I think it was my junior year at Barnard (1955) when Margaret Mead came to speak.
She hadn’t been back to Barnard for a long time, and the room was electric with anticipation.
Mrs. Mac, as President McIntosh was called, usually didn’t handle assemblies. But she was there to introduce Mead, reminding all of us that “Margaret” graduated from Barnard in 1923 and went on to a stellar career.
We knew all that. We’d read her books in Sociology 101, heard her mentioned repeatedly as one of our most illustrious alumnae, and were aware of her tenure at the American Museum of Natural History.
But we were also all exhausted, having just come through exam week. Indeed, as we shuffled into the gym, there were many exchanges among the students about how few hours’ sleep they’d had. And one saw drooping shoulders and bloodshot eyes as we fell into our chairs, or onto the gym floor, finding a spot to lean against a wall.
At my current age, I can imagine why Margaret Mead was more preoccupied with the state of the U.S. than with these teenagers. In any case, she had a message she wanted to deliver, and it didn’t seem to matter that we might have been the wrong audience.
I don’t remember everything she said. But the gist was that we were part of the general apathy in the country, had been barely affected by the hardships of the Depression and World War II, yet were reaping the benefits of the post-war lifestyle with all its luxuries.
We were, she pronounced, mediocre. Willing to settle for second-best rather than striving to achieve what we were obviously capable of.
You could feel the tension rising in the room. It was almost palpable, a stirring of resentment evidenced in squared shoulders, restless shifting in our seats, sideways glances to each other.
I can still feel that room. I’ve learned, over the years, how to detect that tension and get myself out of any situation that begins to develop in that manner, before something awful happens.
But none of us could leave.
Margaret Mead’s voice boomed out of the microphone. We should be ashamed of ourselves. We were settling for Cs instead of reaching for top marks. She said it not once, but twice.
Suddenly Mrs. Mac stepped forward and took over the microphone.
“But Margaret,” she said, in that sweet but steely manner we all knew so well. “A C at Barnard is an A anywhere else.”
The room exploded as we rose as one body and applauded wildly.
—Barbara Florio Graham ’56