Sarah Larson, Retired Professor of English,
Former Humanities Department Chair, Dunwoody Campus
Passing the Torch
It was the summer of
1984—a long, hot one. The pressure was on our community college because
The pressure continued. Our South Campus was to be closed to save funds. Those of us at the large, newly formed North Campus felt threatened as we joined college-wide discussions that included saving one campus only--our founding campus in Clarkston. State Senator Jim Tysinger appeared on WSB television to plead for our survival as a celebrated institution which had prepared so many working, at-risk, second-wind students to find better lives through developing their minds and opening their eyes to an exciting liberal arts curriculum.
We were all convinced that DeKalb College must survive because it was a moveable feast of the useable past for us and for our students. The idea of an intellectual feast extended to a 25th Anniversary Banquet to honor all those past and present who had a dream of providing an accessible, affordable, conveniently located education with teachers who loved their craft and established high standards which we were convinced all our students could meet. “Knowledge is Eternal” was our theme as we lit torches and handed out souvenirs of the eternal flame—sort of a bitter-sweet farewell to the college we treasured and the precious faces of students we could see in our mind’s eye.
I had spent so many waking hours and sleepless nights thinking of a political solution which I was powerless to effect that I turned to what was most important—our students and their accomplishments in composing the stories of their lives, a sense of place, a thoughtful discussion, and a stand on a burning issue. As an instructor in the Rhetoric Department of the University of Illinois, I was privileged to contribute to The Green Caldron, a freshman writing magazine founded by the noted educator Charles Roberts. I carried those magazines to Mesa College in San Diego, the University of Arkansas, and finally to DeKalb College—reading narrative, descriptive, expository, and argumentative essays to my students to inspire better writing.
Then a bright light shone out of the darkness of despair over our future. I thought: what if the students, their families, our faculty, and the community at large could see what accomplished writers we had at every level of our curriculum—from the learning support student to the rising junior. What if our humanities department could focus on something we did have power over—the stimulation and elevation of freshman writing and the collegiality of anonymously submitting our students’ essays, selecting those which served as good student models, publishing them to help other students with our curriculum, and rotating the editor yearly so that all faculty would have a chance to emerge from the editorial board to make an imprint on the publication. I was literally on fire.
I appeared before the Humanities Joint Faculty in the fall of 1984. I submitted an outline of my plan and passed around those well worn copies of The Green Caldron for the last time. To my amazement, the project was unanimously approved, and I had faculty volunteers from the soon to be vacated South Campus, the tenuous North Campus, and the Central Campus. As an editorial board we solicited essays from our full time and adjunct faculty, held a “Name the Magazine Contest” to advertise our text, and presented a pilot project to the Joint Humanities Faculty in the spring of 1985.
“Here is your magazine, The Polishing Cloth,” we proudly proclaimed as we handed out our slender publication. I had discussed our project with Sandra Boynton, now famous for her children’s books and greeting cards, and she agreed to let us use her delightful cartoons, remarking “Anything for freshman writing.” The faculty was surprised, pleased, and excited that we had followed through with their approved plan, but they had some important suggestions. We foresaw that our best opportunity to implement ideas from both students and faculty was to distribute an evaluation of the magazine with the help of Math Department Chairman, Lane Hardy, who randomly selected classes from our two remaining campuses and volunteered to calculate and graphically distribute the results. The evaluation confirmed our own enthusiasm by reporting that our magazine was an overwhelming success with the students. The faculty also included some good advice that has helped the magazine continue. The Editorial Board decided to follow the format of two issues a year (later changed to a larger annual publication). I edited the pilot project and the first full edition—getting permission from Bettman Archive to use old movie photographs, mix them in with Boynton cartoons, and continue “Diamonds in the Rough” from some of our student papers to add a little humor to set off our remarkable essays. Then, as our charter mandated, I passed the torch to Janet Bacon who spearheaded our next two issues.
The birth of The Polishing Cloth and its continuation throughout the years has been my most valued experience in my thirty years as a teacher. We have had our “ups and downs” in financing the magazine to make sure it is wholly dependent on student sales and thereby independent of the vicissitudes of administrative funding. In 1991, I finally contacted Kendall/Hunt to publish the magazine and thereby to realize a small royalty slush fund to hold an annual reception for students, their parents, and faculty and staff from the College and to fund a speaker, a working, published writer such as Terry Kay, John Stone, and Editor Cynthia Tucker to tell their stories to the students. The publisher also financially honors six students who represent the best of The Polishing Cloth. Our history includes locally published editions from 1985 to 1991 and 12 years of editions nationally published, an unbroken line. As a result, we have bonded as faculty, have found a way to celebrate our students, have seen our essays published in many major textbooks as student models, and have championed and invigorated innumerable faculty editors who have found The Polishing Cloth a mission of love. And wonder of wonders, the college survived in a different form through joining the University System of Georgia and at the same time, we have a memorable souvenir of our teaching and best of all, the student is a published author.