I couldn’t wait to go to college. My grandfather walked in the dining room where I sat at the table reading catalogues. I wanted to go to Newcomb but knew nothing about it other than that it was in New Orleans. For years late at night, I’d listened to a black-cajun radio station that somehow made it across the air waves all the way to south Georgia. The music! I was pulled toward that raucous sound. The disc jockey advertised White Rose Petroleum jelly night after night. I knew about ruined plantation houses with oak allées and I kept a record album propped on my bedside table so I could see the cover photo of the golden crescent of the Mississippi at sunset.
I was a little interested in Vanderbilt because I heard that’s where poets went. I ordered catalogues from Pembroke and Wellesley. Reading them, I had visions of myself in full wool skirt and starched white blouse editing the school news, a practical and serious person. The catalogue from Randolph-Macon came, too, sent by a very nice friend of my mother’s who went there in the Dark Ages and told my mother it was the finest school for girls in the U.S.
Daddy Jack, who paid the bills at our house, thumbed through one and tossed it back on the table. I knew what he was going to say. “I went to the school of hard knocks myself,” he rewarded me, “I didn’t have any of this fancy education, and I’ve done pretty well if I do say so.” And you do say so, I thought. “We’ll, you’ve got your head in the clouds, but I tell you one thing, sister, you can go anywhere you want as long as it’s not north of Washington D.C. I’m not paying a dime for you to go off and marry some Yankee two by four much less mix with nigras not three generations removed from cannibalism.” He puffed like a bullfrog.
My mother at the door, years past the middle of the 20th century, said, “And you can forget New Orleans—that’s the white slavery capital of the world.”
“What is white slavery?” I asked.
“White girls are kidnapped and sold to Arabs and other foreign sheiks and besides Tulane is for Jews. It’s known as Jew-U.”
I couldn’t wait to go to college.
Given my strictures, I finally opted for Randolph-Macon. Virginia was within striking distance of places I wanted to know, whereas Tennessee was just as “hick” in my mind as where I sat, poets or no.
Randolph-Macon girls arrived with a lot in common. Most of us had similar reasons for being there: our parents had insisted. Randolph-Macon was thought to be better than the places we put first. We didn’t know to ask, better for what? Louise wanted Radcliffe badly but her parents told her it was R-M or nothing. Anne longed to go to Stanford; her parents knew California was strange. I was determined to leave the state of Georgia and simply chose the farthest point north I could.
Academically the school was good—too good. When Eudora Welty made her first foray out of Mississippi back in ‘27, she chose Randolph-Macon. After a short time, she had to leave. The administration decided that her credits from Mississippi State College for Women weren’t up to standard. Welty would have to repeat a year. She headed for Wisconsin, left “weeping across the James,” and thereby escaped into literature. I had no goal other than to read, make friends, have fun. My purposes didn’t fit the onerous requirements to master two languages, mathematics, economics, and a bag of other unintelligible subjects. I never saw the necessity to attend all those classes, so many days a week, or purchase unreadable texts when so much fiction and poetry waited in the bookstore. I was an ideal candidate for “alternative education,” a concept unknown at the time. My grades tilted from one end of the A-F matrix to the other. Greek and Latin etymology fascinated me whereas whatever class happened at 8:10 a.m. sometimes escaped my notice. When I returned to graduate school as an adult, I could no longer remember why I’d had trouble in college courses. By then I’d caught on to the basic idea that one sometimes did one thing in order to be able to do another.
One rule at Randolph-Macon was the belt to breakfast rule. We could go downstairs in our robes when the bell rang, but we had to be belted, no sloppy free-hanging robes allowed. A student inspector, earning her scholarship, stood at the dining room door. Mine had no belt. It was a copy Miss Leila, our seamstress at home, made of a robe my mother saw in a magazine, a bubble line with narrow hem. A belt had nothing to do with it. But every morning I had to tie around me a string belt in order to eat. The dining rooms for each dorm were identical: round tables for eight with white cloths and the special R-M flowered Wedgwood. At lunch and dinner the rule was skirts or dresses. No one could leave the table until everyone had finished. The few Yankee girls hated this, and even the Southerners, who didn’t know any other way of eating, hadn’t counted on Becky Baltzer from Mississippi chewing every bite 27 times while the housemother drawled on about her youth and about good families of former students. We were served by scholarship girls. They went down early for dinner, then donned whites and served.
I was picky. So was Rena, a friend I’d spotted right away as a wild card in the deck. Across the street was a big house turned restaurant named the Columns. By the end of freshman year we were regulars. Even though Daddy Jack had to pay for my meals at school, I headed across the street several times a week, always when the odor of “train wreck,” a tomato stew, or “mystery meat” drifted up the stairwell. Rena was always ready. We charged, blithely signing tabs which ran up into horrendous amounts by the end of the month. To this day I still make the Column’s brownie recipe, which we always finished lunch with, a rich chocolate pecan square topped with vanilla ice cream and fudge sauce. Then, hardly anyone in the South ate in restaurants at all except on state occasions. I told Daddy Jack The Columns was the name of the school store and I needed tights for modern dance, knee pads for hockey, a school blazer, a choir robe (choir robe!), endless pads and notebooks. He paid but was not amused. A couple of years later he got his revenge. At the reading of his will, with all the family assembled at the lawyer’s, from my portion of the estate (picayune compared to his bombast about all his money) he deducted everything, down to telephone calls for $3.52 I made to fraternities from his house. I had to laugh. And his retort from the grave, never made in person, remains with me: you never know what someone silently stores up against you.
Yes, he really did this. The total was only a few hundred dollars. This person who went off to a woman’s college (“we are not a girl’s school, we are a woman’s college”) and sounds as remote as Emily Dickinson, was, to Daddy Jack, a wild girl who must be broken.
The school agreed. What might we do if we didn’t have the 10,000 rules to live by? During the week, crossing the street was our only venture outside the red brick wall surrounding the campus. Sometimes we walked a couple of blocks to the ice cream shop on a long evening. Leaving the campus became a distinct sensation. R-M felt like an enclosed world, such a microcosm, a terrarium, that to leave began to seem odd. We became, some to a not mild degree, institutionalized. The only facts from the great world I remember from then are that Alaska became a state and that a handsome Latin in camouflage was acting up in Cuba and kicked out the sugar mills. Somewhere they were reading On the Road, but behind the red brick we weren’t. We swooned over “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Although Betty Friedan must have been putting the finishing touches on The Feminine Mystique then, not a word of that news had leaked to my part of the South.
Freshman year, we could not ride in a car during the day unless a senior accompanied us. We could have horses, not Jaguars. From this distance, our slowness seems impossible. I see myself trying to run underwater.
Recently I ran into Louise at an open house in Marin. She lasted only eight vivid weeks at R-M. Our time there was the late fifties, cusp of the sixties, just before girls were able to grab a little wheel of pills, that gesture that changed us forever. Louise reminded me of a talk in the gym. A nice girl got pregnant the year before, and her family was furious with R-M so now a gym teacher passed around a diaphragm and lectured. The woman spoke in such vague abstractions that no one had any clue what she was talking about until she concluded by holding up the diaphragm between thumb and forefinger and saying, “Now gulls, gulls, I have no idea what you’ll do in your four years at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, no idea, but just remember if you’re a good little actress on your wedding night, your husband never need know. There is no reason for him ev-ah to know.”
Louise and I, retrospectively, decided that those old wise birds sniffed the winds of change and tightened the grip on freedom harder, one last time.
Dating R-M girls had built-in discouragements. Each dorm had date parlors. If you were dull enough to want your date to stick around the campus, you sat in there on linen or flowered chintz and kept the door open six regulation inches. The dorm mother paraded through, smiling and chatting about her courting days in Milledgeville (she had gone to the same school as my mother so always mentioned that). The boys rolled their eyes up as if on an elevator. They’d just driven the Blue Ridge Parkway or back mountain roads sometimes jammed six to a car from the University of Virginia or W & L in Lexington. They wanted to party, not see Miss Montgomery’s sensible shoe and nose poked in the door. When a boy arrived, he filled out a date slip, stating his name, address, destination for the evening—everything but the occupation of his father. My luck was to have dates who listed their addresses as Mars or 10 Downing Street. This, the dorm mother said, implied disrespect toward me. Usually dates were blind dates, never seen before or after. Distance, the number of girls schools, the rules, everything stacked against getting to know someone normally.
We did have a unique advantage among W & L students for a while. Early in the fall, all of us had to line up at the gym for nude posture pictures. Why did we docilely line up? The women gym teachers in crisp, mannish shorts explained that posture was important to health. We had to strip, walk across the floor naked while they sized us up, photographed us in profile and straight on. We were later called in and a teacher would go over our body photos with us, giving us a grade and telling us to walk with our fannies tucked in, stomachs tight, shoulders back, chin up. To this day I can walk for blocks with a book on my head. Those with big busts were told they’d always have backaches and should wear dark colors. Those of us with small breasts were given an isometric exercise we could do in chapel or anywhere: grasp each forearm with the opposite hand and push, repeating rhythmically, “I must, I must, I must develop a bust.”
Our rush in popularity happened when a drunk W & L boy climbed in the gym window and stole the photos, neatly labeled with our names. His fraternity passed them all over W & L. Somehow we didn’t find this out for a long time; simply thought we were noticed at the Freshman mixer when boys were bused in, dumped, tagged, and brought to the gym to dance.
I loved the University of Virginia. The serene classicism of the architecture in the somewhat rough landscape appealed deeply to a sense of ideal education in an ideal setting. Those Thomas Jefferson “ranges,” little rooms with fireplaces, each one opening to the walkway, seemed the epitome of romantic, intelligent design for students. I imagined Edgar Alien Poe scribbling madly in the firelight. But now the boys were hard drinkers by night. By day, dressed in suits and ties, they lounged about pretending they were at Oxford. Actually they were just hung-over. When we went to Charlottesville for parties, we were placed with a lady with spare bedrooms, usually a widow who attended R-M in the dim past. Three or four girls would be garrisoned with her. One of us was charged with the “yellow sheet” for signing everyone in and out over the weekend. It was an honor to be selected to monitor. Rules applied even though we were dreaming at Mrs. Blankenship’s, miles away.
The most stringent rule was The Twenty Mile Rule. No drop of alcohol could be touched within that radius of the school. Even those who didn’t drink began to plot ways to get 20.1 miles away every weekend. I had my first drink in Washington—a Cuba Libra, naturally. We elected Rena to go in the liquor store. She turned her ring around to look like a wedding ring and ordered a bottle of rum. What kind? “The best,” she answered.
“Young lady, are you 21?”
Rena looks amazed, “I wish I’d see 21 again,” she laughs. We’re crazy with admiration for her. The four of us sharing a room at The Willard rush up and open the bottle. Anne’s brother Paul is in town on leave from the Navy. He’s older, a pilot, gorgeous, and engaged. He’s not interested in us at all. What a pity. For hours we play bridge with him and sip rum out of hotel glasses, feeling we’ve succeeded in something but we don’t quite know what. In Washington, we don’t have hours, but we don’t know anywhere to go after dark.
On weekends, I tried to go farther and farther, though there’s a limit to how far you can get on trains and buses and still get back by 10:30 Sunday night. R-M made it difficult to go afield: they scheduled Saturday classes. I’ve never heard of another school in modern times with Saturday classes. Girls appeared at 8:30, raincoats wrapped over their nightgowns or pajamas, hair unrolled, barely combed, deeply demoralized, vacant eyes staring at Dr. Voorhis as he consulted his yellowed 3 x 5’s. He harped on the Hapsburgs. World History. Invasion from without, decay from within. All wars begin in spring.
I cut. Made it to Annapolis or Princeton or Chapel Hill. Annapolis was one school more skewed than ours. Those constant salutes drove me crazy. And all the old crew cut officers always around. But one of the ladies who took in dates had a basement room that was a true pit. In the few minutes the midshipmen had to deliver the dates at curfew, something could happen, though not much took place on those cushions in the dark. For sure, everyone was stone sober after a dance with fruity fruit punch and crackers, the same snack served in Robert E. Lee kindergarten in Fitzgerald, Ga. The boy I dated there came from Des Moines, Iowa. West of the Mississippi, my imagination flattened out into an endless corn prairie. I simply could not imagine that anyone “cute” could come from such a place. Even so, he was. But he kissed fast and I was glad of the dark so I could wipe his saliva on my sleeve rather than swallow it. I felt stirred in chapel with all the midshipmen singing “Eternal Father” under the cold light from the highest windows. We went sailing in yawls on the Chesapeake Bay, held hands under the table in crowded tearooms crammed with uniforms and lovely girls who streamed in every weekend they were allowed. Princeton was even better. The dreaming spires of Scott Fitzgerald, the pink blooming trees along the lake, the big talk in the eating clubs, the town that looked like a model village for an HO scale train set. The football coach’s wife gave us the run of her house. The coach had died, and one room was filled with his trophies and ribbons. My date called me “cara mia” and we took long walks across campus, past the Princeton Inn, to the grad school where the students went to dinner in robes. In 1968, my memories of the Princeton landscape and ambience, were strong enough that I talked my husband into going to graduate school there. It’s too congested now, overrun and undifferentiated, but then it seemed an oasis, alone with U.Va., one of those permanent felicitous manifestations of architectural and therefore human grace. Late at night the living room was littered with couples making out in armchairs, on the floor, four to the sofa. Someone played “Misty” on the piano. We kissed until we were dizzy, breathing back and forth into each other’s mouths until we almost expired from carbon dioxide. Heaven. That was heaven.
I get back at the last instant. All quiet on the western front. Slide my bag down the hallways then bump it up the stairs, looking up for waiting friends who want to know how it was, what did he say, did you meet anyone else, looking up at each scrubbed, creamed face, hair in rollers, book in hand. Probably I should have stayed here and studied for the anatomy quiz tomorrow. They’ll do well and I’ll be staring out my little dormer window at the smoky horizon of the Blue Ridge.
The reason we followed this elaborate rule book was the honor system. A system devised not just to prevent cheating in classes but an inclusive, rigid code of ratting on anyone who broke any rule. Anyone’s broken rule was tied to your “honor.” If you saw someone 19.9 miles away from school pop a beer, you were on your honor to turn her in to the honor council. Every infraction was up to you. Your conscience should burn if you knew someone sneaked out the window after hours at Mrs. Clark’s in Charlottesville. You couldn’t just go to sleep, mind your own business. For this girl’s own good, you had to turn her in. Somehow this was extolled as a system of mutual trust. Once turned in, the culprit would be summoned in the middle of the night to go down to the dean’s to face a black-robed tribunal of faculty and peers. You could be drummed out of school. Helen, who caused a ruckus at U.Va. involving two boys in a bed (reported from fraternity mother to date house mother to R-M dorm mother) never saw Monday morning at R-M again. Calm-spoken, outraged faces greeted her at the door. The process was all secret so I never learned the lesser forms of retribution. Was my going against the proscribed academic grain a perverse way of rebelling against rigidity, a freedom stake-out which didn’t haul me before the midnight court? Not sure. I do know that a rigid sense of truth took root there. I can’t even tell someone I don’t particularly want to see that I’m busy if I’m not. As a result of R-M, I’ve had countless tedious lunches and dinners. There, I never actually saw a rule broken and so was spared the acute moral dilemma of tattling or not. Such good girls. We were kept in place by the appeal to a higher sense, morality; the rule was the thing, not the personal judgment of the act behind the rule. On the other hand, faced with a real crime, the system was useless. For a while a klepto was loose in the halls, picking up our wallets casually left on desks or beds. Emptied, they were discovered floating in the toilet tanks. Gradually rumor had it that X, from one of the first families of Virginia, was the thief. A girl who went to high school with her said she’d done the same there too. We were not allowed to put little dime-store locks on the door. Rena tried and was told she couldn’t deface the door and besides that was contrary to the atmosphere of R-M. Apparently the school was reluctant to confront Miss First Family. We just learned to hide our goodies from her.
Virginity seems quaint in these days of genital warts, herpes, AIDs, and other fallout of the sexual revolution. We had an old granite statue that was supposed to wink every time a virgin walked by. His eye must have been permanently closed, even though these were the last days of the virgin cult. Many of us didn’t think for a minute sex was “wrong,” but fear of pregnancy is a powerful deterrent to nice girls; that, compounded with the big word “reputation” kept us relatively chaste. Some did have developed senses of sin. Anne worried about the exact moment a kiss turned passionate and therefore sinful. She went to confession for such things. The priest defined passion as beginning after 15 seconds, no tongues included. So, while kissing, Anne had to count also. Many girls had never kissed anyone; they’d been sentenced even in high school to tidy girl’s schools and never dated at all.
The town where I grew up is not the antebellum, heavy-duty South, with patriarchs reading Tacitus on the porch, but only the backwoods of Georgia, stratified as a midden but not hidebound like the Tidewater South. I’d stayed out late, kissed dozens of boys, fallen in love. I had steamy nights at drive-ins and summer cabins and swam naked down the river with my real high school love. But it was all natural, in the scheme of things. This corseting rubbed me wrong. I liked boys but never got to know any well while I was there. Wasn’t I elected “Best Personality” in high school? Given even the smallness of the pond, wasn’t I “Most Original?” “Prettiest Eyes”? I was popular. Now I began to feel less attractive. My natural instincts to be expressive physically started to snuff out. I couldn’t think of anything to say to these Scotch drinking Virginia school dudes. Being “cool” never interested me. The endless loud party in a crummy fraternity house got old quickly, as did football games, especially since the U.Va. team had endured a three-year streak of solid loss and the tanked-up boys now cheered for what ever team theirs opposed. Every one I met had some Civil War name, Moseley, or Stuart, or Mead. Besides having to jump through hoops to date us, they faced the stigma that we were “smart.” The Sweetbriar and Hollins students had better reputations as party girls and good riders. We were rule-ridden, and with a tight bit. Horses ridden like that tend to spook easily. I began to spend more week-ends at school reading or scrambling down through the brush to the banks of the James river where I tried to write poems or just sat there thinking moody thoughts. I didn’t even want to go home. After my father died, my grandfather, Daddy Jack ruled the roost. He was a pill and a bore, with a lack of imagination bordering on evil. He blundered through the world, scattering effects from his massive ignorance about any life beyond the absolutely practical. He’d driven my impractical mother to serious drink. She was a willing passenger. Things there were awful.
I even stayed at school over Thanksgiving with a few others. That big echoing place with our little places set for meals and nothing going on for days on end. I went out with an “older man” maybe 24, who taught at a prep school there. He had a sports car but I couldn’t bear the thought of going out with someone who did something so dull as teach high school boys, how dull can you get. Their teachers’ parties were so boring that even the Fitzgerald Country Club with its illegal silver dollar slot machines in the bar looked good. When we were driving back (rules still applied on holidays) he took my hand and said “You don’t know how fond of you I’ve grown.”
Fond. “Oh, thanks,” I answered, trying to sound sincere. Rain was pouring down. I wanted to cry myself because I was remembering David 800 miles south, with his Hermes by Praxiteles mouth, more beautiful than anyone in Virginia, even if he had grown up only a block from me. The TR3 windshield wipers scraped back and forth; the windows were steamy, not from my hot breath. He squeezed my hand then lifted it and placed it between his legs. For an instant I felt a bony protuberance sticking up in his dress pants. I jerked back my hand and looked at it as though it were disconnected from my wrist. He apologized all the way to the red brick wall, and I never would go to the telephone when he called again.
The alma mater was in Latin. The composer, Miss Willie Weathers, was oblivious to the fact that in such a repressive atmosphere, the Latin words “quae ubi pinus exit” sung by a chapel of girls might have other reverberations than the context suggested. When we came to those lines we thundered “pinus” out. The deans all looked down; to mention it would be an acknowledgement that penises existed in the world and that did not happen. Poor Willie Weathers. I wonder if she ever noticed.
Perhaps the most telling activity we were urged toward was the custom of “stomps” and “odds and evens.” I thought from the outset that both were beyond belief. Stomps were marches at night when secret societies such as S.T.A.B. (Stately Tall Attractive Brunettes) “brought out” a new member. Girls selecting other girls with their type looks for mutual glorification. The group, folded arms up, stomped through the dorm just before closing, chanting their special chant. At the room of the new member they all stomped their feet hard and shouted out her name. Everyone looked out of their doorways, clapping and shouting congratulations. Underground, there was a group that thought this was all too corny for words; I was “brought out” S.O.B. my sophomore year. We had no rituals like the rest, only a bond of irony and contempt. No alternatives occurred to us. We were aware of everything, but we were like the Maya, who invented the wheel then only used it for toys. The rumor mill was always churning up names. So and so should be Pi or AmSam. My roommate spent hours each night in beauty rituals. Her hair was her glory, but was it enough, given a slightly weak chin, to get her into Omega? For an hour and a half each night she rolled her strawberry blond hair. Every morning she applied mascara and crimped her lashes before going down to breakfast. I was the only person ever to see her washed face. More archaic was the odd-even hoopla. If your year of graduation was ‘64 you were the sister of the class of ‘62. Classes often serenaded the sister class at night, winding through the halls with candles. Lovely, but the down side was that the Evens had a set of “trophies” that were hidden around the campus, as did the Odds. In your spare time you were supposed to search under rocks and in storerooms and behind books in the library for the other classes’ trophies. If you found one (the only one I remember is a horse’s tail) you sounded an alarm, gathered at The Odd Tree or The Even Post for various songs extolling your class. Sort of a perpetual treasure hunt. The most contemptuous look I could summon was saved for a suggestion that we go trophy hunting.
This roaming tribal fervor was channeled, at the end of sophomore year into a performance of Euripides’s “The Bacchae.” Barefoot girls in fawn skins danced around the amphitheater in the moonlight in the service of Dionysus, god of wine and fertility. Whoever chose the play had a diabolical streak. We were perfect for whipping up into a froth of fleshy, religious ecstasy. We could get into these parts as we could not get into “The Glass Menagerie.” Racing around night after night whirling torches, wild with divinity, the Maenads sang:
Power, mythic power. We felt in the blood. We sang in Greek. The words rang out:
. . . crowned their hair with leaves
ivy and oak and flowering bryony. One woman
struck her thyrsus against a rock and a fountain
of cool water came bubbling up. Another drove
her fennel in the ground, and where it struck the
at the touch of god, a spring of wine poured out.
Those who wanted milk scratched at the soil
with bare fingers and the white milk came
Pure honey spurted, streaming, from their wands.
When shall I dance once more
with bare feet the all-night dances,
tossing my head for joy
in the damp air, in the dew,
as a running fawn might frisk
for the green joy of the wide fields
The green joy felt cathartic. We wound back up the trail to the dorms, flashlights beaming the edges of the path, still singing like Maenads, in touch with all that fire the entire mechanism and history of the school sought to suppress, suppress, suppress.
Perhaps in the way someone cannot regret a bad marriage because it produced lovely children, I cannot regret going to R-M in the last throes of repression because of the friends I made there. I’m not the least regretful of following the president, Dr. Quillian, down Crush Path with my classmates singing “Gleam Little Lantern.” We were supposed to be pure, coiffed, gracious, intelligent, unselfish, subtle, capable. We were. When I read about daily life at concentration camps, I know how they had skits and choirs and language classes, how some connections might never seem as intense again. The turning away from men, at the very time we wanted that most, turned us toward ourselves and each other. Life without the friendship of Rena and Anne—unthinkable. We had the bond of loving books. We spent the summers traveling from Fitzgerald to Rena’s in Birmingham and to Anne’s in New Orleans. We bought strawberries and sat in the rain on front campus whooshing them with Redi-whip and screaming with laughter as we got soaked. We took the long holiday train that started in New Orleans and swung through the South picking up hundreds of college students and depositing them at schools all the way to Washington. We adored the little compartments and read The Magic Mountain and Absolom, Absolom aloud, sharing roasted pecans and pound cake brought from home. Rena came up with a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I admired a natural dignity Anne was born with, admired Rena’s passionate response to everything, as though she had one less layer of skin than the rest of us. Dozens of splendid young women, idealistic and nasty, intelligent and naive, adventurous and unsophisticated. We began to forget we were supposed to please men. There weren’t any. We were like the Spartan women during long wars. We were hell-raisers on sabbatical. We enjoyed each other thoroughly, since there was little else to enjoy, and so acquired the talent for friendship, one of the two or three chief pleasures of my life. Beyond my two closest friends were circles and circles of other friends, Kit, Gwynne, Lucy, Alice Neale, Joan, Linda, Nancy, Rebecca, Mary Jo. Each one indelible, unique in memory. Many remain mostly in images. Rebecca, doubled over with cramps, wrapped in a blanket telling jokes while her roommate strummed endless verses of “Eddystone Light.” Lovely Joan dressed in red on the wisteria-draped Main Hall porch. The night watchman’s flashlight passing briefly, late, under the door. Sue, who slept in her panties (the same Sue who called out “Oh hell, I’m awake,” when her alarm went off), often met him in the hall on her way back from the bathroom. She crossed her arms over her bare flat chest, stared straight ahead as they passed. Gwynne and I acting out the hare and tortoise tale for drama class, feeling humiliated to be hopping and slugging along the rug. Everyone swaying in a chorus song from a play about isolated life in the remote country of Andorra one of us concocted. The first story I wrote was about the imaginary death of Daddy Jack by tumbling down the stairs, vivid in detail. I was thrilled to be published in the school magazine, Potpourri, but could not show it to anyone at home.
From here, 10,000 images now, one for every rule.
Many of the images are of the Virginia seasons, unparalleled. To see the fall trees was a blessing. That golden raintree on front campus gave up all its fan-shaped leaves on the same day, a brilliant shower falling into a circle like the melted tigers in “Little Black Sambo.” I loved kicking through the leaves of hundreds of scarlet and yellow maples, and that bright fall air touched with some stirring, unnameable scent. In spring, a sharp newness lasted weeks, then arrived the white and lavender lilacs, made to sing about, and the immense Japanese magnolia filling the library windows. The weeping cherry tree outside New Hall exists in my mind’s eye as the paradigm ever after for all trees. This tree was twisted and large, the limbs, trailing as weeping willows, effulgent with white blooms. I took pictures, wishing I had the Chinese landscape painter’s delicate hand instead. To stand under those blossoms looking up at the intense spring sky was a pure pleasure that never will diminish. Rena and I typed Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees” and tacked it to the trunk. I’ve heard that every spring since, someone repeats the gesture, that instinct for tradition at its best.
When I dream the anxiety dream, that I have not started the work and the exam is upon me and they’ve switched the subject anyway, the setting is Randolph-Macon. At least once a year I dream I’m back there for senior year and must make up all the requirements I skipped. I still wince at the memory of Mr. St. Vincent’s remark in the margins of my creative writing notebook: “What is to become of you?” The Latin motto on our blazers meant “the life more abundant.” But Anne’s brother on a weekend visit said “I’ve been in Navy barracks all over the world and this is the most depressing place I’ve ever seen.” Sandy tried to slit her wrists. Louise broke out as soon as she got the lay of the land, a woman before her time. I was balancing. I loved my friends and my sense of the place and the traveling. My own family was chaotic. Often I returned to R-M’s structure with relief, a nun to the convent. There was just enough abundance to keep me attached, not enough for me to commit. No loneliness of any year has been as bad as staring out my fifth floor dormer window at bare trees, the river hidden, no clue where I’d been or was going.
For twelve years I’ve taught at a huge urban university. (Wouldn’t Mr. St. Vincent be surprised?) If you walk through the student union you could be in the Miami airport there is such diversity. I’ve had wonderful people in classes. I’ve also had someone pull a gun and threaten to murder, several suicide threats in my office, students robbed and mugged. I’ve had male prostitutes, nurses, debutantes, normal students, waiters, 70-year-olds getting divorces, psychos in cross dress, you name it. One woman raped after class. I’ve had ominous calls at home. Notes from students saying “Want to have some fun with a younger man.” But mostly serious people interested in writing poetry. Students hungry to know whatever I know. At worst, I sometimes come home feeling bare—as though picked clean by piranha. Young, or not so young, students fight to park or get the bus. Almost all work; indulgent parents are not deluging them with checks and words of caution. There is no coherent moral order. Every semester I examine myself as a teacher. Can I? How can I give them enough? They’ve not drifted into class, it was an upstream trip. I always considered the teacher as a being, entirely unapproachable as a person and therefore not really relevant to me. My students approach; they’ve paid their money. Also, I want to destroy hierarchy, that distancing I find inimitable to good learning. While I’m too reserved to be a pal, I’ve still heard the intimate lives of hundreds. Poetry is the most inner art. Words are closer to us than paint, marble, music. The good of teaching seems to be the full flowering. If I ever say “Whatever will become of you,” I hope it’s in wonder and anticipation.
Half the class transferred at the end of sophomore year. In spite of the contemplation, friendship, the seasons . . . enough was enough. The sense that an active world zoomed by the gates of the red brick wall became too strong. We went off to big universities, Texas, North Carolina, Florida. Rena and I got an apartment. Cruel, occasionally we’d call those who did stay and let them know we’d had five dates that week. We no longer had the rules to hamper us, but we also no longer had their protection. No handy excuse of curfew for tiresome dates or difficult situations. We had to face the real situations. We had long I.D. numbers, classes with hundreds. We got to know dozens of foreign students. We painted the rooms lavender with bunches of grapes on the corners of the ceiling. The rousing Russian army chorus and the Academic Festival overture we kept turned up loud. We put glasses to the wall and listened to the newlyweds next door squealing and bouncing. Daddy Jack up and died. I got his green 98 Oldsmobile and collected 47 parking tickets. We ate frozen vegetables. We roasted a turkey and didn’t know to take the package of neck and gizzard out of the cavity. We were in paradise. We were living the life of exiles welcomed home. And like exiles we were charged and changed.
As soon as the pill hit, R-M as we knew it was lost. The truly revolutionary consequences of women having control over their own bodies kicked those date parlor doors closed, ripped up those destination slips, put those ladies in Charlottesville with their teapots and thin towels out of business forever. As preservers of The Way, how wise those women who ran the school proved; they invoked tradition, grace, protection, the concept of respect, culture, decorum, all those paternal gods of undamaged goods. We were imprinted with an intricate moral code of rules, from belted bathrobes to bedtime a hundred miles away.
Looking back, way back over the change and carnage and excitement of liberation, I see those deans and dorm mothers foresaw exactly, unleashed, how dangerous women would be.