The Magic of a Re-Admit

I arrived at my empty classroom and started rehearsing. It was my first day teaching a college class, and I felt the need for a dramatic opening line. I waited until my English 101 students had all filed in and sat down. I probably cleared my throat. “Ladies and gentleman, from this room you can go anywhere.” So an hour into my new career, and I had already walked away with the Full-of-Yourself Award.

For the first few weeks, my classes hummed along, and I believed my own hype. Then in the second month, several students dropped out. Then a few more disappeared. I liked the word “attrition” because it made it easier to forget their faces: The quiet, studious kid, who took copious notes but never came back when the paper was due. The young man who worked the night shift and couldn’t get out of bed for class. The ones who ran out of money or succumbed to their addictions or didn’t want to be there in the first place.

I blamed myself. A colleague, who had long since stopped taking it personally, took me aside and said, “Look, this is community college. Lots of kids bail.”

It didn’t help.

When I added tutoring in the college’s Writing Center a few hours a week, it became a panacea. I no longer got involved in students’ lives. In and out they filed, wanting an hour of my time, just a little slice of my expertise. “Can you help me fix this paper?” they’d say, and I would, and then the next person would sit down.

On the morning I met Annie, I spotted her leaning against the doorway, deciding if she should enter. Her head was shaved on one side, showing off dozens of piercings on her left ear. She wore army fatigue pants and thick black boots. A tee shirt tight across her chest bore the name and logo of a rock band I’d never heard of, for good reason. As she sat down, I realized she was anxious. She pushed three sheets of paper across the table and said nothing.

I started reading. Sometimes students plagiarized and made it easy for me. I could just hand it back to them and say something like, “Uh…William Faulkner wrote this,” and they would feign disgust and storm out.

But Annie’s essay didn’t have the telltale hints that it had been lifted from someone else. It was her work, and (okay, by community college standards) it was brilliant. Not only had she written this little gem, but she wanted to make it better. I didn’t want to fix everything. I wanted her to come back. The next week she showed up early.

Annie was a “re-admit,” someone who had dropped out years ago, and was now giving it another try. Tutoring was bumpy in those first few weeks. At times she seemed so frustrated with herself that I was afraid she’d give up and be sucked back into her old life. I lost track of how often I reached for clichés about Rome being built. But every Tuesday and every Thursday, there she’d be at the door. And then she’d step in and get to work.

After a few months, she was still coming to the Writing Center, but I was running out of things to teach her. One day the Director of the Center, a woman who’d been teaching community college students for thirty years, sat at the next table waiting for her appointment to show (or not). Annie and I were working on her latest paper. I leaned over, and, as casually as I could muster, said to the director, “Would you mind looking at this?”

I watched her eyes get bigger as she read. She looked at Annie and asked, “Did you write this?” Annie nodded.

She smiled. “Then we need to find you a better college.”

That would come, and when it did, it would be on a full scholarship. From there she was accepted into an English PhD program at a university. If she cared — and I’m not sure she did — she now had all the trailing ivy and Gothic towers she could ever want. She kept in touch. I was no longer qualified to give her advice on anything she was writing. That elated me.

When her dissertation was finished, she landed the only teaching position she wanted. Every fall, I picture the first day of the semester there, her nervous students waiting for their professor, in a classroom two doors down from the Writing Center. No grand and bloated opening line for Annie. All she has to say is, “I have a story to tell you.” And I bet that’s just the way it happens.

 

Back from “The Real World”

Central New York has the same joke as Wisconsin and Minnesota. “We have two seasons: winter and bad sledding.”

It’s not true. Spring and summer are magical where I went to college, and that’s good because it helps you overlook the jolt you feel when the sleet arrives full force after Labor Day. I arrived back on campus in late June, relieved to be finished with the complexities of life in the city, and ready to tackle summer school. My roommate, Julie, wouldn’t be at our apartment until September, so for the first time in my life, I was living alone.

If you’d known me as a freshman or sophomore, and we happened to meet on campus that summer, you would have been able to see I was no longer the shallow coed who flitted from boyfriend to boyfriend. Mostly because I would have told you so. And for anyone who remembered my short-lived Power-to-the-People phase, I would not have screamed in your ear about Nixon’s war machine either.

I may, however, have been a little too full of unsolicited advice when it came to what I’d learned over the last year in New York City, or — as I called it — The Real World. Walking to class or in the grocery store, I found lots of people who knew me, and I never seemed to be at a loss for words. I noticed no one ever said, “Wow! Fascinating! Why don’t we go for coffee later and you can tell me more about how you’ve conquered the universe?”

Eventually, I came to recognize the bored looks on people’s faces and figured I had summer session to get my feet wet in a new style of shutting the hell up.

My apartment was a fraction of what had been an enormous house at the turn of the twentieth century, probably full of children and the small staff needed to run a proper home. It stood at the top of a hill on Prospect Terrace, a name just full of all the gilded-age optimism rich people had. This neighborhood was once full of business owners or the town’s best doctors and lawyers. The slate roof had long ago been replaced with something cheap, and now the paint was peeling, and the evergreens hugging the front porch were rangy and overgrown.

By the time I moved in the summer of 1971, the house was a conglomeration of apartments and single rooms for rent, with suspect wiring and kitchen cabinets bought at auction. I didn’t care if the corners were dingy. I didn’t care that it seemed I was the only one living in this three-story mansion, except in the middle of the night when the wind blew and the house groaned.

The first week went off without a hitch. How many times in my life have I said that? I went to my new classes, bought the books, and settled in. Nothing to it. I spent early mornings sitting on the steps off the back porch, drinking instant coffee in a handmade mug with a broken-off handle. I kept the music — usually Laura Nyro — turned up as loud as I wanted. I looked forward to afternoons hunched over my typewriter, making sense of convergent validity for my Child Psych paper, and I wondered why I hadn’t done it this way from the beginning.

After my first tests, I called my parents with the news. “I got an A on both of them!”

I’m pretty sure they misheard me and thought I’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature because their reaction was way over the top. The year I’d spent as a college dropout was tough on them. They would be overly thrilled at every increment until the first notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” rang out two years later and I marched into the field house in my cap and gown.

I started to wilt in Week 3 of this new life. How many times have I said that in my life? It was late afternoon, and I was reading the paper on the back porch. I’d gotten used to the silence from being the only tenant in a house with 20 rooms. But then I started thinking how nice it would be to share these summer nights with someone. And by “someone,” of course, I meant a man.

An hour later, I heard something come up the winding gravel driveway. A pickup truck rumbled into view and cautiously made the right turn behind the house, toward the bank of garages that had once been a carriage house. Evan Callahan turned off the engine and jumped out.

“Greetings!” He said the word as he moved his entire forearm in a semi-circle.

He would be living here, too, in an apartment on the other side of the house from mine. His was a small studio he was going to share with a roommate, who wouldn’t be in town until September either. So now there were two of us, and I liked the idea. With creaking walls on windy nights, it would be nice to know I wasn’t alone. And now if I found mice in my kitchen, I’d have someone to kill them for me. The Real World hadn’t taught me anything about rodents.

I said, “I made some stew. Are you hungry?”

The Cellist’s Wife and Me

Paul and I started looking for our own place for a couple of reasons. Paul’s mother rolled her eyes at everything we said. We were getting snubbed in the elevator, even by the man in the uniform whose job it was to make chatty small talk and push the buttons for us. We were done with the Apthorp.

We saw ourselves baking bread and sweating out hot nights in a crumbling walk-up apartment in the East Village where garbage pick-up might be iffy. But those apartments were scarce.

Finally, Paul’s mother called in a favor from friends, a couple she knew about 20 blocks away. He was a famous cellist and they owned a second, smaller apartment in their building, which they’d bought for their daughter. But she was in Barcelona, taking pottery classes and drinking white cava in the afternoons, and it didn’t look like she’d be home soon. It was ours to rent.

The good news: it was closer to Columbia and Harlem.

The bad news: it was on Riverside Drive and the cellist and his wife were filthy rich. We couldn’t lose a doorman or an elevator operator no matter what we did.

Paul was pleased that at least our apartment only had two windows. They faced the brick wall of the next building, a few feet away. It always seemed like it was 4 PM on a cloudy day no matter what the weather.

We were firm in the set-up of our new space. No furniture in the living room, just a few mattresses, so we could invite friends in to discuss anything that needed discussing and give them a place to sleep if they needed one.

After a few weeks, even Paul tired of the dreariness, and we tacked up some posters. And once the walls didn’t look like a subway station anymore, we bought Indian print bedspreads for the mattresses. We thought a chair or two wouldn’t really make us total sell-outs, as long as they weren’t comfortable.

Paul still wanted to pretend we were living in a corner of the Port Authority. The irony weighed on me in a pre-war building with a doorman, but six months into the relationship, I had a deep-pocket investment. I had dropped out of college to be with him, much to the anguish of my parents. They wondered if I’d ever amount to anything without a college diploma. They didn’t love the sex part either.

Once a month I took the elevator to the top floor to pay our rent. The cellist’s wife always seemed to be cooking when I arrived, often wiping her hands with a dish towel as she answered the door.

“Let me get you a receipt,” she’d say as she padded barefoot to her desk. This always gave me time to study the photographs on the baby grand piano, arranged in a clever pattern that made you think it was haphazard. One was of the cellist standing arm in arm with Pablo Casals on a beach. In another he was shaking hands with President Kennedy.

Their living room was full of leather sofas and cozy armchairs upholstered in yellow and blue patterned stripes and checks. Tall potted plants soaked up all the sun that came through their windows. I thought of asking her if I could pay the rent every two weeks — just to be in that space more often and absorb her graciousness — but I sensed it would be taken as weird. And more than anything, I wanted her to be happy to see me on the first of the month.

When word got out we weren’t living at the Apthorp anymore, Paul’s friends from all parts of the country began knocking. Some would stay the day, but others might still be underfoot a week later.

By early spring, everything about Manhattan exhausted me. I hated crowds, I discovered, which made sharing a small island with eight million people a little tricky. While Paul still wanted to cure the world, I’d discovered walking through Bloomingdales at lunchtime did wonders for my middle-of-the-day blues. And then there was my platonic love affair with the cellist’s wife and her glorious living room.

One night someone named “Chicago Tom” was giving a mini-lecture about the travesty of the Yale University endowment. He was eating the last of the chili I was hoping to have for dinner. I went to the bedroom, closed the door, and turned on “Let’s Make a Deal.” The discussion from the living room droned on. I was hungry. My days in the Revolution were over.

The next morning I said out loud what I’d been thinking for weeks. “I’m tired of your friends.” It didn’t go over well.

I decided a college degree wouldn’t be such a smudge on my character after all. I called my parents.

Two weeks later my father — on time as always — pulled up in front. I would stay with my parents for a few weeks and then get back to Cortland for summer school. We started loading my belongings into the back of the station wagon. I was weepy. Paul was, too.

“Maybe we should reconsider,” one of us said, but I don’t remember which one. He let go of me. I got in the car.

Love in the Revolution

What the student strike had in worthy causes — the escalation of the war and the killings at Kent State — it sometimes lacked in organization. With no cell phones and no social media, trying to mobilize people to their respective corners was a challenge. Each speech or every time 50 people walked in one direction on campus took on guerrilla importance.

I reported to my parents that I was learning more from teach-ins and caucuses than I’d ever learned in classrooms. This no doubt pleased them abundantly. They humored me, thinking it was a phase. I dug in harder, adding a new –ism to my vocabulary every few hours. Imperialism, paternalism, asceticism. You get the idea. I don’t think I yet knew the word “dilettante,” which might have slowed my roll a bit.

On the second day of the strike, tensions were high. More speeches. Much more chanting. Fewer peace signs, more angry fists in the air. I was taking a shortcut through the Old Main building and passed by the auditorium just as a loud eruption of applause came through the doors. I should probably know about this, I thought, not having any idea what this was.

Behind the podium was one of the strike leaders. I recognized him by his long curly hair, which I’d admired the day before. Whoever he was, he was igniting this crowd. His wire-rimmed glasses rested on his prominent nose as he spoke without notes. I thought he was brilliant, and — looking back — he may have been. One thing was clear. I’d never passed him in the hallway of a fraternity party.

During one of the audience’s loud chants and extended cheers, I asked the person next to me if she knew his name.

She said “Paul Goldberg” as if maybe I’d spent the semester in a cave.

A couple of days later, Cortland — knowing it had lost control of all the students now yelling, “Strike! Strike! Strike!”  — announced it would close early for the semester. And, in triumph, everyone began making arrangements to leave campus and travel to other places and be radical and revolutionary in locales that mattered more.

I set out to meet Paul Goldberg before he left town.

I was walking downtown when I spotted him a block away. If that sounds one single bit coincidental, it was not. I believe the latter-day word for what I did is classified as stalking, about which there are now laws in place.

He was alone. I began to follow him. I was rehearsing opening lines when he turned onto a residential street. It looked like the part of town Paul Goldberg would live in. A little seedy, but he might call it “being with the people,” or any number of phrases I thought he might say. Then suddenly he took another turn. I realized he was walking to the door of his apartment.

He was five steps away from being gone forever.

“Excuse me.”

He turned, and there I was. All at once I could tell this was new territory for Paul Goldberg. My guess is that never in his life had the pretty blonde girl who dated lacrosse players moved in on him quite so aggressively. Or moderately aggressively. Or at all.

“I just wanted to tell you that I was in Old Main when you were giving your speech the other day. And it was the greatest speech I’ve ever heard.”

It wasn’t much but it was all I had. Specifics or critique would have just gotten me in trouble. I went with the broad stroke.

He was wide-eyed.

“Thanks.”

“Well, that’s it really.” I paused a bit but his mouth was still slightly open, and he didn’t look like he was going to say anything more.

“So, uh, have a good day,” I said as I turned and started back toward Main Street.

With every step I was silently saying, Please Please Please Please. Please, Paul Goldberg, this is our last chance to be together until the end of time. Say something.

“Wait a minute!”

Ah.

[Up next Thursday: The Phone Call That Didn’t Go Well]

It was 1970. I Was Late to the Revolution

My sophomore year in college continued in the tradition of my freshman year. Socially, I was golden. Academically, I counted on short bursts of manic studying with equal parts dumb luck and using my charm whenever I could. By spring, I was squeaking by. Barely.

I looked like the same girl who had arrived on campus two years before. My wardrobe of choice was one of the miniskirts my mother had made me, a matching headband, and a blouse I was sure rendered me “cute.” I slept every night with my hair in rollers so big it was amazing I didn’t throw my spine out of alignment.

April 30, 1970, at the tail end of sophomore year, I decided to get serious about grades. This Hail Mary maneuver happened every semester, but I sensed I was in more trouble than usual. I was studying. But then I got hungry and walked to the Student Union for a slice of pizza.

There was a crowd fixated on the television there. I couldn’t see the screen.

“What is it?” I asked the person next to me.

“Nixon just invaded Cambodia.”

Lots of short sentences have changed the course of my life. “Let’s get married,” was one. “You’re pregnant,” was one. “Try it,” was one.

“Nixon just invaded Cambodia” is up there with all of them.

Here’s where I go off on a little tangent about my generation’s place in history. This is what makes Baby Boomers annoying to anyone who came before or after us. But the truth is, when we were teenagers, so much came shooting at us all at once. Things gave way.

The war had been going on since we were in junior high school. Most of us knew someone — or knew someone who knew someone — whose life had been thrown into utter chaos because of it. Some had a closer view of the loss. Some were the lost.

All of this happened: Four girls killed in a Birmingham Church. Protestors crossing the Pettus Bridge. Goodman, Schwerner, Chaney. The March on Washington. Stokely Carmichael rose up and shouted “Black Power” for the first time.

My senior year in high school witnessed the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and then Robert Kennedy nine weeks later. Trusting the universe, something 1950s kids were really good at, became harder to do.

And as women, the role we’d been taught to believe was coming our way was not coming our way, it turned out. We would not get married weeks after college graduation. We would not become housewives and have babies in our early 20s, the way our mothers had. And we’d have a lot more sex. Our mothers did not like that part at all. So we felt jubilant some of the time and guilty the rest.

As soon as Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia that night,  several groups — all with differing agendas — started forming outside, loud and angry. They ranged from “America, Love it or Leave it” to a less structured group chanting “Drop Acid, Not Bombs!” And a few in between, with messages harder for me to glean. It was a political smorgasbord. I had a lot of catching up to do.

In the next few days, I listened to speeches and read as much as I could. I irritated friends by lifting slogans, sometimes complete paragraphs, from works I didn’t fully understand. I wrote my parents terrible letters about how horrified I was that we were middle class. My mother wrote back: “Would you rather be upper class or lower class?” and I screamed at her into the phone that she’d missed the entire point — in fact she missed every point of my entire life.

Cortland, like almost every campus in America, had upended. We were officially on strike. I had a fleeting moment of worry about my grades. As always, I’d been counting on a miraculous showing during exam week to carry me through. Finals wouldn’t happen now.

I had to put aside childish worries, like grades or what my parents thought. I had more serious commitments now, a revolution to join. I jumped. No parachute.

[Next Thursday: Love in the Revolution]

General Hospital, Baking Pies, and Why I Never Made Dean’s List

My list of college accomplishments was short. I was guilty of falling in and out of love hard and spending too much time in front of my mirror. I didn’t have a clue how to balance a check book or to begin writing a term paper any sooner than the night before it was due. All true.

But thanks to my cousin, Kathy, I learned to bake a pie while I was in college. I’m putting that down as my #1 achievement, sad as that may sound to those of you who made Dean’s List. I’ll own it.

As kids, Kathy and I grew up a few miles from each other on Long Island. We shared family meals and holidays. We spent shimmery afternoons playing hide-and-seek in the apple orchard across from her house. Now, by coincidence, we had both relocated to Cortland. I was a student (at least some of the time), and she was a young wife and mother.

I’ll blame this on her, but it surely could have been my fault: Somehow, we got hooked on General Hospital.  Since I didn’t own a TV, I would stop by her apartment a few afternoons a week to see what was happening in Port Charles. She would put her son down for his nap. After the scintillating dialogue and plot twists had consumed an hour, we’d tiptoe past her sleeping toddler’s room and go to the kitchen.

She would make a pie. I was her helper, doing the easy jobs, like whisking the flour and sugar together or coaxing ice water from cubes. Kathy would use her pastry blender to cut in the shortening. Then her fingers — quick and deliberate — to form tiny pebbles of dough before she would begin drizzling in the water.

Kathy came from a home where my aunt made everything from scratch, even brioche French toast. My mother was most comfortable reaching for an easy fix in the freezer and had a whole comedy routine about it. She called herself “The Swanson family’s best friend.”

Kathy was also the cute one — blonde and perky, and a cheerleader. I was the spindly one who took forever to grow into her stork legs. Then, in our late teens, it all changed. She married young and had a baby. I went off to college. As I was making fraternity parties and football games my full-time endeavor, Kathy was planning casseroles on a budget and researching preschools.

“I think I’m going to break up with Paul,” I might say as we baked on those lazy afternoons. She would already be crimping the dough into the pie pan as I was still going through the merits (or shortcomings) of Paul, or Tim, or Peter. She kept them all straight, a credit to her cousin love.

She talked about toilet training, and I tried to add comments where I could. We told stories about our mothers. We worried General Hospital was turning our brains to mush, but admitted we couldn’t give it up. We’d chat up until the last minute, until her son began calling, “Mama!” from his crib or her husband came through the door after a day of classes.

A few weeks before graduation, I wrote out the recipe. I thought I’d need the exact amounts if I wanted to recreate Kathy’s pies.

IMG_1934

I can see the card has been used often in the years since I left Kathy and left Cortland even though pies aren’t hard to make. Only five ingredients, six if you count the ice water.

But even talented cooks might read the recipe for Kathy’s crust and fall short. Because it’s all in the wrist and the fingers. Best made when you’re laughing, or sharing a childhood secret. And letting a slow, delicious afternoon wash over you. And never forgetting  it.

Why I Prefer the Word “Fib”

In my first semester at college — what I laughingly referred to as the real world — communication with my parents was sparse, as the times demanded. There was only one Sunday afternoon phone call because Long Distance struck fear into my parents’ thrifty hearts. My mother and I wrote letters the rest of the time. Hers have not survived, but because she saved any piece of paper that might possibly shame and embarrass me in future decades, mine have.

And here I’d like to call into service the word fib for what went on in my letters. It’s a fine word. By relocating to a state college 250 miles away from home, somehow I felt I’d moved to a different planet. I was living a life I knew my parents could never understand. So a little fiction was called into action so they wouldn’t worry. It was for their own good.

* * *

By October I was stretching the word fib to its limits. This letter preceded a weekend trip home, fall of freshman year.

My Letter:
I’m not sure if I’ll be able to leave for home on Friday night or if I’ll have to wait until early Saturday. Dr. Tomlinson is telling us tomorrow whether we’ll have class that afternoon.

The Truth:
I hadn’t been to Dr. Tomlinson’s class since the first week of the semester. I had no idea if we had class on Friday. I couldn’t have identified Dr. Tomlinson in a lineup.

* * *

Apparently, in the middle of all my other tall tales, I told them that lots of boys were asking me on dates, but I was putting schoolwork first. They chided me a little, saying that I should go out more and have more fun.

My Letter:

I really think studying is more important than boys right now. Sorry I’m not dating or dancing on tables as much as you think I should. That probably sounds snotty but it wasn’t meant to be.

The Truth:

I’d known a lot of dancing. I’d conquered a few tabletops.

And it was definitely meant to sound snotty.

* * *

Early on, I fell in love with a lacrosse player. He was sort of a legend.

My Letter:
I don’t think it’s fair that you’ve judged Nick without meeting him yet. Lots of boys in college have nicknames. He’s not wild! He’s a good person.

The Truth:
His nickname rhymed with Nick. If you’re doing it in your head, any one of the possibilities will work.

* * *

Finals went on first semester in spite of my prayer for a tornado to touch down on the Old Main building the night before. I didn’t want anyone to get killed, of course. Just enough of a funnel cloud that my professors’ grade books would be destroyed for all time.

My Letter:
I can’t believe how hard I’m working! I studied all day Saturday and most of Sunday. I’ve really turned a corner. If all goes well, I’ll have an A in at least one course!

The Truth:
Dear Parent:
Enclosed you will find a copy of the Low Grade Summary Report sent to your son/daughter. He/She is already aware of his/her standing in these courses and will be instructed to meet with his/her advisor. You may be assured that we are concerned, and we hope that the quality of your student’s work will improve.
Sincerely,
Maxwell O’Donnell
Assistant Dean

[Dear Reader: I’ll be back next Thursday, July 16th. Thanks for being here. Really.]

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…”

Yes, There Were Panty Raids

“I love being in charge of my own life!” I said these words aloud my first week as a college freshman. I’m so grateful the Internet didn’t exist, so I wasn’t able to carve that sentence into the memory of the Universe for all time.

The details of my newfound freedom? My parents paid all my bills and gave me spending money. The Residence Hall Director made sure I was in my room before curfew. The dining hall staff cooked my food and washed my dishes. Old women, who worked at $1.60 an hour, laundered my sheets and towels. But I was in charge of everything else.

It was fall of 1968, and on other campuses the unrest of that tumultuous year had captured students’ attention. The assassinations, the war, Nixon’s election. At Cortland, not yet.

At Cortland, social traditions that had been in place for 50 years were still holding on. You could count on those customs. Somehow, they promised life wasn’t about to take the severe bump you feared it might.

My favorite was the ritual of getting pinned. He brought his entire fraternity to her dorm, and they assembled as close to her window as they could. They chanted the girl’s name until someone in charge said it was okay for her to go outside. The boys dressed in jackets and ties for this, and serenaded the girl with songs like, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and other tunes left over from the Herbert Hoover administration. Wearing your boyfriend’s fraternity pin meant that everyone knew you belonged to him.

On Wednesday night of my first week at school, a loud group of boys congregated outside our dorm. I opened the window, and heard, “We want Sue! We want Sue!” I ran to the lounge to tell my roommate, Randi.

“Quick!” I yelled, “Some girl named Sue is getting pinned!” Randi was studying, but she obliged me. One week in, and she was on her way to Dean’s List. I had become an expert on a bygone ritual in its last gasp of life.

We looked down at the growing crowd. I noticed the boys were all in shorts and t-shirts, some in bare feet, not the jackets and ties I loved. And they weren’t singing in harmony.

Randi listened. “They’re not shouting ‘We want Sue.’ They’re shouting, ‘We want silk.’ It’s a panty raid.”

 

panty-raid

 

Soon dorm windows on every floor opened, and bras and panties of all sizes (all white) began floating down, like a weird nylon snowstorm. For the second time in days I was overwhelmed at how exciting college could be. First pinnings, now panties thrown out windows. I wondered what miracle Thursday would uncover.

I wanted to be part of the fun, but I suspected my mother had labeled all my underwear discretely somewhere with permanent marker. I couldn’t chance it.

When it was over, boys walked back to their dorms, some wearing bras on their heads as their rewards. They slapped each other on the back and twirled panties in the air.

I wondered what they did with all the underwear.

I had so much to learn. But I’d get there.