chester is a unique little place
you fall sideways into it
and you fall in love with it
I want to tell you my story…and I’m typing this from my office as we speak. I found Chester via a postcard that wasn’t even addressed to me. It was actually sent to an amazing friend of mine who was on the path to become a Harvard graduate and a Jesuit priest. The next morning he handed me this precious card and it was like getting your letter for Hogwarts. I don’t know why but when I held that little card in my hand I felt connected to it. So I did what any teenager who felt guided by the fates at hand would do and called to schedule a campus visit.
I remember my first visit to Chester this little school in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. Time has its own way of passing at Chester. I loved the small town feel and how everyone seemed to know each other and my heart leapt at the thought of an all arts school. It felt like the great equalizer to me no more high school clicks no more “art nerds”. We were all art nerds!
Chester helped bring out the most in my personality and I honestly think without the guidance I received from my professors I would be a very different person. It was one of my professors who pushed me towards performance art, who encouraged me to create crazy costumes, to throw my personality into the mix and honestly to finally be myself. I had the courage to parade around campus for a project clad in nothing but bra’s sewn together as an outfit.
Now I use that creativity, courage and personality working at EF Education. My job is honestly amazing. I’m a jet setting, around the clock working, Skype calling five different countries a day, disco planning certified event planner. I maneuver six coach buses filled with teens in and out of JFK and Logan airport in a matter of moments. I have no fear to get up and make a fool of myself teaching students our disco dance of the summer. I love being on the go and having the ability to be so creative in my job. It’s up to me to help create a memorable summer for my European and Asian students who are experiencing the US for the first time. And who better to show them our country than a slightly crazy Chester grad. I love this school with all my heart. Help me keep it alive…because it helped change me.
chester is a unique little place
you fall sideways into it
and you fall in love with it
Chester College of New England became another home to me when I began attending in 2005, and has remained an ever-welcoming resource and haven since I graduated in 2009. Its programs are personal, and many members of its administration and faculty take a genuine interest in the development of students as both creatives and individuals. This, more than anything else, is what makes Chester such a special place. Those students who are willing to push themselves and their work are often delighted to discover that they have their own pack of teacher fans eagerly gathered around to offer support and guidance to their journey.
My own memories of being a student at Chester College are divided evenly between developing as a creative artist and those of becoming a young professional. I share many of the experiences that alumni of Chester will happily recount—learning from brilliant and inspirational professors, freely exploring untypical methods of creation, and coming under the thrilling possession of fresh and meaningful ideas again, and again, and again. Even beyond that, though, Chester College provided me opportunities to take on new and greater responsibilities, to work closely with college Administrators while a peer tutor and Resident Assistant, and to practice many of the communication and leadership skills I would later find invaluable in my search for a rewarding career.
Following my graduation, I chose to enter national service as an AmeriCorps*VISTA member for two years. During that time, I held positions as Special Programs Coordinator at a New Hampshire based small business incubator and as an AmeriCorps*VISTA Leader at Families in Transition, Southern New Hampshire’s largest homeless services provider. Both jobs proved to be very challenging, and often required me to leave my comfort zone in order to develop programs and bring resources to people in need. By teaching me how to communicate effectively, creatively problem solve, and comfortably adopt leadership responsibilities, Chester College really prepared me to set a high bar for myself, productively and ethically, at an early-point in my career. Having completed the AmeriCorps*VISTA program, I now work as the Outreach Coordinator at an animal shelter in Enfield, NH. I am blessed that I have the opportunity to constantly combine my creative skills in the design of marketing advertisements, videos, and social media that all support pets in need. Our Executive Director regularly gives me room to explore my own ideas and often lets me know how happy she is with the caliber and creativity of my work—just what Chester prepared me for!
Chester College and the amazing people who make it run will always be invaluable to me. I often return to the campus to re-immerse myself in the new waves of talent as Senior students exhibit their best work, and to pick professors’ brains with my own art-related questions as I prepare my own work for gallery shows throughout New England. I still create art, always will, and expect to continue experiencing overwhelming bursts of drunken happiness when a new idea for an art project suddenly erupts into being where before there was nothing.
I am a shy person. Painfully so. Growing up, I was never the kid who went away to camp, I was never the kid who went on over-night field trips. Heck, I was rarely even the kid who would manage to spend the entire night away at a friend’s house for a sleep over. I was content to stay at home with my sketch books and imaginary worlds. So when I grew up and it came time to go off to college, I was terrified.
But let’s rewind a bit. I’m getting ahead of myself. Chester has a way of doing that to you- making your brain work at speeds your fingers on the keyboard can’t keep up with. Thoughts that come too fast and impassioned for your slow, feeble, fleshy mouth to make words of. It’s exciting. And again, I’m getting way ahead.
Growing up, I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to tell stories and make something beautiful. Maybe that’s where a shy girl finds her voice; make something beautiful and people will listen. Make something beautiful and people will be inspired, swayed to love. I wanted to paint, draw, make prints, write stories, sway people to love. I took every art class I could in high school- so much so that my art teacher had to make some independent study time for me, because I ran out of elective choices. I took creative writing classes, English classes, devouring literature and looking for ways to bring the two together.
When I started looking for colleges, though, I’d find myself both excited by the art programs they’d offer and discouraged by the segregation of the visual and literary arts. Not to mention, I was terrified of being lost in the vast sea of students these large institutions had to offer.
The first exposure I had to colleges was at a college fair held at my high school. I brought my art portfolio with me, and gathered my courage, and tried to sell it. And none of the representatives gave it a second glance. They weren’t interested in giving the arts much attention. Then I came to Deb’s table. Deb was representing Chester College, and she immediately poured over my portfolio, gave me her thoughts, encouragement, critique, and she got excited. I got excited with her. I was sold.
I applied to Chester and a few other art schools (only on the chance that I wouldn’t get in to Chester College – I’d have been crushed, but I had to have a fall-back, I guess. I didn’t really want to think about it.). On my first interview with one of the other colleges, my interviewer was pushy and confrontational, accusing me of being full of myself, telling me not to expect to be “the art star” in HER institution. I left feeling small and insignificant. I might have cried. I’m not sure.
But then, I went to Chester. I had my interview, I took the tour. I spoke with the professors. I spoke with the students. I think the girl giving the tour had hair the color of a hibiscus flower. Gorgeous. The buildings were all charming and warm and full of character and life. The professors were all so impassioned about their departments I didn’t know where to start, and they were interested in me, not as a number, but as a person. I left knowing, This is home. I HAVE to get in. I just HAVE to. And I did. And that’s when my life really began.
All that time I spent in childhood, afraid to leave home? Out the window. I arrived at Chester for my first night in the dorms expecting to freak out, not sleep, feel homesick. Never happened. It was instantly home. I met friends there that I consider family, and it didn’t take long for that family to form.
A year in to my time there, the Interdisciplinary Arts department was born, and I found my place in the universe. I learned to break down the boundaries between media and discipline, to tell my stories in the most organic way possible. The way they wanted to be told. I was able to take writing classes to inform my art, and philosophy to inform my writing, and art history to give it all context and tooth. I came away with an education more solid and lasting because nothing existed in a vacuum. Everything is a cause and an effect and that’s magical.
I went into Chester College a shy girl interested in art and stories. I left a whole new person: confident, knowledgeable, interested, involved. I run a literary journal now, and I never feel so at home and so fulfilled as when I’m working on it. Without Chester, I never would have had the courage to jump in and start it, let alone the knowledge of where to even begin. And don’t even get me started on how amazing it is to realize I’ve lost an entire day working in my studio in what feels like the blink of an eye.
I couldn’t even begin to tell you all the amazing stories I have from that place, but I can tell you this: you wouldn’t believe them all. But I lived them, and I still do, and it’s like living the dream every day. Chester College wasn’t just a school, but a home. And it taught me art and writing and philosophy and art history, but it also taught me that art is a revolution of love, and critical, creative thought is at its heart.
I have faith that this school will survive, because how can something that powerful do anything but?
I came to Chester College as a non-traditional student. I was in my late 20s, married with kids, and had already published a book. I had a handful of college credits from a variety of other colleges and I thought it was about time that I finally finish my degree. During my time at Chester College, among sixty skillion other events big and small, I was pregnant and gave birth to my third child, ran my own business, published several books, and my father died. In short I had a million perfectly reasonable reasons to not continue my education. In a larger school I would have been lost in the shuffle and simply wandered away. But Chester College is not a large school and I wasn’t a faceless number.
The day before graduating we held a rehearsal of the ceremony. As I walked across the stage Laura Ives grabbed my hand, indicated the other faculty who were at the graduation rehearsal, and said “We are all so proud of you.” I felt bewildered to be on that stage, just a day away from getting a college degree, but Dean Ives made it seem as if she never had a doubt I’d make it there. During my many ups and downs the faith the faculty at Chester College had in me kept me going even when I lacked that same faith in myself.
A common theme you see in stories about Chester College is that it’s a family. And that’s not just something people say. My kids know the name of every professor I ever had there, for that matter all the professors can name my children. Heck, some of them could even tell you the names of my dogs. My children are young, and college is a long ways off for them, but I hope that when the time comes they find a creative environment like Chester College to embrace them and help them through the tumultuous times in their own lives.
Renee Mallett holds a BA in creative writing from Chester College of New England. She is the author of several books, all available or forthcoming from Schiffer Publishing. Renee Mallett covers arts and entertainment for CBS Boston and Examiner.com. “Swarmed,” a novella she wrote as part of her Chester College senior project, will be published this fall by Starling River Press.
I wrote this appropriation of Anetevka from fiddler on the roof just before I graduated. It’s no work of brilliance. I just replaced a few lyrics. But at the time it aptly summed my feelings.
A little bit of this, a little bit of that.
A barn, a field, a pine, a dorm.
Someone should have set a match to this place years ago.
A bench, a hammock.
So, what’s a printing press? Or a library?
People who pass through Chester don’t even know they’ve been here.
A real cold shower. A piece of Al’s cake.
What do we leave? Nothing much.
Underfed, overworked Chester college.
Where else could creativity be so sweet?
Intimate, obstinate Chester College
Where I know everyone I meet.
Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place,
Searching for an old familiar face
From Chester college.
I belong in Chester,
Tumble-down, work-a-day Chester college.
Dear little village, little town of mine
A home is greater than the sum of its parts. It is not just things. It is people and memories and lesson that some how congeals into a single place. The most important things I learned in life where not learned in a class room, but I did learn them at Chester. I learned that kindness is always greater than the reputation. That cynicism only gets in the way of truly enjoying life. That I do not have to be anything but myself and to expect otherwise of me was foolish on the expectors part.
I dealt with difficult people. And I learned. I dealt with wonderful people. And I learned. I learned from example from my professors not just how to make art but how to be an adult. Chester’s small and tight knit community gave me a place to really grow as a person and not just learn how to party. Almost everyday I was challenged either by my peers or by the professors to define myself by my principles. I was encouraged to find what I believed in and to stick to it. To make an opinion and understand. I was made to know that a high caliber person should be defined by what they believe in and not just by what they like.
Where would I be if Nanette thrush hadn’t argued me into submission about modern art? Where would I be if I never read the rigveda outside at sun set? Where would I be If Monica Billson had never assigned Lolita? And where would I be if she had never understood how difficult and personal that assignment was? Where would I be without Chris Anderson’s under spoken encouragement or Jay Bordage’s quiet fatherly disapproval? I would not be the women I am today. Plain and simple.
Its not for everyone. The school demands a certain willingness to attempt to master the self and to begin to understand other people. But you grow. I came to Chester a confused young woman who got in too many fights in high school and was terrified of letting anything good inside. I left Chester sure of one thing and that was myself and that I was full of good things. It wasn’t always rainbows, ( life never is,) but I was never alone. Art comes from inside; the people and the places you let in are what describes both the caliber of your character and the quality of your art. For any one to sing this bad appropriation of Antevka as anything but a metaphor for Chester college is a shame.
When I was six I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
You don’t have to believe me. A lot of people don’t. After all, when I was six, I had trouble reading- and didn’t really read until the end of second grade, when someone finally figured out how to teach me. Why would a six year old want to write books?
Let me create for you a picture of myself once I had learned how to read. I slept on a bed made of books. Every book in the house, as a matter of fact, was a part of my bed. I had one blanket and one pillow, which I situated on top of the books each night to go to sleep. Somewhere under this mess there was a mattress but I didn’t think about it all that often. What was important was that the books were within grabbing distance. When I woke up in the morning, I wouldn’t get up for breakfast. I would roll over, grab whatever book was closest, and start reading.
I once got in trouble for reading a personal book in a teacher’s class. I wasn’t all that interested in playing hopscotch or tag during recess, much to the chagrin of the kids I would later harass in my very first letter ot the editor. What I wanted to do was read.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out that someone, somewhere, was creating the worlds I read about. Someone had to do the research for the children’s encyclopedia I devoured. Someone had to learn all about Abraham Lincoln to write the biography with the watercolors I looked at before bed. Somewhere a man named Roald Dahl knew about giants.
I wanted to be one of those people. I had never wanted anything so badly in my entire life.
Have you spoken to the parents of an art student? Chances are there are two kinds: the ‘proud but scared’ kind, and the ‘we’re only letting you go because you wore us down and we’re waiting for our chance to tell you how useless your major is’ kind. My parents were the former. When I began going to writing workshops- the Teen Ink Writing Workshop for girls in 2005, the Breadloaf Young Writer’s Conference in 2003- what had started as ‘Sérah’s hobby’ was becoming to them ‘Sérah’s chosen profession’.
They were scared as hell. I understood. I still do. They never had to tell me that most writers didn’t make enough money to pay the bills. When we began the college search in Farmington, Maine, my mother sat me down over a crab roll and asked me what I would do if writing didn’t pan out. I told her I would work whatever job I could find. It didn’t have to be glamorous, or even writing related it just had to give me time to do what I loved best.
We called the college search the ‘hunt for the home planet’. My mother coined the phrase after she saw me with other writers at the Breadloaf Conference. She told me when I came home from the long weekend that, quote, “You became a different person.”
Chester College of New England was- and is- the home planet. I received the literature for the college after I visited Farmington. It came on a postcard that featured artwork of a giraffe in a box. I didn’t know at the time that it was an alumni’s artwork. I realized how close the college was to where I lived. I made a call, set up an appointment, and I went.
Why choose Chester? A tiny school in the middle of nowhere, with no big-name writers or prestigious grants or anything most people look into when searching for a college?
I wasn’t looking for a place that would make me famous. I knew I had to do that on my own. I was looking for a place that would teach me, the same way a very patient woman taught me in the second grade. I was looking for home.
I knew the moment I sat down that Chester College was that home. You’ve heard a lot of us say that and you’re probably sick of hearing it, or maybe you don’t understand what I mean. You know the phrase ‘home is where the heart is’? For a lot of us- not all of us, but a lot of us- Chester was where our hearts had wound up. We just never knew, until we found them.
Chester is a private institution. That means it gets no federal funding. With such a small student body it often struggles. Four years there taught me more than any workshop or conference. Those teachers are not just friends. They are soul mates. I’m not talking the mystical ‘one true love’ bullshit, you want that, go watch a Sparks movie. I mean that what they are cut from- what my fellow students are cut from- so am I. We are one bolt of cloth.
I’m not going to tell you about the work studies I did. I will tell you about Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico was the happiest mistake of my life. Originally it had been one of Chester’s much vaunted summer programs. The students involved would take classes in whatever locale was chosen. Our group- five students, plus two teachers- were going to Mexico. We would take classes in spanish poetry, spanish literature, and travel writing, all the while moving around from Guanajuato to the coast to Mexico City.
Then swine flu happened.
We fought long and hard to be allowed to go. We wrote letters, signed a petition, promised that we were all grownups and could handle ourselves. The administration, afraid of the sickness and potential backlash, shut us down. It looked as though we weren’t going anywhere.
Jenn Monroe and Christopher Anderson, our chaperones for the trip, proceeded to, not two months before we were scheduled to leave, completely rebuild. Jenn found us lodging, activities, transport- her efforts were nothing short of Herculean. So instead of Guanajuato, Mexico, we boarded a plane and went to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Those three weeks in Puerto Rico were transforming. I read, I walked, I danced, I won a pool game in a top floor bar that reminded me of Casablanca even though I’d never played pool before in my life. I read Spanish poetry with two other girls in a pool that had once been the root cellar of an old town house. The food was fresh, the people were welcoming and when I saw the cruise ships pulling in I almost felt bad for those people, who came not as travelers but as tourists. I was a part of classes with only five students and they went on for hours not because we had to fulfil a time limit but because we wanted to work for that long. I spent a lot of time gesturing with my hands. Hola, mi llama es Serah. No habla espanol. The day before we left I satisfied a private desire- I saw wild green iguanas.
I wouldn’t have gotten that at a bigger school. I doubt I would have gotten that with other, less determined teachers. The piece I wrote as my final for the classes I took in Puerto Rico marked, for me, a vast and obvious improvement in what I had done even a year ago. That’s the kind of talent, the kind of determination that Chester College fosters.
After I left the college I moved to Maryland with my best friend. She’s going to be a spy. I’m writing freelance and sending my work to magazines, building up cred as I go. Of course that doesn’t pay the bills. I work at a bookstore during the day, and I use the skills I learned- fast reading, knowledge of age limits on children’s books, background on authors and styles- to make suggestions for my customers. Two days ago I had a middle school teacher come in and ask for advice about books for a smart young man who enjoyed reading, but didn’t like school. Two hours later she walked out with five books and thanked me. No, it wasn’t a published piece in a prestigious magazine, but watching that woman walk away filled with hope proved to me that I had not wasted four glorious years of my life, that I had gone in a good person and come out a better person.
I want the Home Planet to survive. I want some other little girl or boy who sleeps on a pile of books to walk into the library ten years from now and say ‘this is where I belong’. I want the college in the town no one remembers in the state so few people think about to be able to shout ‘we are here’ and be heard. We’ve lost so many things in the past few years. We cannot lose this.
Maybe after reading all of our testimonials you still don’t care. Maybe you’re slumming it about on the internet looking for causes to ignore or to make fun of over dinner. Maybe you’re of the ‘arts are useless’ crowd. I’d like you to consider this.
What would happen if you went to the movies and nothing was playing?
If you picked up the brochures for your business and the logo was gone?
If your business cards had no typesetting?
If you got your newspaper every morning and it was conspicuously blank?
If you decided to take your lover to an art museum only to find an empty building?
If the newest Patterson book never came out?
If there were no photos of models or superstars in magazines?
If you planned on travelling to Puerto Rico, but couldn’t go to a bookstore because there were none, and besides, there were no written guides?
Art is the second oldest profession. It has been around since cave drawings. It will be around long after the next fortune 500 business is run into the ground. Art endures. Art survives. Chester will survive, too, with a little help from its friends.
We are here.
The way I view Chester is much like a VHS tape of one of my favorite Disney movies. It’s vintage, boxy, old school, and maybe a little outdated, but pop it in the VCR and you can still enjoy the entertaining film that has brought you some of the best memories and taught you so much about life.
Now take a look at that VHS tape, the tape we call Chester College. It’s not the best quality, it may not be expensive in comparison to those streamlined DVD’s with their special features (i.e, universities and their division I sports ). But look closer and you realize it provides the same function: a bachelors degree and a great college experience anyone can value. Sure it takes up some space, and most would prefer to upgrade or download it somewhere else to save time and trouble, (sounds like our current situation) but unlike a polaroid camera, which after time was put back on the market for its vintage charm, they just won’t make them like Chester College anymore. No matter how annoyed it made you when you had to deal with its antique functions, (and I know we have all been there) just know you still got to have a chance at experiencing the “feature presentation” that eventually awarded you that degree.
Now join me and dig around for that VCR of compassion and put this VHS in there before the guys in charge decide to hit the Eject button and toss Chester away forever.
Rewind to the summer of 2007, at one of Chester College’s open houses. Two student guides walk down the hill leading a mass of parents and students to the Preston dormitory. As they are walking, one of the guides asks the group of visitors on tour what kind of creative writing stuff they were into. Some say, short stories, fiction, etc. The answers are generic, at most. He nods and digests the responses, making conversation, suggesting favorite authors and books.
Suddenly, from the back of the crowd someone coyly replies “Erotica slam poetry.”
The response is hit far out of left field, and the ice over the formality between tour guide and visitor breaks. Most parents look around confused, some grinning. The other student chuckles and the lead tour guide turns on the group with new piqued interest.
He laughs knowingly, his face bright with curiosity, obviously familiar with the obscure genre. He looks around to locate the anonymous speaker. I raise my hand.
He smiles and replies “I don’t know why it is,” he says turning to his peer, “But most of those performances don’t ever seem to last longer than 30 seconds…” We laugh. I am humoured by his implication, as are some parents who are catching on. His friend adds “ At least I’ve always known the women to outlast the men.” More laughs. We reach the threshold to Preston Hall, and the group is already buzzing with amusement.
It is with this amount of grace, humor, and enthusiasm that embraced me as I walked through those double doors on that warm August day. I knew that I was going to have a blast at Chester. I was ready to take on the creative challenge presented by this quaint college in the woods. I had no problem seeing it as my new home-away-from home for the next four years, with its communal coziness and backwoods charm.
Fast forward past the tours, logistics, and the grind of gen ed courses, and you’ll find me spearheading an effort alongside many motivated students to get the ball rolling on an LGBT support group. This group is eventually granted chartered status, is featured on college brochures, and is allotted a large sum of student activity money to run its events, paralleled only by the Campus Activity Board, 2bit players, and Student Government. The group accrues a significant amount of student body members and support from both faculty and staff, who actively participated in teaching seminars during meeting times, which obliterated the standard classroom-exclusive interactions with professors. This group founded one of the campuses largest gatherings next to Chester fest, the Gay-la, which is analogous to a High school senior prom. This was the Crayon Box, whose influence on the community acts like a thermostat for the social climate at Chester. And it was just an idea built by fellow students and staff all from the ground up.
Pause at one of the readings for our Visiting Writers. Watch as Robert Doe and myself open for one of my personal favorite writers, the quirky and bold, Michelle Tea, whose book became part of a class curriculum in a course I later enrolled for. Did I mention I was able to dine out with her and some professors that same night? Only at Chester College can you have dinner out with one of your favorite authors! It was so cool to be able to take advantage of the opportunity to impress a writer I admire, and apply what I was learning in Surrealism and Rebellion. I extracted poems from prescription bottles at the reading, in a quasi-performance art style that was fun and refreshing. I later became a workshop leader with other classmates due to our enthusiasm of the subject, and we were able to teach visiting parents and prospective students about what we got to learn from our awesome professors. It was one of the most interesting courses I’ve taken here aside from History of Pornography, an academically challenging 400 level course with a grueling 30 page research paper required for completion. Not to mention a sweet NYC museum trip towards the end of term.
Press play on the second interview that changed my entire roll on campus, the one that finally landed me the RA position with an awesome group of students in 2009. I got to take on more responsibility, share my passions and crafty skills with my dormmates, and forge lasting friendships with incoming students. I got over so many fears, grew to be a reliable and helpful to my peers. Not to mention the residence life team itself , who I share so many memories with. We were the first group of RA’s to film a short movie for RLAGS, a convention for Residence Life across the State of NH. Our spirit and pride in our small school gets us noticed, and Rockie Hunter’s presentation of Humans Vs. Zombies, (also a popular community building activity at Chester) takes the convention by a landslide, ranking the most favorite workshop in the event wide survey, on top of an award for our movie performances and 2nd place for our creative Movie poster in the banner competition.
Fast forward again to where I was elected to SGA senior rep. The group is leading a sustainable green effort with Terracycling and other efforts. The Haunted trail is one of the most anticipated events in southern NH, run by the students who are a part of this group. We also are the driving force behind Family Weekend, which I know of no other college ever doing, most of which because of our rare, intimate size. We help organize efforts to amend rules for more independent, adult lifestyles in the dorms, and come together to gather at the end of the year to celebrate the culmination of our hard work at the annual end of the year party, known as Chester Fest.
The Film concludes for me in 2011, and I’m winding down past the credits of graduation, seeing all the people who have helped me over the years, my friends and teachers who taught me so much, pushed me to try harder , who gave me a shoulder to lean on or a brain to pick apart.
I see this same bunch of my colleagues, professors, staff alike working so hard to save this place. I get pretty nostalgic at this point. I all of a sudden don’t want this place to turn into black and white static at the end of the videocassette.
Don’t you wish we could maintain the cycle of these great memories of college life for generation and generations to come? It’s nice knowing we have it there to go back to, this trusty old VHS, to experience again and again and to share with other incoming prospects. I daresay that Chester College has the charm and support to withstand the test of these economic times. Even if it has been sitting there for a little while, hiding in the middle of nowhere New Hampshire, I hope that someone will notice it, pick it up and be curious about it, blow the settled dust off the cartridge, load the tape, and press play.
Oh, I’m sure you’ve heard this one before.
I’m this punk-ass high school student with a chip on my shoulder, a passing grasp of the English language, and this completed busted notion that I’m going to be the next Stephen King.
Yep, I’m that guy.
My guidance counselor, she says to me, “What’s with the beard?”
She says to me, “You should try harder in classes that aren’t part of the English department.”
She says to me, “I would never let my daughters date someone like you.”
Finally, she says to me, “You should apply to this Chester College of New England place.”
Hey, as the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day. I go for a campus tour. I meet the head of the writing department. I fall in love with the place immediately. I scramble to pull together a portfolio that doesn’t seem like the absolute epitome of pure crap. I apply. And I wait for a phone call telling me if I get to attend this astounding school.
The day that call comes, I’ve forgotten my house keys because I am 32 flavors of stupid. I’m sitting outside my house, waiting for my folks to come home, and I hear the phone ring. I know, I just know, that this is the call I have been waiting for. My heart jumps into my throat. I am going to answer that phone.
You know what? I did.
I climbed a rickety ladder and broke into the second story of my own house to do it. I fell in through the window, scraped my ribs on the sill, missed the couch, and landed on my shoulder. Then I ran like I was on fire and snatched up the phone before the answering machine could click on.
The whole thing was probably unnecessary, but, as it turns out, Chester College holds the kind of magic that turns real life into a story that people find impossible to believe.
You don’t have the time to read every incredible story I have from Chester; trust me. And, anyway, you wouldn’t believe half of them.
Like how I met my current roomie there; he’s one of the fastest unicyclists in the world.
Or the time a praying mantis climbed into my dreadlocks and stayed there all day, clicking and chittering in my ear every now and then.
Seriously, I’ve got a million of them. Chester infused my every day with magic. It did that for a lot of people. It still does.
But the most important thing that Chester does? It teaches people. How to be real artists. How to be unafraid to call themselves artists. How to think critically. How to take criticism. How to always strive for improvement. How to create. How to go for what seems impossible and make it possible. How to find who they really are.
Okay, so maybe you haven’t heard this one before, because Chester College is lightning in a bottle. If you let it out, you’ll never catch it again.
Non-traditional. That’s me. And that is how I ended up being a part of Chester College of New England’s Class of 2002, the very first graduates to walk away with a B.A. degree from this tiny slice of magic in New Hampshire.
I came to Chester College at the invitation of David Crouse. David and I became good friends at Bradford College, the 200-year-old school I’d chosen to finish a very slow lurch toward an undergraduate degree. I had studied at a couple of community colleges in Texas, my home, and found I wanted to study writing seriously. I had two years left, so, at the age of 34, I moved across the country and settled into the work.
But in November of my first semester at Bradford College, it was announced that the college would be closing at the end of the academic year. I was devastated. So were the faculty. This is how I came to bond with David Crouse. Our family grew tight as we watched the curtain draw to a close.
Everything in my life was suddenly in disarray. Depression swallowed me. I left my fiancé, who had moved across the country to forge a new life. The band I’d been playing with for over seven years fell apart. I lost a music journalism gig that was helping to pay the bills.
In an attempt to gain perspective I moved to Maryland and married a woman I barely knew. I was going to attend Salisbury University. I took a job in a bookstore and waited for the semester to begin.
But I chickened out. For many reasons. One being the thought of disappearing into a pool of nearly 8,000 students at Salisbury University.
So I moved back to Boston—alone–to try to figure things out. How had I become so lost? I took a job in a bookstore while I stayed at a campground north of the city. I enrolled in classes at UMASS Boston, deciding it was better than not going to school at all. Only then did I call David to tell him I was back. He said, “I’m having a party soon. I really want to see you.”
It turns out David was celebrating a new job he’d taken at a small school called White Pines College. A lot of people from Bradford were at the party—teachers, students, everyone. I told David how unhappy I was at UMASS, and how I couldn’t even get into a writing class. He told me, “Come to White Pines and we can finish what we started.”
So I did. Another young woman from Bradford’s writing program did, too. Corry Nolan, the other writing major in the class of 2002. I spoke at the graduation. My first story was accepted for publication in The Beloit Fiction Journal. I went on to attend the MFA program at Texas State University, where I worked with major authors like Tim O’Brien and Barry Hannah. Upon graduation from that program David called me up and asked me if I could take a half-time position at Chester College. I was newly married with a child due any day (with my original fiancé, by the way). I said yes immediately, despite the half-time pay and the need to feed my new family. I’ve been back at Chester since 2006, and there’s no place I’d rather be.
This narrative represents just over ten years time. I find that fact unbelievable. In that time I have seen our program develop from a tiny collection of young writers meeting in the woods to a world-class program. There is nothing like it in the country. The students I have seen in my classrooms over the years are just now growing into themselves (just like I am). Amazing things are happening among our writing alma mater. Jessica Bryant is in New Mexico running a writing center. Mark Cugini and Laura Spencer have created one of the most exciting literary journals in the country, Big Lucks. Mathew Ostapchuk was just named to the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award editorial committee (Matt will also be U.S. poet laureate one day, mark my words). Chris Sumner has made nearly heroic contributions to Chester College’s new admissions materials, giving our college a real voice. Beth Ann Miller was just accepted into every graduate program she applied to. And I can promise you both Stephanie Smith and Chelsea Paige, two of this year’s graduates, will publish the projects they are working on within the next few years. I could go on. The list is long. Our graduates are moving into amazing lives.
And then there’s me. Ten years on I am not only a better teacher, but I am somehow an apiarist (I help care for Chester College’s bee hives), an editor (I just launched a web based literary project with colleague Jenn Monroe, and with help from students Meg Cameron and Kyle Petty), and I’m putting the finishing touches on a book I hope to place next fall. It tells the story of my time working in bookstores after the shuttering of Bradford College, and inevitably explores my time as a student at Chester College of New England. Studying at Chester helped to make me whole again. People love a feel-good ending.
We are young as a college, but we are real. Our faculty this spring alone has seen the publication of three books, including Eric Pinder’s children’s book If All the Animals Came Inside published by Little, Brown & Co. No small potatoes. Our students continue to publish, win prizes, astound. But we need time. With the news of a potential closure of this institution we all know exactly why we are here. I’ve heard that Faith Preston’s dream was for the college she founded to be a literary school. If this is true, I’d say we are making her proud.
Ten years ago I crossed a stage (finally) and moved into a future that is still happening. Despite recent news, I am incredibly optimistic about the future. Because I know if you work hard to build something you believe in, it can never really go away. You can’t kill an idea, especially if you know the idea is honest and true. It takes time to nurture something so powerfully important. Chester College is worth the effort. For Faith Preston’s vision. For our students and alumni. And for faculty who give everything they’ve got to create a more perfect education for anyone ready to accept a challenge.
By Christopher J. Anderson, Class of 2002
Assistant Professor of Writing and Literature
This is going to sound cheesy, but it’s true. I received a postcard, while deciding on colleges, with a breathtaking sunset and the words “This is the perfect college for you.” Bold, but as I came to discover, true. Chester College had as many students as had been in my graduating high school class, but I thought this was great—I was shy and it gave me less of an excuse to stay that way. My peers and professors encouraged me when I didn’t feel like rising to the challenge, but, you know what? I did. And having those kind of connections transformed me, so I started reaching out to others.
As a student, I supported my peers as an Orientation Leader three years in a row, took minutes as secretary for the Student Senate, volunteered to assist 15 person vans park in the cramped Wadleigh Library lot for Reach the Beach, and performed in two plays. My high school, which held 1,000+ students, didn’t care to encourage me and it wasn’t until college that I improved my public speaking skills.
At Chester College, I also worked in Admissions as a tour guide at Open Houses and during Guidance Counselor Tours, I sat in for the receptionist, Lorraine, when she took lunch. I continued working in Admissions one summer and learned of a need for a local babysitter. This family became my home away from home, since my folks lived three hours away, and I had no idea that the gifted eleven-year old girl would aspire to write her own novel at the very college I was attending. She even has a Chester College poster hanging on her wall right now, though she won’t be able to attend college for another two years.
Through my time at Chester College, I have met incredible people and dedicated fine artists and illustrators whose passion continues to inform my work in poetry. When you’re asking yourself, Is this small college really worth the effort? and Would anyone care if it’s gone? The answer is yes. Yes! Absolutely yes. Infinitely yes. Without a doubt because without Chester College, I would not be where I am, a freelance correspondent for a local newspaper, working several jobs in my field, and happy.
Dawn Coutu is a poet and freelance copyeditor working toward her MFA in creative writing at New England College. She received her BA in creative writing from Chester College of New England. Dawn proofreads publications and otherwise works behind-the-scenes at the New Hampshire Writers’ Project. She leads a writers’ group based out of Concord and co-coordinates the Datum:Earth Reading Series in Keene. She has interviewed Anne Waldman, Maudelle Driskell, and Taylor Mali, among others. Her feature articles, interviews, and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ad Hoc Monadnock, NH Writer, So Good, Compass Rose, Scapegoat Review, The Henniker Review, The Tower Journal, Big Lucks, Petrichor Machine, Green Line Press, Today Magazine, and Amoskeag. Dawn also received the Spirit of Chester Award, as a Chester College student, which embraces enthusiasm and the ability to rise above challenges, both of which she is using to support her alma mater.