I was a very good student. I was raised on an Achievement Model where I kept moving seamlessly up the educational ladder.
The stuff I saw in college was very heartbreaking. I went to Smith College from 1993-1997, an all women's college in western Massachusetts. These were really "high achiever" girls. Hillary Clinton was a Wellesley College Girl, our rival college--but you sort of get the idea. A Smith Girl was super smart, super tough--and a little independent. She might want to be a VP at Bank America but she could also want to teach Yoga in Fiji. I loved it there. I felt at home. I felt challenged. I felt accepted.
But it was also heartbreaking. I was one of three kids from West Virginia in my entire college of 2,000. I used to joke that there were more women from Kenya at Smith than West Virginia. Because I was from West Virginia-- or because I already had a Carmelite Soul--I had a certain closeness to Christ. I wasn't ashamed to call myself a Christian when I came to college because that label was acceptable inside my hometown. Inside my heart--there was a certain "something" that the college culture around me couldn't touch--at least for the first two years until I fell into mortal sin.
So for my freshman and sophomore years, I watched these beautiful, beautiful women--girls that had everything smarts and looks and talent and the easy of coming from serious money--I watched them self-destruct in front of me. It was awful. At 18, I wasn't really clear that it was "Christ" who protected me. I just knew something was different. At the time, I thought it was because of my high school.
In my class, I was only one of handful of girls that came from a true public school. Moreover, in the middle of West Virginia, the pre-college crowd was not the most important or catered to group in high school. Yet most of the other girls in my Freshmen Dorm came from private high schools, or a serious public 'magnet" school such as Boston Latin.
These "good girls" just exploded with rebellion our freshman year. They told me the pressure to get into college was intense, now they deserved to "live a little." By October, I was the only one who still completed all assigned reading for our giant GOV 100 class in my 80 person dorm. By November, I was the only one who still went regularly to class. I remember hearing stories about how awful prep school was. I was grateful that I "only" went to a normal public school in West Virginia because I wasn't burnt out before college had even started.
Stuff was going badly behind the scenes in our Dorm all the time. For example, there were girls who would throw up in the trash can at our dorm from bulima. Then the announcement at the House Meeting would be "Don't throw up in the trash can. That is so gross. That is so disrespectful to the maids that change our trashbags. Respect low-income workers! Go throw up in the toilet. Please people!"
(I'm serious, I am not making that up.) So that announcement would be made at a House Meeting, everyone would nod there heads and go on to the next agenda item. I'd get this little pit in my stomach. "Shouldn't we care why someone is throwing up at all night after night? That doesn't seem heathy."
This stuff --the stuff of hidden emotional pain underneath a exterior that seems fine--happened often. There was the bulmia girls. There were the cutting girls. There were the alcoholic girls. There were the drug using girls. There were the girls that had sex lives that even in the 1990s seemed crazy excessive and dangerous.
To this all there was this certain WASP culture like "well, sure she's a little wild on the weekends but as long as she wears her pearls when Daddy visits and maintains a 3.0 grade point average things are fine. Her little problem really can't be that dangerous. It's not like its hurting her career aspirations or anything."
That was the only line in the sand for addictions that we has as classmates. We'd only "intervene" if someones problems hurt her grades. It didn't matter if the girl was unhappy. I didn't matter if she lost her spark--or her way--or her mind with her choice of some of the men she brought home to her dorm room--as long as she could post a B+ or A- essay every three weeks--she was doing fine.
I seriously can't tell you how crazy some of the stuff that happened inside my Dorms. (Tangent example, during my second semester, freshman year a girl moved a homeless man into our dorms. She met a homeless man in the streets of Northampton. Took him to our dorm room. Had sex with him. Pronounced him her boyfriend. And he lived inside our dorm. Our all girl, all female college dorm.
When some of my classmates complained to about sharing a bathroom/shower room our Head of House (another student, not an adult) she said there was nothing she could do. Because we were all allowed to have overnight guests for 30 days. 30 DAYS. So they let the guy live in our Dorm for a month. Only, the decided that only the nights he spent inside the Dorm counted against the rule. So he would go and spend some nights away from the dorm, and then come back to shower and sleep with his woman.
This went on for months. There would be this rumor among the halls-- "The Man is here again, he's taking a shower right now. Be careful how to dress to go brush your teeth for the next few days." This is how we lived. I remember a girl saying "I'm just really afraid to run into him in our shower room because you don't know him at all. It feels like there's a stranger in our bathroom."
This poor girl --who was probably totally co-dependent, bless her heart--would say "I know I don't know him. But he just doesn't have any other place to go. I'm all he has. I can't kick him out. Beside he seems really nice. He's never been mean to me--so I think he's safe." Instead of being reassured, the bold girl who confronted sin (Dude, not me--I was a people pleasing mouse back them) would slink away and say "Well, if its truly an emergency...." (There was this unspoken WASP guilt, like oh we're so privileged to be here in a warm dorm room studying at college. Not everyone is lucky enough to have this. Who am I to demand that we kick out a homeless guy). So the girls argument always shut everyone up. Except for me--in my heart--who would review these exchanges and think "If this guy truly has no where else to go, that is a bad sign. I'm even more afraid to meet up with him alone in our bathroom at night).
I revisit this teenage memory as an adult and think "WHERE WERE THE ADULTS?" As an 18 year old kid, I thought this was normal. "Oh everyone has to figure out these epic issues of class in their life." I'm not blaming the girl either. I get how it could have been totally overwhelming to feel total guilt that you have a pretty life in college while another, equally smart 20 year old male--didn't get the picked for the golden college ticket. So my question at age 38, instead of 18, is "where were the adults." This was a huge public problem in my dorm. Lots of people knew about it. Why did it took the housing authorities 3 to 4 months to tell a male, non-student "you can't live in our Dorms?"
Another Dorm Memory--
One of the things I remember my Dorm (we call them a House at Smith) had this crazy party. At 4 PM on a Friday, the young women in my dorm were so nutty drunk that they scared the entire Harvard Croquet Club out of our dorm. Like the Harvard guys had come over to play some sort of special co-ed match with our Smith Club on Saturday, and they were supposed to sleep in our Dorm on Friday night.
All these handsome men came with their little white v-neck sweaters. It looked right out of a J Crew Ad. They say the insane behavior of my Dorm Mates and they turned around and ran away. They refused to spend the night in our Dorm. That sort of became a benchmark for me. "Oh my, we scared away the Harvard Croquet team at 4 PM in the afternoon. Things are sort of bad."
Then I went to Law School. The weird thing for me was that I think there were only 2 or 3 girls from my entire class of 650 at Smith who went right into Law School. Most people it seemed like were sort of burnt out by their senior year--they took sort of like a Gap Year where they did something cool like study wood carving in Brazil. So these were smart girls who could go to Law School (or whatever Grad school they wanted) but they were sort of vague and floating in their career plans by age 22. It was a freaky feeling Spring Semester of my Senior Year. Like I was okay that I didn't know exactly what I was doing in my life, but I was super scared that no one around me seemed to have notion of what was happening to them in May, other than they were packing their bags and driving home with Mom and Dad. (Many members of my class eventually attend Law School & Grad School between 25 to 30. So it was a temporary thing, but it felt weird at the time.)
All of my professors were totally cool with their extremely talented students saying things "I'm just going to chill out in the sun in Belize next year, maybe teach some scuba diving." I don't remember a prof saying "Oh, let me get that Grad rec written up now, while you're work is fresh in my mind." Or "Are you sure you don't want to apply to Art School at Yale, just to see if you get in, and then decide to defer for a year?"
At the time, I pretended this was normal. I even delighted in the fact that my college was so laid back and diverse. "Do whatever you want, but be the best." Be happy with your life! But now as an adult, I question this passivity sometimes. Our professors were mostly male, and they were so passive towards us. If I were to just look at this situation from the outside--a sudden loss of all career goals for many women during Senior Year would be a sign of Mass Depression. It's just too weird, that this wasn't a few quirky girls who decided to stop pursuing the career goals that were so important a few months earlier to them. So now things that defined my college experience, things that seemed so great, so Smith, suddenly look a little weird in hindsight.
(okay, gotta go feed the Benjamin clan. Next up--the widespread despair among Law School Students. And you thought that was just hyperbole in the movie The Paper Chase).