The Living Spaces #3 – College – Freshman Year

I turned 17 in May, 1968 and graduated from high school in June. During the following summer, I worked downtown in the Chicago Loop. Some of the money I made would go toward paying for college and the rest I was allowed to spend on my wardrobe for the first time in my life. In September, my parents drove me to Urbana, home of the University of Illinois where I was registered for the fall and hopefully, all four years of college life. Seemingly, I was ready to go. Despite my mediocre high school academic career, my unfair weighted honors classes, based on potential rather than performance, served me well. My grades were good enough to have fulfilled many of my core college requirements, and so, I had class choices available to me as a freshman. I had a small Illinois State scholarship. I was going to live with my best friend Fern in Allen Hall.

I was still involved with my boyfriend Rich who was living in Chicago, but I planned on dating. My parents helped me move my meager possessions into my dorm. I had a clock radio and a lamp along with clothes, toiletries, school supplies and posters for the walls. A minimalist life which was fine with me. After Fern’s parents unloaded her things, we went to the Town and Country restaurant at Five Points and had a final celebratory dinner with our families. Then they went back to Chicago and we began our new life.

In truth, I couldn’t have been more ill-prepared. I was young and essentially aimless. I had no aspirations for any type of career except for a vague interest in psychology. I’d grown up as an observer of people, always trying to understand interactions and to find a place where I fit in the world. Psychology seemed like a reasonable start to this part of my life. Mostly, I knew a lot more about what I didn’t want to do, rather than what I did want to do. No one had ever engaged me in conversation about my future plans, not even my school counselors.

I remember the first days of college. Back in those days, registration took place in person in the huge steaming Armory where I stood in line with everyone else, clutching papers and a course catalogue, hoping there’d be room for me in the class sections I’d chosen. If one was closed, you hurriedly got into another line. I pieced a schedule together. On the first day of classes I made it to Psychology 100 at 8 a.m., stood in front of Gregory Hall for a minute and turned my back and walked away. An inauspicious and telling start to my academic career. I was thinking of other things.

I didn’t have much guidance from anyone. I don’t think either of my parents asked me a single question about school. Ever. They intimated that education had value but never discussed its practical application. They were basically passive, responding to life’s crises rather than being proactive about anything. I knew that they thought I was smart and that meant something to them, but as far as exploring what my interests were and how they might help me? Not on their agenda. I’m not angry about it. I was a victim of benign neglect, nothing more. I spent a lot of my teenaged time trying not to give them reasons to worry about me. As the third kid in the family, with over 5 years and 8 years between me and my two older siblings, it took awhile for them to get down the line to me. My brother and sister were caught up in issues more complicated than my little kid ones. I knew my parents were stressed a lot of the time. Easygoing by nature, I mostly wanted to not be a source of anxiety for them. So I wasn’t. I simply glided along with a smile on my face, never giving them any indication that I had no clue about what I was doing. When my grades started slipping in high school, I would get a mild admonishment from them on occasion, but not much else. Somehow I still managed to be in the National Honor Society. I didn’t deserve it but they were easily mollified. My dad dropped out of high school as a sophomore and although my mom finished, she never believed she had more than a high school education in her future. They were so bright. But they were intimidated beyond their limited experiences. I was an adult before I figured out that I would’ve benefited from more input from them, from anyone. The proverbial spilt milk.

Left to my own devices, I decided that my first task in college was to shed all the societal rules that shaped my world in high school. Within a few weeks, I realized that meant getting away from Fern. What had worked for us since we were seven wasn’t going to any more, as we each were ready to fling off our past selves, to try on who we really felt we were. Her presence felt too confining for me. So after less than two months, I got myself out of Allen Hall and moved to Saunders Hall, room 324 where my new roommate was Penny Conrad, daughter of a Chicago television personality who played a kids’ show character named Elmer the elephant. Penny was a pretty blond girl who was a very nice person with a steady boyfriend and an urge to pledge a sorority. She moved into the Tri-Delt house by second semester. I was alone in a double dorm room which suited me. That was the first time in my life that I’d ever had my own room. Sorority rush was one of the roadblocks between Fern and me. I was in a sorority in high school which was ironic as I hated their clubbiness and the exclusion of others. Once I was finished with that life I was determined to never live it again. At the time, everyone I knew was going through the “rush” process. I’d stand on the street corner watching girls troop down along, all dressed up, getting ready to put themselves forward to get a pledge bid. The idea that anyone could vote on my worthiness for anything was repugnant to me. Stepping away from that was the beginning of growing into myself. Fortunately, my friendship with Fern was strong enough to survive our differences.

I was still quite friendly with lots of high school friends who had come to this big state school in a sizeable group. But I was looking outside them, trying to figure out what I really wanted. And I was confused. I spent a lot of time fumbling around, feeling listless and out of place. I went to the classes I liked and scraped along in the others. Grades were sent home to parents and when my midterm results, 2 C’s and 2 D’s, made their way into my dad’s hands, he called and threatened to make me come home if I didn’t do better. I put in a bit more time and lifted them each by one letter. Mostly, I was drifting. I was thinking a lot about social and political issues. There was the draft and the Viet Nam war and civil rights and women’s issues. As irrelevant as high school had felt, my tether to a mainstream life was getting increasingly more frayed. But I was afraid to move away from the familiar.

My high school boyfriend sent me flowers. We wrote each other letters. He was familiar and safe and absolutely not loyal. But he was always nice to me. One weekend he drove down for a visit. At that point in time, dormitories were segregated by sex. In the common space of the lobby, monitors trolled the couches, making sure that if a couple was embracing, there were at least three of their four legs always touching the floor. I was an innocent young woman, socially and politically progressive but personally, very conservative. I wanted to have only one real love in my life, the person I’d marry. I wasn’t ready for that step but we wanted to prove we’d left high school behind. We decided we’d try to have some privacy and rented a hotel room for the night.

I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable even though I knew that I had no intention of crossing any significant boundaries that night. Playing at being a grownup was what that experience felt like. I brought a blue and green checked sleep shirt with a Victorian collar trimmed in white lace and shared a bed for the first time with my boyfriend, who was actually more like a platonic friend than a lover. It was kind of familial in a scary way. After that, he went home and I went back to bumbling my way through school.

Probably the most significant thing that happened to me that first year of college actually happened when I went home for winter break. My father was working, my mother was out and my sister was at school. I was wakened from sleep by the telephone. My grandmother was screaming at me that something had happened to my grandfather. I hung up, called the emergency operator, flung on my clothes and ran the mile or so from my parents’ apartment to my grandparents’ place. I remember bounding down snowy sidewalks, wearing boots with no stockings, the skin of my feet scraping against leather as I ran. I beat the ambulance and leaped upstairs to find my grandfather lying on the kitchen floor, robe open,while my grandmother screamed and keened next to him. That was the first time I’d ever seen a naked man. I pulled his robe over him just as the EMT’s came in with their gurney. They gave my grandmother a sedative and we all piled into the ambulance which went tearing down Lake Shore Drive, siren blaring. I saw other drivers looking at me and was aware that I was having a lifetime experience, an eighteen year old kid in the odd position of being the adult, despite my grandmother’s presence, responsible for the health of another while everyone was watching. At least that’s what it felt like to me. I spent a long day in the hospital in that time of no cell phones and little technology. Eventually my parents came to pick me up and on the drive home, my dad looked at me in the rear view mirror and said, “you know you saved your grandfather’s life today.” I hadn’t really thought about that at all. In those days, there were two winter breaks, one for holidays and one after final exams. I returned to school and after completing the semester, I went home one more time.

My grandfather was frail the last time I saw him. I remember noting that his neck no longer filled out the collar of his shirt. He was seventy-five years old which seemed ancient to me. He died a few months later. I took a Greyhound bus home for the funeral, rolling along late at night. The bus stopped at all the small towns on its two lane highway route, which it followed until joining the interstate out of Chicago, which wasn’t completed for a number of years. The trip took twice as long as a regular car ride. I arrived in the city, bleary-eyed and contemplative. My grandfather wasn’t my first death but the event was a marker for my awareness that change was inexorable. As a seventeen year old college freshman, I was suspended between my childhood and my adult life. I was trying to hang on to some personal safety and security but life was going to do its thing whether I liked it or not.

The summer after my freshman year I went back home to work at the Cook County Credit Bureau which had relocated its offices from South Wabash Street to North Michigan Avenue near the Chicago River. I rode the Lincoln #11 bus a commute an hour and a half long each way. Sometimes I’d be reading but more often, daydreaming about how to move on, to stop clinging to what was safe and known, to venture into what was different, to stop letting fear and insecurity dictate my future. Sophomore year was going to be different. One way or another.

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