I stepped into the auditorium. The space seemed cavernous–high ceilings, hundreds of white chairs, and a single podium up front, a podium that was not nearly big enough to hide behind. I took a deep breath and stepped inside.
The room was empty, but felt safe. It was my first professional meeting–the Society for American Archaeology in 2004 in Montreal and I was overwhelmed. There were thousands of archaeologists and they all seemed to know each other. I had just been working long days on a big site in Kerrville, Texas, and felt grubby and callused–very removed from the high-falutin’ academic talk that surrounded me.
I walked up to the podium in the empty room and did what my mother told me to do: “get into the room early and practice giving your talk at least twice.” The paper was printed in big font, double spaced, a few corrections here and there. In my own scrawled handwriting across the top–SMILE. I lowered the microphone to my height, wincing at the screeching sounds that it made, and started to speak.
I was about half-way through when the door way at the back of the auditorium cracked open, then closed shut, and then, more slowly, opened again. I couldn’t really see who it was, but that didn’t matter; I didn’t know anyone anyway. As soon as she–I could see that it was an older woman at this point, made it about half-way down the aisle, I apologized and said that I was just practicing. She said it was fine and made her way to the front row. I was nervous, but if I couldn’t give my talk to one woman, how could I give it to a whole audience?
While I droned on, she settled into her seat and pulled out her own sheaf of papers. She was writing rapidly, but not frantically, crossing out some words and re-writing others. I tried to ignore her as I hurried on with my talk.
At some point I noticed her pen stop, then drop, and she looked up from her paper. I was speaking about feminist lineages in archaeology; how as an undergraduate I benefitted from strong female leaders in archaeology and their students becoming teachers of a new generation (and supermajority) of women in the field. And she, this woman in the first row, was listening.
I finished and she stood up and clapped loudly, congratulating me for speaking so clearly and well. We chatted for a little while, about my paper topic, and she gave me further advice about conference presentations and academia. I honestly don’t remember most of the rest of the session–I was still very nervous–but to this day I remember her kindness, her encouragement, and her generosity. She didn’t have to mentor me, she could have kept working on her paper, but she took a moment for a nervous, nobody undergraduate. I glanced at her name tag, but it meant nothing to me at the time…until I googled her later.
Thank you, Elizabeth Brumfiel (1945-2012).
Please read Rosemary Joyce’s post, which gives you a better perspective on just how amazing Elizabeth Brumfiel was: