Grantham fights U.S. pessimism

by Sarah Rubenstein | 10/30/98 6:00am

As English Professor Shelby Grantham discussed her background as a pacifist, feminist, vegan, Quaker and head of a multi-racial family, she pointed toward a poster that hung on the wall in her office.

The poster quotes Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Grantham, who usually teaches English 5 and freshman seminars, said she believes American culture emphasizes cynicism, pessimism and competition.

She said she tries to help her students realize they all have the power to change the world.

"I love teaching freshmen, because they have the language of cynicism, but not the faith in it that sort of comes with sophomore and junior years," she said.

A life of activism

Grantham said she combats cultural negativity by emphasizing compassion and pacifism in her life and her teaching.

After being "raised in Mississippi as a Southern belle, with all the trash that comes with it," Grantham solidified her feminist and pacifist views as a graduate student at the University of Virginia.

She said she became a feminist after a speaker from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology addressed the women in her doctoral program. He told them they lived in a world which attempted to prevent them from having successful careers.

The Vietnam War prompted Grantham to act upon her pacifist views and convert from Episcopalianism to become a Quaker.

She said was part of group of students at the University of Virginia who protested the war by refusing to attend class. They held an "alternative university" on the campus lawn and taught each other about topics such as war, militarism and American imperialism.

"It was all very hastily organized, and full of passion, and very exciting and eye-opening," Grantham said.

She attended non-violence workshops organized by Quakers and was attracted by the religious group's emphasis on pacifism.

Grantham said she eventually entered protest circles in New Hampshire, where she was arrested twice for engaging in peaceful protest against the war.

She refused to pay a fine as low as $10 because she would not support the government's policies. Instead, she went to jail in a home for the elderly, because New Hampshire did not have jail facilities for women.

"If this is the way justice works in the United States, then I have to pay the price," Grantham said, remembering why she insisted on going to jail instead of paying any fines.

A mom and a teacher

Grantham's desire to take responsibility for her actions has extended to her everyday life.

When she was married to her second husband, his eating habits made it difficult for Grantham to be a vegetarian.

As a compromise, she decided to only eat the meat she was willing to slaughter herself.

She said she remembers dreading November -- the traditional slaughtering season.

Grantham became a vegetarian when she married her third husband, and eventually became a vegan, one who does not eat meat, dairy products or eggs.

"It's all part and parcel of compassion and pacifism," she said.

In addition to her 22-year-old birth son, Grantham, currently single, has two adopted daughters.

Grey, 10 years old, is originally from Calcutta, India. Grantham's six-year-old daughter, Raven, is an African American originally from Kentucky.

She said adopting diverse children prompted her to learn about other cultures.

"It opened me to the riches of diversity and gave me intimate experience with dark-skinned people," she said.

Grantham invites her students to plant trees on her property every spring, basing the tradition on a story she teaches called "The Man Who Planted Trees."

She said she teaches her students to find their passions, and relay them in detailed, concise prose.

"I see myself as trying very hard to promote candor, simplicity, directness, passion and connection in a country and a culture that, for the most part, don't validate those things," she said.

Jane DeWitt '99 had Grantham for English 5 and her freshman seminar, and she has kept in touch with Grantham throughout her college career.

"I think her classes, more than any other classes I've had ... really cause students to leave the classroom full of ideas, or full of things to think about, and that's really exciting," DeWitt said.

Grantham started teaching at the College in 1973. After teaching for a few years, she wrote and edited for the Alumni Magazine. She was also Director of Publications for Development before returning to teaching in 1991.