Conversationalist Column: Betty

Posted by Eleanor Rochman

There is something gorgeously comforting about being in the presence of a fellow human who emanates simple sagacity. It is a rare quality to find in academia; a world unstably grounded on pretension and founded by shrewdly analytical fathers. We read Rousseau, study Socrates, and pick apart Plato only to be faced with the same questions that are an innate part of every human's condition regardless of the specificities of one's individual experience. We are all forced to question our identity and what it means to "be ourselves" in this world. And some, I believe, are gifted with an uncomplicated wisdom, which allows them to more easily identify with their individual essence without pretense or desire to brand themselves.

Betty taught me this. Betty is the cleaning lady of North quad's very own McClellen, she has been cleaning at Skidmore for over 25 years and conducts herself with an elegant simplicity of which took time and deliberation to cultivate. I think she knows herself. I think she knows herself so well that little bothers her. I think that little bothers her because, well, she has to clean up after us.

She is a people person, and so (don't worry you guys), she likes us. However, as Betty even describes, the student-staff relationship can be a bit uncomfortable at first if one does not realize that it is based on reciprocity.  If we maintain a certain level of individual cleanliness then Betty will be able to more easily clean the facilities.  However, this concept does not only apply to the immediate scenario; our relationship to humanity also needs to be one that works through a means of cooperation. In the words of Betty, "we work off of each other."

When Betty first started working at Skidmore this relationship was still uncomfortable, this reciprocity had not been realized to its fullest potential by either side. There was a separation between the students and maintenance staff resulting from an associative ambiguity; neither party knew what kind of interaction was appropriate. And I would go as far as to say that this dilemma exists on all levels of interaction.

Over the years Betty has observed this disconnection to stem from a lack of confidence and trust. She says all you have to do is "be yourself" and the more comfortable you feel around someone, the more comfortable they will feel around you. A simple "hi" will most always receive an equal and opposite reaction, so say hi to the world and more than likely, the world will say hi back.

But then I asked Betty, if it is hard to "be yourself" as it is questionable whether or not we can even know exactly who we are? And she said, well yes, it's a "wishy-washy" concept - "it" meaning identity. In fact, it's as wishy washy and complex as the chemicals with which she uses to clean; they are toxic but necessary and similarly, the contemplation of identity is precarious but inherently human.

It was refreshing to be able to have a conversation with a member of our community that is not sucked into the vacuum of academia. Betty understands and remembers what it's like to be young like us. She knows how much of a bubble the Skidmore campus can become - how isolated its functioning is from the grand scheme of general society.

Her answers to my questions were so simple, yet so honest. Betty made me realize that I did not need to read any chapter from one of the "great books" in order to understand that it takes time to feel comfortable with your place amongst humanity. Her wise and pleasant gaze made me realize how far I am from becoming a simple sage and I hope to one day know myself as easily as she seems to identify herself.

Unfortunately, Betty will be leaving us next semester for retirement. She says she can't wait to find a way to get out of the cold, sleep in, garden, and have time to take care of her pets (of which one is a parakeet). Also, she is very much looking forward to the warm summer days when she can kick back, put up her feet and say "here I am," and I'm simply sagacious.

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