Professor has a passion for life
Professor of English Phyllis Mannocchi had many things to say before she was asked a single question during an interview with the Echo. As many students know, this verbosity is to be expected from the woman who is filled with passion for conversation and for life in general. “Things are at the beginning of a turn here at [the College]. I can feel the spirit of the 60s,” she said. “And you know, that’s how things were for me during college. I was a part of the sit-ins, the flyers, and the protests.”
While Mannocchi has always been a legend on campus, she shared that it is her experiences as a mother, and her battle with breast cancer that have opened up a whole new perspective for her teaching.
Before coming to the College in 1977, Mannocchi completed her doctoral work at Columbia University in New York City, and was a graduate fellow at City University of New York (CUNY). In tandem with completing her doctorate, she was assigned a teaching position at Queens College, where she worked with an incredibly diverse student body. The open admissions policy that was in effect at Queens College during that time meant that any resident of the city could take college courses. In turn, this required the faculty to develop numerous writing programs for the students of different levels to succeed. “It was a very exciting time,” Mannocchi recalled. “It was one of the best learning experiences of my life because it was so practical.”
While at Queens College, Mannocchi became close with a fellow participant and poet, Marie Ponsot, who she cites as being one of the most inspiring figures in her life. “She was really such a role model who taught me the value of connection. She really taught me, and many others, how to teach writing, and our discussion group became my model for collaboration in teaching,” Mannocchi said.
In 1977, all the teachers who were not tenured at Queens were cut from the program, and Mannocchi was forced to look for another job. “I remember I had the an interview at Colby, and an interview in Colorado, and my mother made me stay on the East coast…When I came to [the College] for the interview I think I was wearing cowboy boots,” she recalled, laughing. After an incredibly successful and receptive first year, Mannocchi was convinced to stay. She was awarded tenure in 1982.
In 1988, she decided to adopt her first daughter from Haiti, Marie-Jacqueline, who goes by Jackie. “Her birth mother named her Jacqueline, and then I added Marie in honor of my grandmother, mother and best friend, who all share that name,” Mannocchi explained. “It wasn’t always easy,” she continued, “by and large this is pretty safe place, and the community has embraced her but raising black children, you see racism in front of you.”
In 1999, Mannocchi suddenly decided to adopt a second child, her son Abu, from Sierra Leone. After being particularly struck by an article about the increasingly dangerous war that was occurring then, she decided to go online and look at images. “One of the first things I pulled up was a picture of children, and I fell in love with this little boy. I thought I [was finished] adopting after my daughter, but when I saw him, I fell in love and knew I needed to have him,” Mannocchi said.
This decision marked the beginning of a long journey filled with tedious paperwork. When Mannocchi got word that the orphanage in Sierra Leone had been bombed, she and the four other families who were adopting decided to fly to Africa to retrieve the children, not knowing how much trauma they had sustained, nor that they had walked 90 kilometers to take refuge in Guinea. Mannocchi took Jackie with her. “It really became quite an adventure,” she said. After two weeks, she was able to leave with Abu, although it would take him two years really warm up to her and see her as a mother.
In 2002, Mannocchi was diagnosed with breast cancer. In order to cope with her condition, she met with groups of people battling cancer who would discuss their stories and responses to treatments. Her chemotherapy proved extremely debilitating. “I was so upset. I couldn’t read, I couldn’t watch movies, I couldn’t do anything,” Mannocchi recalled. However, after an amazing recovery, Mannocchi is now able to see life differently: “Adopting my kids and having breast cancer turned [me] around. It really transforms you. Now I’m able to live every day to the fullest.”
It was this illness that inspired Mannocchi to organize the Sundance JanPlan trip, which Mannocchi has led six times. Mannocchi takes a class to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah each winter as part of her JanPlan class. “I had to look ahead to something I really wanted to do, and that was it,” she explained. “This is really the best experience where you get to know your students,” she added.
When asked about current scholarly endeavors, Mannocchi named a few major projects. She is working on a scholarly piece about a female artist and a female writer. Also, after purchasing a mysterious letter off of eBay, she and a student are uncovering the life of African American preacher Jonas Holland Townsend, who allegedly attended the College, but was suspended for drinking and gambling. “I love archives, I’m always looking for links and trying to fill in all the background,” she said energetically. She also plans to write a novel based on her own childhood in an Italian community in Philadelphia, though she sees this as a project for her retirement.
The most inspiring people in Mannocchi’s life include feminist Adrian Rich, and aforementioned Marie Ponsot. he also named her Italian grandmother, who raised her, spoke very little English and faced much adversity assimilating into American culture. Mannocchi makes it known that she is proud of her Italian roots and the bond she shared with the grandmother.
While it is clear Mannocchi has come a long way, what remains even more apparent is the profound impact she has had on the College community, specifically her students. It is certain that she will continue to have a presence on the Hill, long after she has decided to move into the next phase of her life, whenever that may be.