Barbara Payne ’08 has accomplished much in the past 40 years. Married to husband Jim Childress for 30 years, she’s raised two children, Allie and Evan. She’s an accomplished fiddler and gardener.
She even discovered a talent for handmade decorative books during a stay at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. The books often incorporate layered folded paper that can be arranged in a five-point star, such as carousel books, or accordion screens.
In spite of all her achievements, Payne felt that her life lacked focus.
“I didn’t have a direction,” she said. “I needed direction. I have tons of stuff that I love to do. I love to garden, I love to play music, I like to cook, I like to do all kinds of stuff, but I really wanted to have a focus, and I also wasn’t allowing myself to write.”
Although she enrolled at Sweet Briar in the fall of 2006 as a Turning Point scholar, Payne’s story at the school began decades earlier. In 1967 she entered the College in the Class of 1971, as a freshman from Pine Bluff, Ark. Orphaned by age 9, Payne and her sisters Karen and Deborah were shuffled between various relatives before she went to live with her eldest sister, Susan, and her husband.
Payne said she didn’t understand how devastated she was by her parents’ deaths until she arrived at college.
“I never felt like an orphan until I left home and went to college. And that was really mainly because everybody was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to call my parents’ [when] they’d get back from somewhere. There were a lot of girls from Richmond who’d go to their families on the weekend, and so I got the first sense of not having parents.”
Sweet Briar in the 1960s was drastically different from the College today. Students had to wear dresses to class. Sign-up sheets were required to leave campus, and students were allotted only four overnight visits per semester. Payne felt trapped both socially and academically at the school.
“There were a lot of things going on,” she said. “One of them was Vietnam, and I was really getting political, and Sweet Briar was very conservative at that time. It was the end of the sixties, and we couldn’t help but feel it, no matter what. Whether you were in backwater Virginia or not, it was happening.”
Academically, Payne had discovered she was far behind her classmates was in terms of study habits. She also longed for more creative outlets, and was devastated when she was passed over for a spot in professor emeritus Bill Smart’s creative writing class.
Her emotional turmoil became so great that she left college in the middle of her junior year.
“I wanted to be doing something, and I didn’t know it,” Payne said. “I sort of knew it at the time, but I didn’t know what it was.”
She spent several years “drifting.” She went to summer school in Hawaii, lived in an intentional community in North Carolina, worked in a print shop and devoted herself to various creative projects on the side. In 1974, she moved to Charlottesville and met husband Jim when both were playing “old-timey” music.
“Mainly what I wanted to do was find a place, have a family, and live the country life,” Payne said. “I was really happy being here, raising our children and having our garden and playing music.”
She took an evening creative writing class at the University of Virginia and a few classes at Piedmont Virginia Community College, but wasn’t sure she would return to Sweet Briar. Then, driving home from her son’s college graduation, it struck her that she could finish her degree and devote herself to writing at the same time.
“It was just one of those ideas that came in,” Payne said. “You know, ‘I could finish college. It would be exciting and it would be stimulating.’ I wrote Dean Green right away, and I was accepted.”
For the past four semesters, Payne has commuted twice a week from her home in Free Union, about an hour and 20 minutes from Sweet Briar. An English and creative writing major, she had no expectations about readjusting to college life.
“It wasn’t until I got into class the first week and thought, ‘Oh my gosh! I’m going to have to write term papers, and talk!’ ” she said, laughing. “The last classes I’d had were lecture-style classes, and all of a sudden I was in these upper-level classes with so few people, and I was going to have to talk and sound intelligent.”
Her anxieties about returning to school have evaporated. She’s made the dean’s list three times, and has been overwhelmed by the reception of the entire community. In particular, she credits English professors Cheryl Mares, Marcia Robertson and Eleanor Salotto with helping her to think and write critically about literature.
“They have been just as supportive as anyone with writing journals and the experimental format for papers,” Payne said. “I owe the entire English department a deep debt.”
Payne’s career at Sweet Briar won’t end at her May 10 commencement. She intends to return next fall and audit classes at the studio arts complex.
“I took Laura Pharis’ printmaking class, and etching, and I’m definitely going to take some more art classes after I graduate,” she said. “It’s such a great studio, and the stuff is all there, and I like being around the students.”
Payne also credits professors John and Carrie Brown and Dave Griffith with helping her to “get in the groove of writing.” Now that she’s allowed herself to write creatively, she hopes to apply it to her many creative pursuits, especially making decorative books.
“It’s become obvious to me that I’ve really been my biggest obstacle, and I’ve been the one preventing myself from pursuing my interests,” Payne said. “I feel like I’ve got a way into writing, and I want to combine it with making books. I see it as a really fantastic way to do both.”
— Katie Beth Ryan, ’08