These remarks were written for the dedication ceremony for the Elizabeth W. Cheney Studio Theatre at Plymouth State University. By some strange turns of fate, I have ended up working at the school where my mother worked for over 40 years — and as program director of the major she got her bachelor’s degree from at that very school. After her death, there was a strong desire from many people on campus to memorialize her contributions. The studio theatre in the Silver Center, a building she had helped make possible, had never been named. It was like it was waiting for her. A generous effort from a great number of donors made the naming possible.
Because my mother was fiercely devoted to both Plymouth State as an institution and to her staff colleagues, I thought it was important for us all to keep that in mind as we celebrated her and the place she so loved.
Everyone Is a Teacher:
Remarks on the Dedication of the Elizabeth W. Cheney Studio Theatre, June 17, 2021
by Matthew Cheney
My mother sometimes expressed a certain disappointment in herself for not, in her estimation, finding a specific passion early in life and pursuing it straight through. Instead, she bounced around, tried things out, experimented. The opportunity to do this was something she valued about Plymouth State, and it’s what made her in many ways the ideal Plymouth State person. She arrived in the early 1970s with an associate’s degree, worked in student life, news services, the personnel office, finance, earned a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies, became, the first assistant and then the second director of fundraising, earned a Master of Education degree, served on countless committees, won awards, became the university archivist, and finally spent a long time at the end of her career working in communications and public relations, finishing it all off — after retirement, returning for 20 hours a week, because she couldn’t stay away — as the publicist for arts events, telling the world about what was happening in, among other places on campus, the theatres.
Her passion may not have been for any one specific field, the sort of weird obsessions that lead some of us to get PhDs, but I think she was the lucky one: a person who finds rich variety in life, a person open to experience, a person who wants to get to know new and different people, new and different places, new and different ways of seeing the world. That’s what she loved about the arts, and why she took piano lessons with Dr. Graff and performed in the Piano Monster Concert, why she collected pottery and paintings by both students and faculty, why she attended every performance she could in these spaces here, whether a student-directed play or the Contemporary Dance Ensemble or a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. The arts allow us to travel through imagination, to dream new possibilities, to expand the world. A theatre is a place where people from all different backgrounds, friends and strangers, join together to create unique performances. It requires hard work, it can be challenging and frustrating, sometimes people scream at each other or burst into tears, but once the audience comes in and the lights go up, a theatre is a place of joy and wonder.
The theatre is about imagination, community, and connection. My mother loved to connect people. Indeed, that may have been her true passion. After her death, I heard from people I knew and people I had never met before who told me, “Your mother got me my first job at Plymouth,” or “Your mother helped me figure out how to stay in school,” or “Your mother introduced me to my business partner — my best friend — my spouse.” She connected people not because it would get her anything personally, but because she thought it was just the thing you do. Why wouldn’t you connect people? Why wouldn’t you be generous? She knew as well as any of us that life is short and you need to do what you can when you can. She believed in community, and believed that the best communities are ones where everybody is known, needed, and cared for.
That, too, is why she believed not just in education, but in public education. A public education, she knew, is a public good, something that is of great benefit not only to the students who earn degrees, but to the communities so deeply affected by — made possible by — the institutions of education. Education, the public good, and the community were never separate in her mind.
After her death, we had trouble finding pictures of her in the archives. Alice Staples, the Plymouth State archivist at the time, told me that the archives are full of pictures my mother took, but not very many of her herself. She would have been perfectly happy to know that; indeed, I expect it’s how she wanted it.
Which is why I know that part of her is a bit grumbly with us right now, because we all went to this effort and expense to name a theatre for her. She would have been absolutely thrilled to know that the programs here in the Silver Center will be getting good support thanks to our efforts. But I am sure that she would have thought we ought to find somebody better known, somebody more famous to name the studio theatre for — somebody, anybody other than her.
And that is exactly why her name is the perfect choice. It is not only a tribute to her. Certainly, it is that. But I don’t think this campaign would have been so successful if it were only that.
There are not a lot of spaces on campus named for staff members. Most are named for philanthropists, politicians, and the institution’s past presidents. That’s normal. But I would like us to take a moment to appreciate how wonderful it is to make a staff member’s name such a prominent part of this university.
Typically, when we think of teachers, especially college teachers, we think of people like me, who spend our lives in classrooms, who write syllabi, read student papers, grade tests, pontificate, forget various policies we ourselves created, tell far too many people with various questions to just call the Registrar’s Office, who are utterly incapable of emptying the trash can in our own offices, barely able to tie a shoe — us, you know, The Faculty.
What I learned, though, when I was a little kid bouncing around this campus while my mother was at work, and what I have seen time and again in my role as director of the very program my mother graduated from with her bachelor’s degree, is that on a college campus, everybody is a teacher. Faculty, yes, of course, but students, too, are teaching each other and teaching us.
As much as anybody, the staff at a school — at a good school, that is — the staff are also teachers. They should be recognized as such.
Teaching is not about classrooms, syllabi, tests. It is about a learning community. Staff are teachers. For many of us, they are among the most important teachers. My mother felt a little weird sometimes about earning an M.Ed. when she had never taught a class, but I think it completely makes sense. She had spent her life as a teacher, an educator. If she wasn’t a master of it, I don’t know who is.
Now, as we dedicate this theatre, as we celebrate my mother’s life and legacy, let us not forget that we are doing so after the unfathomable disruptions of a global pandemic, a situation which has forced us all to re-evaluate how education works, what we can afford, and what the public good even is. This situation has added many deep new stresses into the lives of the staff who make a university education possible. May our efforts and our celebration stand as a reminder of how little job titles and degrees really mean in the end, and of what truly matters: Community. Generosity. Experiment. Diversity. Caring. Teaching.
Let us not forget that something that makes Plymouth special is that it is a place of possibility, a place where, nearly fifty years ago, a young woman once arrived to work as a secretary, and now, here we are, naming a theatre for her.
That is what we love about Plymouth.
Let us all now teach it to the world.