Beneath a green umbrella, rain and tears falling before the press microphones, five days after finally forcing her way into The Citadel Corps of Cadets, Shannon Faulkner announced she was leaving. It became an iconic image that book-ended her battle to join the all-male public military academy.
After the stunning announcement, a broken Faulkner slipped into a car to head home to the Upstate with her father, older brother and attorney Suzanne Coe.
As Citadel cadets openly celebrated on campus, someone turned on the car radio. It was a call-in show featuring barbed comments about Faulkner quitting. The news was everywhere. The radio went off.
The silence set in.
So began the longest four hours she can recall to this day, 17 years later.
“My life had basically just fallen apart. Nobody knew what to say,” she recalls. “Everybody knew that it had taken something big happening to make me do that.”
Faulkner just wouldn’t say what it was.
With the confidence of a grown woman and a longtime teacher, she’ll say it today: Someone threatened to kill her parents if she showed up at the Corps of Cadets.
They all had received threats plenty of times by phone and mail. But this time, the threat stared her in the eye.
Faulkner showed up anyway.
She became the first female cadet at The Citadel on Aug. 15, 1995, under the escort of U.S. marshals.
The person who threatened her parents was there, too, she says. She won’t say who it was.
Despite the suffocating heat of Charleston in August, an icy fear took hold, seeping into the cracks widening in her mental health after a two-year court battle and the constant stress and hostility that had come with it.
Faulkner spent much of her single week as a cadet in the infirmary citing exhaustion from stress and psychological abuse.
By then, fear had become the norm for Faulkner and her parents.
At one point, Charleston drivers passed a sign that read “Die Shannon.” Someone drove into her parents’ mailbox, threw bottle rockets at their house and painted red vulgarities about their daughter onto it.
Yet to Faulkner, the new threat against her parents had felt different. It felt real.
But she didn’t tell anyone at The Citadel.
“We are not aware of anyone connected to The Citadel as a student or employee that made threats against Ms. Faulkner’s parents,” spokeswoman Charlene Gunnells said in a statement.
Nor did Faulkner go to the police.
She says she thought long and seriously about it. But she felt she had no allies at the school, nobody to talk to, just a wall of cold shoulders on the better days, insults and abuse on the worst.
Plus, she had no proof, just a teenager’s word and a terrifying fear that those who wanted The Citadel to remain all male harbored a distinct rage against her.
Who would believe her?
“How many 19-year-olds are asked to choose between their school and their parents?” asks Faulkner, who’s now 37. “It all came crashing down.”
So she found herself beneath that green umbrella, in a Charleston downpour, telling the world that she was leaving The Citadel.
She received 50 to 200 letters a day in the mail in the weeks after she left, most of them in support of her. Family and close friends went through the stacks to sift out the unsavory notes.
She couldn’t answer them all. And she lacked the will to try.
“I made a conscious effort to fall off the face of the Earth. I had a physical and mental breakdown. I was doing good just to be in a room with my family,” she says.
Her mother encouraged her to see a psychiatrist, which she did. But after being coached by attorneys for so long to answer simply “yes” and “no,” and after The Citadel’s attorneys subpoenaed her medical records, Faulkner could not open up.
She told her mom not to waste her money. Instead, Faulkner stuffed away memories.
She moved out of state and tried to forget.
“I lost who I was for the longest time,” she recalls. “It took me a couple of years to really find me again.”
She still felt oddly drawn to Charleston, to a place where ancient beauty intertwines with the cruel patches in its history, and to the school she had wanted so badly to be a part of.
“I was searching for something to help me move on,” she recalls.
When she returned to The Citadel, she looked for a groundskeeper who always seemed to be working nearby when she walked to and from her car alone. She went to the mess hall and the gift shop, places where she had found friendly staff during her time there.
She had felt a distinct comfort in the presence of several African-American staff and cadets. Did they see in her the isolation and harassment of the black students who integrated white schools despite the taunts of angry crowds?
She never asked them. And they never said.
But they were the rarity, even beyond The Citadel’s fortress-like white walls. Longtime family friends from high school and church, whose family included Citadel alumni, stopped talking to her. They wanted their son to go to The Citadel — an all-male Citadel.
“But you have a daughter, too,” Faulkner said.
After she left the school, she still liked to come to Charleston with friends and go to its restaurants. Often, people would recognize her. And often, they would approach her.
The most overt hostility came from other women, especially alumni’s wives and cadets’ girlfriends.
“To this day, it puzzles me. I was fighting for every woman in South Carolina,” she says.
Yet when people lit into her, she plastered on a practiced smile.
“People wanted me to argue, wanted me to fight,” she recalls. “But I refused to.”
When her friends tried to stick up for her, she’d calm them. If a brawl broke out, whose name would be in the next day’s headlines?
Determined to set out on a new path, she enrolled at Furman University. The homecoming game was against The Citadel.
She liked the school but found she didn’t click much with students fresh out of high school. She felt older, more world-weary after the court battle, press attention and harassment at the school.
“It robbed me in a lot of ways. Anything I ever did wrong, people knew about it,” she recalls. “I aged very quickly.”
She transferred to Anderson College, where she found traditional students along with older students, including some stay-at-home moms who were returning to school. It was a better fit. She dove into her dream of teaching, a dream she held on to since her childhood days when she would hold class for her stuffed animals.
“I always wanted to be a teacher,” she says. “That was my goal since Day One.”
Soon, she learned that author and Citadel alumnus Pat Conroy was paying for her tuition. He had wanted a Citadel graduate to pay for her education.
They had a quiet friendship before, and from his support she found a way to reconcile her love for The Citadel with her anger at the way she had been treated there.
“I loved The Citadel that was in my mind,” she says. “I think we’re closer to that ideal. The school is better because women are there.”
She eventually earned her master’s degree in education and began a new life in Greenville, near her parents and with a new set of friends — and a new crop of students.
One of her first principals asked bluntly: “Are you a teacher? Or are you a celebrity?”
She thought for a minute. Yes, she was a teacher now.
One assistant principal once greeted her: “Shannon Faulkner ... kind of like that girl who went to The Citadel!”
She smiled to herself.
“Not kind of like. Exactly like.”
She began teaching high school. Back then, her students and parents were keenly aware of her notoriety.
“It was fun watching kids walk by my room trying to see me,” she chuckles.
But with time, memories fade. New people dominate the news.
Later, while her class was doing research in the school library, a student ran across an old magazine with a story about her.
“Ms. Faulkner, here you are!” the student hollered. “You’re right here in this magazine!”
She still gets recognized from time to time. But where her presence used to elicit stares and whispers, today it is more often: “You look familiar ...”
Her students today weren’t even alive during her court battle.
She’s in her 14th year teaching, now in seventh-grade English at Hughes Academy of Science and Technology in Greenville. She is department chair and teacher of everything from adverbs to Shakespeare.
She hasn’t married and has no children. Instead, she devotes her energies to her students, her fellow faculty, whom she calls “my family,” and the community theater she loves. Among other roles, she recently played a 70-year-old woman in a comedy show.
“I’m very content,” she says. “I have a purpose. My purpose was never to be that female crusader. But I wouldn’t be the person I am today — I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today — without that experience.”
Most of her friends are fellow teachers who know her only as a laughing, wisecracking co-worker.
“They only know me as Shannon.”
In January, it will be 20 years since she was accepted to the school after deleting references to gender in her application. She had just turned 18.
She’s 37 today. A few years ago, she realized how many emotions and memories still teased and taunted unresolved from the recesses of her mind.
How to grasp them and organize them?
By writing. She’d always loved to write, and suddenly she felt a desire to write them all down. Today, she has written a manuscript that she compares to Conroy’s novel, “The Lords of Discipline,” drawn from his experiences at The Citadel.
About 85 percent of her manuscript is factual, she says. But there are times when she condensed people into a single character to pull the storyline together and to keep the characters undiluted.
As with desegregation, she believes her story of fighting for gender equality at The Citadel offers lessons for a broader world. And for her students.
She shared her story recently with talk-show host Oprah Winfrey once again, her second time being interviewed by the talk-show icon. The interview will air 10-11 p.m. Tuesday on “Oprah: Where Are They Now?” It’s a new series on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.
The first time Faulkner appeared with Oprah was right after she left The Citadel. She says she doesn’t remember much about the interview other than Oprah’s tremendous warmth.
“I really and truly felt safe even with all of those people there.” And at the time, she didn’t feel safe anywhere.
Yet she recalls little about what she said in that first interview when she refused to sit on stage with anyone from the school. “I wasn’t in my right mind.”
Anyone who deals with teenagers knows that homing in on adult hypocrisy is a fun sport.
But when Faulkner talks about bullying or peer pressure, she truly knows what it means to be the odd man out, to face snickers and whispers, insults and threats.
And to survive them all.
This is what she tells her students who are immersed in the stormy life transition that is middle school.
“You can have everyone against you and still make it,” she says. “The only way to give people power over you is to believe what they say.”
For instance, it still irks her when people say she could hack The Citadel for only five days. What they forget is her grueling legal battle during which the school refused to let her into the Corps of Cadets. She had to live off-campus, couldn’t wear a uniform and was the only noncadet in her classes.
“People only remember those last few days,” she says. “In that case, I’d rather they just forget my name.”
Because when they do, often it’s to applaud Nancy Mace and the other early female cadets, but to insult her own actions in forcing the change.
“It’s like, ‘We don’t mind having women here. We just didn’t want her,’ ” she says.
It even comes from other female cadets. Petra Lovetinska Seipel, one of the first two female cadets to graduate, in 2010 said of Faulkner: “She obviously didn’t have what it took.” (The other two female cadets in the first group with Mace and Seipel also left, citing harassment and threats.)
In 17 years, The Citadel has gone from the first class of four women who came after Faulkner to nearly 150 women today in the South Carolina Corps of Cadets. This year, for the second year in a row, a record number of freshmen women enrolled. And the number of female graduates is close to topping 300, Gunnells said.
“The Citadel is proud of its track record in the assimilation of women,” Gunnells said. “The legacy of The Citadel is that it produces graduates prepared to lead, who have had the values of honor, duty and respect instilled in them and who are prepared to handle any challenges they face and succeed — regardless of gender.”
Indeed, Faulkner feels great pride in being the first female cadet at The Citadel. She won a battle for women coming up behind her, including girls she now teaches who might want to become cadets themselves.
“Every girl who walks in there, whether she stays for one day or all four years, she has won.”
And, to Faulkner, that is her win as well.
Reach Jennifer Berry Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.