The prospect of briefing college administrators on one’s menstrual habits may seem invasive and weird, but legend holds that Barnard used to demand such of its students. Eager to discover if this procedure was something other than an urban myth, I headed over to Lehman Library to browse the archives. To my delight (bewilderment? dismay?), the PE department records did not disappoint: the Barnard administration appears to have a history of tracking its students’ periods for roughly the first half of the 20th century. According to a PE manual issued to students in 1941, students were required to make up classes missed due to periods and “form a habit of filling the menstrual slip at the end of every menstrual period in the boxes provided in the locker rooms of Barnard Hall and in Office 209.”
My quest for the elusive menstrual slip produced piles of papers on Barnard’s period policies. These included a “menstrual record card” from 1917, on which students were given a 365-day chart to map out their periods, and several PE handbooks from later years that forbade pool use and discouraged strenuous physical activity during menstruation. “Menstrual report card” slips from 1926 and 1931 asked for the dates of the beginning and cessation of the period, and whether the student felt any pain.
It’s understandable why the College might need such information for medical purposes, but incoming students were already asked about menstruation in their health forms, which begs the question: why the hell was Barnard keeping tabs on its students’ periods? The best explanation I could think of was to stop students from faking to skip class. But the archive reveals evidence of a health obsession at early 20th century women’s colleges, likely a response to the apparently widely held worry that higher education was hazardous to women’s reproductive health. As a popular book entitled A Fair Chance For Girls warned, “a girl could study and learn but she could not do all this and retain ... a future secure from neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria, and other derangements of the nervous system.” Science!
Upon first spotting the pigeon man, I had never before heard mention of his presence on campus. A shocking fact, considering that the sight of an elderly man sprawled across one of the enclosed lawns on college walk is not a common one. Surrounded by a flock of the detested grey and purple birds, he reclined in the grass, his leg extended in the air, birdseed packed in between his toes. As I walked by, late for French, he wiggled his leg back and forth in an effort to better spur the interest of the birds.
For the next several days, the pigeon man spotting was my favorite story, but of all the people I told, only two had never heard of him before. The majority would just nod quickly, “Oh yeah, the pigeon man,” as if he were as natural an element on campus as high school tour groups. With this knowledge, I noticed the pigeon man popping up everywhere that I looked. lnstagram posts compared his variety of poses to fine art. A series of photos shot near sunset highlighted his bizarre bird-feeding poses as if modern dance.
Apparently he is an old Russian man who speaks not a word of English. Apparently he has rotten teeth. Apparently he’s actually a very well-respected professor at NYU. Or an artist. I’ve yet to meet anyone who has spoken to him personally, but everyone seems to be sure that they know at least a little bit about his character. Some claim to know his bird-feeding schedule like clockwork.
Yet the hours I spent staking out his “usual” spot on campus, and investigating every large swarm of pigeons for its origination, proved fruitless. In the little over a month that I tried to track him down again, I apparently missed him no less than a dozen times. One night, I crumbled a stale John Jay roll into pieces and scattered them around me, hoping that if I could not attract the pigeon man, I could, at the very least, get some pigeons together myself. But as breadcrumbs gathered at my feet, l failed to draw even one bird. Perhaps the pigeon man is an artist after all.
“Activism can be about the journey rather than the arrival.” One might expect to hear this from a paternalistic administrator, a devil’s advocate Spec columnist, or a jaded tenured professor. Few would expect to see those words displayed proudly in Hewitt Dining Hall.
The quote, attributed to Barnard alumna and celebrated labor, civil rights, and Black Power activist Grace Lee Boggs, is the centerpiece of Hewitt’s newly installed mural. Painted below the quote is a mass of Barnard protesters, marching down Broadway with signs and bullhorns in hand. Physically able blondes, brunettes, and redheads dominate the painting, although a few students don hijab and one is using a wheelchair. The east side of Broadway is painted in a jarring neon pink and the city skyline features a jet-black, phallic Empire State Building. One activist holds a camera that has somehow managed to find a bare butt within the crowd.
The mural was designed and executed by recent Barnard alumna, Amrita S. Singh, BC ’14. Knowing that she would not capture the city’s horizon accurately, she distorted the scene intentionally and focused her attention elsewhere, incorporating bright colors to attract attention to the mural’s less than ideal location in the back corner of the dining hall. She was inspired by her favorite artist Van Gogh’s “synesthetic use of colors that you can almost feel,” she says. The butt was meant to be a subtle reference to herself—a visual manifestation of her initials. “Clearly, it wasn’t [subtle],” Singh said, “especially since it’s eye-level.”
While one might counter that the students depicted in the mural were specifically aimed at results, not the journey, Singh insists that she wholeheartedly believes in the motto. The piece, said Singh, was inspired by the “strength and power” exuded by students at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. Maybe her execution didn’t match up to expectations, but the mural quote presumably affirms that that fact doesn’t devalue Singh’s honest effort. As her favorite artist once said, “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?”