Finding More in the Sources – Senior Oration by Madeline Coffey (’17)

It’s Friday, Deac families!  That means call your students and tell them you love them.  I’ll be back next week and eager to catch up on everything I missed while I was gone this week – it should be tons of blooming trees and amazing spring.

For now, here is one more Top 10 Senior Oration. This is from Madeline Coffey (’17) and is entitled “Finding More in the Sources.”


In the barn outside my house in Bean Station, TN there are Rubbermaid bins full of photos, certificates, and newspaper clippings.  There are homemade ornaments, works of art from elementary school, and letters written in my youth.  Not all of the things in the bins are mine.  They date back to when my grandmother was in elementary school in the 1960s when my great-grandmother began collecting all of the things her children and grandchildren would ever make or accomplish.  Some people say that my great-grandmother has a problem with keeping things that she no longer needs, but I would beg to differ.  You see, these boxes don’t just contain some mediocre drawing my mother made when she was five.  Our collection is more than that.  It is a monument to a family history that no one ever wrote for us and that my great-grandmother has spent so much time piecing together.

Although the boxes sit there, untouched for years, they’re the only things we have.  Neither of my great grandparents were able to attend school after eighth grade; their parents were largely illiterate.  When my great-grandmother, who I call nanny, enrolled her daughter in school, she did not know how to do math or read complex literature.  So, she struck a deal.  She worked in the school cafeteria in exchange for tutoring from local school teachers to help her to learn these skills.  Before she knew it, she found herself immersed in books.  She researched everything she was interested in, spending countless hours in the library reading anything she could find.  With her new skills, she developed a deep love and appreciation for what could be found there.

I have fond memories from my girlhood of the hours I spent in the library with my nanny and her sisters.  We would drive to Middlesboro, KY where they were born to look through archives containing rich pieces of our family’s history.  None of them were college educated, but that didn’t stop them from doing the same work that I, today, engage in as an academic discipline.  They were dedicated to learning from the sources and figuring out who they were through them.  I did not fully understand their fascination when I was young, and i thought some of the things they were so excited to find seemed rather mundane.  But because of academia, I now understand their excitement in uncovering the past.

Earlier this year, I received a grant from the Wake Forest University History department to go to Minneapolis to learn more about queer native american organizations through the archives that are housed there.  I spent hours looking through archives at the university of minnesota, and for the first time in my life, I knew how my nanny and her sisters had felt.  I cried over documents that I read, and I wrote notes about things that I found that i wanted to explore more fully.  As I sat in my hotel room one night, I began to think of all the hours I spent reading Junie B. Jones in those libraries with my nanny.  I realized that, without her, my love for the sources and my dedication to academia would never have been so strong.

She told me many times when I was younger that she wanted me to go to college.  She didn’t want me to attend just because it would help me to get a good job someday but because going to college was something she had always dreamed of but was never able to do.  She was too poor and too overworked to go herself, but she saw an opportunity for me that I didn’t see back then.  From the days we spent together learning how to read to the present day as she listens to my stories about the papers I have written and the research I have done, she always knew that I was like her.  I was like her in that I loved to learn new things about the world if only to discover more about myself.

I have spent the last four years here at wake forest looking for answers about the world and, in that process, I found myself.  There is a certain amount of pride and dignity that comes with my ability to piece together things that people like my nanny have taken the time to preserve.  When I see the boxes of materials at the archives, I don’t see newspapers and photos anymore.  Instead, I see a narrative aching to be written.  I see the evidence for a past that could not be uncovered if it weren’t for my discipline.  Through my engagement with the materials, I have learned that every person and every group of people has a story that can benefit the world.  Because I have been able to connect with distant histories ranging from the Spanish inquisition to post-reconstruction america, I know that the narratives historians write are not cut and dried.  Instead, they are windows through which readers can understand the experiences of another place, of another time, or of another people.  They are lessons that can be applied to our own lives to enrich our experiences in the world.

I found myself in the sources.  Those sources are in the archives at the University of Minnesota, at Z. Smith Reynolds library, and in my family’s old barn.  They all mean something to my personal identity because the things I have learned from them inform my experience in the world.  My nanny might not have known it until today as she sits in the audience, but her love for learning allowed me to let my academic experience become a part of who I am.  Because of her, I have two “mothers so dear,” who have instilled in me the great love for learning that I will pass on someday in the form of more Rubbermaid boxes. I hope can only hope that they will mean as much to the next generation as they do to my nanny and to me.

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