things have changed—she lost her job when she told the Headmistress that she was getting married.

How did your experiences at Laurel influence you as a person and/or shape your life path?
Although I did not get any foundation in either the hard sciences or social sciences, I did get so much in-depth exposure to the arts and literature that I was able to figure out a path into the next decades just from that. I had a certain confidence, the confidence of a young girl who believes in the essential goodness of humankind and the potential of everyone to connect. I was unprepared for evil, of course, which came along soon enough. But just as an example: The year after I graduated, I went to school in London and took month-long trips between semesters to places like Paris, by myself. One night in Paris, after getting myself into a tricky situation with a bunch of hard-living students at a late night party, I was able to extricate myself and walk directly, without making any wrong turns, all the way from the Left Bank up into Montmartre and find my way to my rented room in Pigalle—all because Miss Gerfen, our fiercely intimidating French teacher, had made us practice drawing freehand maps of Paris in class. A less extreme example would be the way our art teacher, Miss Moore, led us through history with her slide shows that went from the Egyptians to different types of cathedrals and palaces to contemporary watercolors of Charles Burchfield. Walking through a city like Vienna, I could almost figure out what had happened in history from the architecture and layout of the gardens.
 
What was the most memorable moment from your time at Laurel?
Our drama and dance teacher, Mrs. McCollom, cast me as the Ragpicker in our Senior Class play, The Madwoman of Chaillot. She was prescient: the story of the play is how a bunch of old women, with the assistance of numerous low-lifes, defeat a plan by some millionaires to destroy Paris by drilling for oil right in the middle of it. The old women are aristocrats, of course, but the idea that the people could rise up and put a stop to the destruction of a much-loved city—or in our case, a much-loved planet—is a good one. That is still how good social change happens: from the bottom up.

After Laurel, you studied English at Radcliffe/Harvard University. What was it like being a college student in Boston in the early to mid-60s? What impact did the early years of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement have on shaping you as an adult?  
We actually had the word “Harvard” on our diplomas, which was a big deal at the time. It was not an easy place for a girl. The ratio of men to women was 20 to one if you counted the grad schools, so the pressure to date was beyond intense. I had not learned how to compete with boys; being good, creative, and brave were ways to attract admiration but it didn’t help, especially if you were going to try to do pre-med sciences. I tried that (I imagined becoming a doctor, because that seemed like something really useful and good for society) but pretty soon had to take a look and see where I was getting As and where I was getting C minuses. Anything that involved writing I could do, and pretty much anything involving languages. But my closest mental approximation to a molecule was a chord, a chord on the piano. 
 
The Civil Rights and the Anti-War movements were everywhere but the big uproars and student strikes at Harvard took place after I left. I headed to San Francisco, which in the 60s was both beautiful and terrible; lots of music and dancing but also a lot of kids who had fought with their parents as the whole culture broke apart under the pressure of the various Movements. Young people came to San Francisco and found friends—shared food and slept on each other’s floors.  You could live on minimum wage, then, of course, and jobs were plentiful. I won a Wallace Stegner Fellowship and went to study creative writing at Stanford where, although there were well-organized demonstrations, it was relatively safe. However, the Stegner program was all men; I was the only woman and I did not write about fishing, hunting or being a driller on an oil rig. I stepped across the hall and spent time in the theater department where The Committee, the satirical comedy group, was in residence. 
 
You earned a master’s in creative writing from Stanford University and wrote novels, including Perimeters and Damages. What was your inspiration for these works? Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? Any tips on getting started and/or writing more?
I stayed on after my year as a Fellow was over and got an MA. My first novel, Perimeters, was inspired by a moment in an ulpan (a language school in which we learned Hebrew and Israeli culture) that I was attending in Israel, where I was with my first husband in ‘68-69. There were students of all ages from all over the Jewish diaspora. One old woman, who seemed unable to learn anything, scared us all by suddenly starting to sing a song we were trying to learn, a song sung in the ghettos of Poland and by the partisans in the forests east of Poland as they fought the Nazis. It turned out that she was herself a survivor, one of very few, of the Warsaw ghetto. And we had in fact been rude to her because she seemed so unable to learn. My second novel, Damages, was a rage against a guru-type father figure who is eventually murdered by his oldest daughter, for good reason. 

Advice to young writers; if you are just starting, try writing the whole truth about something you experienced or observed. To someone who is already deep into writing a novel: write it in the third person omniscient, to force yourself to tell the whole story as you go. Read all of Ursula LeGuin from her very earliest sci-fi novels up until her most recent work, some published posthumously. 
 
You discovered a love for education while teaching writing at UC Berkeley and after earning your Ph.D. in education there, you were a Professor of Labor Education at the University of Illinois for over a decade. You also taught at the National Labor College in Maryland and Ton Duc Thang University in Vietnam. What drew you to the field of labor education, specifically? How have your students influenced your worldview?
I studied the psychology theory of Vygotsky and his circle, the Soviet theorists of the 1920s and 30s, at Harvard and then again at Berkeley. This approach looks at language both as the carrier of history through word meaning and a living medium into which we pour new meanings as we exchange them in our efforts to communicate. It’s really a theory of consciousness. 
 
Education is a particularly purposeful form of communication and it’s collective: you’re leading a whole group of people in an ever-sharpening exercise of mutually defining and building meanings. This is true whether you’re teaching math or English composition. In the case of labor education, in which you’re dealing with workers in various occupations—healthcare, transportation, factory work, custodians, teachers, whatever—their collective class position as workers creates an urgent need for them to be able to understand their place in our—or any country’s—political economy well enough to defend and improve it. Labor education is a very broad interdisciplinary field. While teaching it, you can get people to write everything from poetry to their life histories to short stories about their experiences at work. It also is exciting to see people in your class win elections or get appointed to positions at the city or state level that are key to the concerns of labor. 
 
My students have shown me how durable and dedicated the American working class is. People in the United States work incredibly hard and they learn fast. When a woman who works nights mopping floors in a skyscraper and dumping waste baskets full of take-out brings that kind of focus and self-discipline to understanding the complex language of labor law, it’s electric to see how fast she gets it. Knowing that people who are often discounted have this amazing strength and ability to tell true from false, once they see their options, gives me great hope for the future of our country.

During your time in Vietnam, you made a donation to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City of some slides and tape that your father, an ex-Navy Lieutenant Commander, had in the attic. What was that experience like?
My husband and I got an invitation to teach labor relations at a university in Ho Chi Minh City. We got to see what became of the country after the war with the US (followed by wars with China and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge). Returning those photographs to the country where they were taken, early in the American War, as they call it, was a profound healing experience for us. 
 
In May, you celebrated your 60th Laurel reunion. Due to COVID-19, the Class of 1960’s gathering was virtual, but some big ideas and connections came out of it! Tell us more about the project you are spearheading on finding common ground in your post-Laurel histories.
What has been the most powerful outcome of the conversations thus far? Has anything surprised you? How has it been reconnecting with Laurel classmates?
As of July 16, we are only in Phase II of our reports, telling what happened to each of us between the end of the Vietnam War and the year 2000, or 9-11, really, which was a marker for our generation and our country.  Connecting with classmates at this deeper level has been profoundly engaging. The challenge is to continually get more and more people to speak up. Phase II may be harder because this deals with when people met the real world and dealt with families and jobs and money. It was a tough world, post-Vietnam: the economy slowly sank and social protections were cut back. It got harder and hard to realize the American dream of a stable job, home ownership, sending your kids to college and retiring in health and comfort. We have yet to see how many of our classmates were on that train and how many beat the odds, and how. 
 
For me, individually, the project has been wonderful. I feel as if I am back in touch with old friends after 60 years. I sense that it is a meaningful exercise for those who have actively contributed and those who are listening. There are still some, of course, who are lost, and some who have died. They are all part of the story. 
 
Based on your class’s discussions, what are the skills you feel today’s Laurel girl needs in her toolkit to thrive and to be an upstander in today’s changing world? 
The Laurel girls of 1960 were not prepared for tumultuous social change. I would like to see a class taught on social movements:  focusing not on the what-happened-when type of history, but on how change happens. There’s a reason why it’s the Ragpicker who leads the low-lifes to save Paris. Of course, social movements and things like Black studies or ethnic or women’s studies weren’t even academic fields back in our day.  
 
Now we have not only a clock ticking on the life of the planet, with all the global social movements to change the way we live on earth, but the spreading demonstrations in memory and honor of George Floyd. It looks as if these demonstrations are the start of “something really different,” as I’m hearing people say; something like the 60s but different, stronger. 
 
Laurel girls should be learning something about work. Everything from what minimum wage means, what our labor laws say, what agencies are responsible for occupational health and safety and who to call in cases of discrimination to what unions do, what unemployment benefits are for, and some labor history so they can understand how that big social change—the labor movement—happened.  

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? What are your favorite socially distanced activities? 
I play the cello. I played a lot in high school but dropped it in college and took it up again when my daughter got married and asked me to play at her wedding. Now, I have a good teacher and three of her other students and I get together in the back yard with masks on and play quartets. I also have an electric bike which allows me to get all over the place without a struggle. 
 
What makes you proud to be a Laurel alum?
I have not had much contact with Laurel since I came west in 1965. I am kind of surprised to see now that Laurel is open to a project like Laurel ’60, which is undoubtedly going to be a bit critical of the way the school did or did not prepare us for the world. But it seems as if it is really interested in what we can put together and offer as a bit of self-reflection, seen from a distance. 
 
Life is not going to be easy for girls coming out of school now; I cannot say this seriously enough. My generation is hoping that they can join hands and arms (and pocketbooks) with others and pull on the emergency brake. Getting beyond racism is probably the first thing that has to happen. What can Laurel do to prepare girls to help create a world in which white people do not have an automatic advantage?  
 
I look back with tenderness on moments like lining up for Chapel in the Upper School hall and draping our green blazers on Winged Victory, or singing the grace before lunch, in French. I also think of the women who were our teachers (I think there was one male teacher who conducted the choir). They infused their teaching with the sense that they were setting our little boats out to sail in the big ocean—and that somehow, knowing Latin or medieval French poetry (I can still repeat “Freres humaines, qui apres nous vivais...”) was going to keep us afloat.  
 
The sea is a lot rougher now.  
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