Freshman Year in College. What could go wrong?

After I was all moved into my college dorm, my parents took me out to eat before they braved the five-hour trip back to Long Island. My father made a little speech that I thought contained too much advice I wouldn’t need. Then they got in their station wagon, and I waved to them from the sidewalk. I was on my own, a college freshman, negotiating through one of the most turbulent years in American history — 1968. What could go wrong?

Once all the college orientation exercises were over — after we’d been on campus a few days — classes started. I was afraid that might happen.

Let’s be clear. I wasn’t against learning. I simply had other priorities, and there were just so many hours in a day. I seemed to be driving young men crazy, a new phenomenon for me. The more I attracted attention, the better I got at it. It was almost mathematical. Or — to put it another way — I probably would have been picked first or second in Square Dancing if such a thing existed in college. Definitely in the top five.

Although Cortland was still steeped in traditions like fraternities and panty raids, the undercurrent of social change was undeniable. I first noticed it inside the classroom.  I’m sure my parents thought they could count on strict rules about attendance and grading in exchange for the tuition money they were shelling out. But the old rules weren’t resonating with younger teachers who were walking into class, their hands in their pockets and humming Dylan tunes.

One of them, a young man who taught English 101, would come in late and sit cross-legged on his desk and say, “So, what do you guys want to talk about today?” The answer was hardly ever subject-verb agreement.

Another started the semester like this: “I don’t believe in taking attendance.” Now this was a system I could work with.

Unfortunately, these same professors who seemed so cool still believed in midterms and finals. And in November, when that first exam loomed, I discovered it was much harder to absorb 250 pages of text in one sitting than I thought. I cracked the virginal binding of my Sociology book at 11 PM the night before my 9 AM exam. Within an hour, I was erupting in sobs.

My roommate, Randi, heard me — perhaps the reason I chose space in the hall, right outside our room. She padded out in her bathrobe and fuzzy slippers. She was taking the same course with the same professor but had chosen a different route early in the semester. At first her attention to detail had annoyed me.

After dinner, she’d say things like, “See you later. I’m going to the library.” Sometimes she actually used the word homework, and I’d want to shake some sense into her.

“Come on,” I’d think, as if she were a little sister who didn’t know any better. “We’re in college. There is no homework in college.”

This night made it Randi’s turn to talk. She sat down in one of the lounge chairs.

“I have outlines,” she said softly. They’ll help us. Don’t cry.”

And 47 years later I can see her fuzzy pink slippers.  And hear her say, “Okay, so let’s start with an independent variable…”

The Girl Formerly Known as “Brillo Head”

To understand how surprised I was on my first day of college,

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you needed to know me at 13.

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A lot went on in those five years between 8th grade and my first day as a college freshman. Maybe ours was the last generation to have suffered through so much awkwardness in one lifetime. These days, girls at 13 are adorable. Maybe it’s hormones in the meat or global warming. Whatever it is, I’m happy for them.

All I know is that it took me a long time to climb out of a space where neighborhood boys no longer saw me coming and began collaborating on what name they would shout out. By my 16th birthday, my public humiliation phase seemed to be waning.  I felt I had a future as someone’s girlfriend, but most of that was wishful thinking.

In summer 1967, my mother and I were doing college tours. We were on a country road in upstate New York. We had left one state school (Oneonta) and were on our way to the next (Cortland). The radio reception was pitiful, but I kept trying, my hand on the dial. All of a sudden, there was Jim Morrison singing, “You know that it would be untrue . . . you know that I would be a liar.”

This was a little racy for my mother, and I knew it. I thought of changing the station. But I figured her mind would be elsewhere and she’d be tuned out long before Jim wanted me to light his fire.

No such luck. She was listening, and the lyrics jolted her.

She attempted an impromptu talk, the kind where I tried to get the car seat to absorb my body and pretend this wasn’t happening. What she came up with surprised me though. It was much different than her lecture after the “Your Changing Body” movie in 6th grade. That talk had zeroed in on what was about to happen to parts of my body I hadn’t yet located.

This one was oddly vague.

Boys could certainly be a problem, she told me, but she didn’t think they would be a problem for me. My mother hadn’t yet noticed that I was no longer standing in the shadows at dances. She was still bracing for some mean boys to call me names connected to smelly zoo animals. Or — their perennial favorite — “Brillo Head.”

And even though my hair was now blonde and shiny, and no one had called me ugly for a long time, I wondered if she was right.

Freshman move-in day at Cortland State –September, 1968 — was sunny and warm, with no inkling that in six weeks it would be snowing. Football and soccer players were given the day off from practice to help freshman girls move in. They were a swarm of handsome, affable types, dressed in jackets and ties.

“Please, let me take that box for you!” His name was Jack. He was talking to my mother.

“Oh, that’s so sweet!” She giggled. Really. My mother giggled. We were getting on the elevator in Alger Hall when he told us he played soccer. By the time we got up to my floor, she was saying, “Oh, you’re a goalie!” There were several trips up and down, during which Jack never let my mother carry anything heavier than a bottle of shampoo.

When we were finished, my father pulled a dollar from his wallet. “Oh, no sir. Thanks, but not necessary!”

Then he turned his attention to me. “You should come to our first game on Saturday. It’s at two. I’ll look for you.”

My parents — off to the side and listening intently — beamed.

Jack shook my father’s hand. My parents looked over at me, as if to say, Well, isn’t he a fine young man. He would never do any of the things we didn’t think it necessary to tell you about because, well, we weren’t prepared for this particular moment.

Their little Brillo Head had finally made it. They weren’t worried. Not one bit.