She has appeared on Oprah and twice been an answer on Jeopardy!. But to the ninth graders of Woodmont High School in Piedmont, S.C., she’s just Miss Faulkner. “The kids don’t know who I am,” she says, “until their parents tell them.”
Not so long ago, of course, most everyone knew who Shannon Faulkner was after she waged a two-year legal battle to become the first female cadet at South Carolina’s Citadel military academy in 1995. Faulkner’s victory, however, turned out to be more like punishment. Fellow Citadel cadets, outraged at having a female among them, shunned Faulkner, some donning T-shirts emblazoned “1,952 Bulldogs [a reference to the school mascot] and 1 Bitch.” Just before she enrolled, Faulkner says, a stranger grabbed her in a parking lot and threatened to kill her parents. Recalls Bob Black, her former lawyer: “We could not go out to supper; we could not even take her to church. It was just brutal.”
Things would get worse before they got better. Forced to eat a heap of Beefaroni on a 100° day during The Citadel’s brutal Hell Week for incoming cadets, Faulkner threw up and suffered from heatstroke and dehydration. She spent the next five days in the infirmary before finally announcing, in front of a phalanx of reporters assembled from around the world, that she would leave. “I never cried until that last day,” she says. “But when I started, I couldn’t stop.”
Today Faulkner, 29, says she has fully rebounded from the humiliating experience. “Life is good,” she says, sprawled out on the living room floor of her parents’ home in Easley, S.C. But the road to recovery has been long. Depressed, Faulkner briefly saw a psychiatrist and tried clearing her head by moving to Norfolk, Va., but neither fix seemed to work. “What hurt the most was the number of people I thought were my friends who spoke out against me,” she says. According to her remaining friends, Faulkner became mistrustful of almost everyone. “She would be so quiet,” says her friend Donna Norman, a middle school math teacher. “It would take her two hours to relax enough to realize, These are my homies.’ ”
A year after leaving The Citadel, Faulkner enrolled in Furman University near Easley, only to discover how badly she had been scarred. “I was 21 years old, but I was not a 21-year-old kid anymore,” she says. “I wasn’t worrying about whether I was going to be asked to the sorority dance or whether I had shoes to match my dress.”
It wasn’t until Faulkner enrolled at Anderson College, a Christian school near Easley, that she started feeling like her old self—with a little help from an anonymous admirer. The relaxed climate on the small campus put her at ease. “There were homemakers returning to get their degrees, that kind of thing,” she says. “Everyone was wonderful to me.” What Faulkner didn’t know until she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1999 was that her parents—Ed, 62, who owns a fencing company, and Sandra, 58, a social studies teacher—had accepted an offer to pay Shannon’s tuition from bestselling author Pat Conroy (The Prince of Tides), a Citadel alum who had his own problems with his tradition-bound alma mater. “I wanted a Citadel man to pay for Shannon’s college education,” says Conroy. “That was important to me.” At Conroy’s request, Faulkner’s parents had decided not to tell her about her secret benefactor, who first met the family when Shannon’s lawsuit against the 161-year-old military academy was still under way.
Currently living with her parents while her own first house is nearing construction in nearby Greenville, S.C., Faulkner takes great joy in having found her true calling. “I love teaching,” she says. “Most of the kids in our school will probably not go to college, but I try to open their minds beyond videos and TV.” The poetry of Robert Frost and Shakespeare are her favorites, and when class discussions touch on intolerance or peer pressure, Faulkner proudly mentions her history. “I was tested to the utmost limit and I survived,” she says. “I can say, ‘I’m still Shannon.’ That’s one of my greatest achievements. I’m still me.”
Bob Meadows. Gail Cameron Wescott in Easley