A Portrait of Claireve Grandjouan

Helaine L. Smith

Claireve Grandjouan, when I knew her, was Head of the Classics Department at Hunter College, and that year gave a three-hour Friday evening class in Egyptian archaeology.

She was filling in for someone else and had taught herself hieroglyphics for just this purpose. I needed additional graduate credits that were not in English Literature and had attended and enjoyed a series of four lectures she had given the preceding fall at the Museum of Natural History on the Lascaux Caves. Among her slides was something quite extraordinary—baskets of fruit and grains, vegetables and meats, representing the likely diet of Paleolithic man—something which she had researched in preparation for that lecture series and had gone to the trouble and expense of assembling and photographing—so that we, her random audience, might experience the past in greater vividness. She was in addition a marvelous lecturer. So I enrolled in her Egyptian archaeology course to supplement my Lit credits.

Aside from learning words like “cartouche” and “palette,” I encountered the delightful linguistic fact that some ancient Pharoah had written a book of advice to his son in which a sentence about proper administration appeared, using the hieroglyph for “great” three times, each time with a different meaning: “Great is he,” it began, “whose Great men are Great” (“Renowned and powerful is he whose administrators are men of integrity and vision”).

What I have never forgotten in the forty odd years since that class are two things—that we went on trips to the Met in New York and by bus to Philadelphia, but that Professor Grandjouan wanted us to visit the Fine Arts Museum in Boston because of its extraordinary Egyptian collection. For some reason, I could not go with Professor Grandjouan and the class on the Sunday bus to Boston, so she gave me the Xerox handout and I went by myself the previous Sunday. As I was looking at a museum case inside of which was a miniature wooden boat with tiny rowers, excavated from a royal tomb, I turned and there was Professor Grandjouan. “What are you doing here?” I blurted out, since she surely knew the collection like the back of her hand. “Just making sure everything is in its place,” she smiled, and we walked together for a while and then went our separate ways. It was a stunning lesson to me—that someone, of such expertise, could care so much about the smallest details as to make a double trip.

The other thing I remember is that we had a prepared question as part of our final exam and that when she returned the exams, she called out ten names and asked us to come up to her desk at the end of the class. When we assembled, she said something remarkable for its lovely innocence and belief in the supreme importance of learning. “You all got A’s, so I thought you’d like to meet each other.” We, of course, had no interest whatsoever in making friends, and after a polite moment or two dispersed.

She died a few years later, of cancer, and I knew someone who taught Latin evenings in her department at Hunter College. He said she had been in the final stages of cancer but had told no one. It was June and when two of her colleagues hadn’t heard from her in a day or so, they went to her apartment. She was on her bed, with her wallet and papers neatly placed beside her, and next to that, all of her final exams graded and ready to be returned.

It is hard, even at a gap of forty-five years, to write this with equanimity. Here was someone of courage and nobility, someone who wanted to be a trouble to no one, and who, whatever pain she was experiencing, was determined to finish every task. She had mentioned, when our class had toured the Egyptian galleries at the Met, a grave stele of a young girl with doves in the adjacent Greek gallery that she thought particularly beautiful. In later years I spent time looking at that stele and ultimately wrote about it for Arion. Her admiration of it made me want to see in it what she saw. In this and in all else, she represented what great teaching is.


Photo by Dmitrii Zhodzishskii on Unsplash

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