The room was relatively crowded with a lot of terribly important-seeming types and I was like a fish out of water. All seemed to be dressed better than me, spoke better than me, and were a lot surer of themselves than me. I was at a party at the Prague British Council of the 1990s, which no one will probably ever write a book about, but probably should someday. Staid and innocuous on the outside, anarchistic and decadent on the inside. Standing in the corner, the only place that offered at least the slight possibility of invisibility, I surveyed the room, wondering how long I would have to stay before escaping, when suddenly, like a knife cutting through a still-warm Victoria sponge cake, a sharp, hissing-yet-thunderous voice turned heads toward the tables of drinks and food. I looked at the source of the commotion and saw, below a head of hair far too wild for this part of Europe, flailing arms, and a ferocious exit. Unable to make out exactly what was said, it was still clear from the verbal and nonverbal aspects of those 7-10 seconds almost 30 years ago that this person was unhappy with the injustice represented by the state of the food, the wine, but also, implicitly, those people that didn’t look like me, the British Council, the monarchy, the patriarchy, global capitalism, and much more. It was a literal hurricane.
A few years later, I found myself at a faculty meeting at my new place of work, the relatively shiny, new private educational provider on the block, the University of New York in Prague. Being rather young, I was wide-eyed, enthused, and uncritical about the position, listening intently to the American dignitaries at the front of the room talk about the role of private education in the marketplace with the local management, the glory of the American education system, and so on. One of the people at the front of the room responded to a hand up in the audience behind me, and suddenly, it happened. The windows flew open, curtains blowing frantically in the wind, papers flying like nuclear fallout, women grasping their bonnets, men trying to keep their balance by holding onto their chairs. It was HER! I again heard the knife I had heard a few years earlier, this time slicing through New York cheesecake, arms again flailing, hair electric, her voice of a deep, heavy texture with that taunting rasp. I was again unable to make out in all the commotion exactly what was being said, but I was pretty sure it was about standards in the programs being offered, tangentially American imperialism, the Global South, racism, fascism, and global warming. It was again a literal hurricane.
In the subsequent years, I got to know this woman pretty well, being in the same department as her, and got sort of used to the hurricane swelling up from time to time. I was rarely there when it emerged (with the exception of general faculty meetings, which will NEVER be the same) but I was often the one that was approached to deal with the incoming storm, once the early warning systems were shrieking down the halls. Often it was related to the two examples above – a backlash to injustice or (double) standards, and very often it was related to students, and sometimes faculty. For example, it was par for the course that the call would come early in the semester to ask if I could do something about Beth kicking her students out of her class… again. It was of course never that simple, but always scandalous. Beth deeply cared about her students and was in her mind not sending them away, but refusing to put them in any form of disadvantageous position. She also consistently refused to ignore symbols, models, or behaviors from her colleagues or students that sent messages of intimidation or victimization. Where the rest would ‘get on with it’ and let it pass, until the end, Beth was having none of it.
This concern with injustice, standards, and care for her students and colleagues did not necessarily make Beth unique in the academic community. But her resilience, willingness to fight, and refusal to back down did. Where her contemporaries softened, and in the age of hyper-visibility younger generations refuse to engage due to the impact it could have on their careers and social status, nothing would stop Beth from relentlessly pursuing what she felt was right. In the process of her acting impulsively in pursuit of doing the right thing, she inspired many – dozens of colleagues, perhaps thousands of students. Her message of unwavering engagement lives on for them and hopefully inspires them to spread it further.
Thank you, Beth.
An open-door memorial event is being held in memory of Beth on June 2nd, 2023 from 11:00-17:00. It will take place in classroom U1 at FAMU, Smetanovo nábř. 1012/2, 110 00 Staré Město, where Beth’s work will be shared. At 14:00 a short film composed of video testimonials made by Beth’s former students, colleagues, and friends will be screened, along with short reflections from guests. The event is collectively hosted by FAMU, UNYP, and Prague Film School. A Facebook event is here: https://www.facebook.com/events/916096872717506/?ref=newsfeed
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