I know a man with stripes on his back. Apparently it’s pretty common in humans who were once teen boys. They grow so quickly after puberty they get stretch marks, like some folks after pregnancy. Into his thirties, they were distinct horizontal tiger stripes radiating perpendicular to his spine, noticeable to the eye, and to touch. In his forties they faded with the softening skin and flesh of middle age, although his length of back and breadth of shoulder remain.
Growing is strange thing. It can happen so much at once that the fibers of you stretch, ache, and rage. All of you wants to rest, but some parts of you can’t. Growing requires sustenance— food and care, without which you will perhaps be left unwhole. In my experience growing is best done in good company, even if you don’t realize it at the time.
I’ve often said I was at my most functional and effective, or at least I felt most like I had power over my own fate, between the ages of 17 and 23. That encompassed the last year of high school, all of college and the first year or so out of college. I graduated at the top of my high school class, took home accolades and gifts of books from our senior awards banquet, was admitted to very good colleges. I graduated from one such college in 7 semesters (taking one non academic semester to work and do research), with high honors inscribed in Latin on my diploma. I made friends at college, worked hard, enjoyed my classes (mostly), and came to feel as though I was a person held in some regard by my peers. At least enough of my peers valued my person and my intellect to warrant feeling self respect on my part.
I wasn’t precisely happy, however. I wasn’t raised to be happy. I was raised to be smart and conscientious. My parents were scholarly, unworldly people, singularly unsuited to raise children in late 20th century industrialized society. My father was an immigrant, former soldier turned refugee, chef, teacher, and translator. A large part of the values he inculcated in me could be summarized as follows: “Be Righteous. Unless you can be a Pain in the Ass. Always Be a Pain in the Ass.” No one does inflexible self righteousness like a man who is both Presbyterian and Confucian. But no one does stiff upper lip better than a hillbilly who is both a Methodist and a Presbyterian, which was Mom. My introverted, farm-raised, religious mother was a librarian, former missionary, and aspiring art historian. Her take home message was, “Read ALL the Things”.
a couple weeks before starting college
Thus it was I arrived at Bryn Mawr College in the fall of 1989, 600+ miles from home, confident in my intellectual capacity, determined to do well and learn as much as possible, and with a judgmental streak a mile wide. I was also anxious, socially hypervigilant, contrarian, and prone to narrowly self-selecting interests like science fiction conventions. Many things happened at once, among the first being sensory flooding from the sheer beauty of campus. This was years before Harry Potter was more than a gleam in J.K. Rowlings eye, but like many 19th century academic gothic campuses, it really looks like Hogwarts. I had never seen the campus because of course I didn’t visit any of the schools I applied to (that took Real Money). In pre-internet days, all you had was some glossy brochures. The reason I ended up at Bryn Mawr rather than, say, Vassar or Smith (or Reed. That wouldn’t have gone well), was because they gave me the most financial aid. The shocked moment of falling in love with the beauty and thinking “I get to spend Four Whole Years here? Me? HERE?” lifted me over many swamps in the next few years.
Bryn Mawr is a marginally Quaker-influenced institution founded in 1885 to give the white upper-class young women of East Coast old families and Midwestern industrial aristocracy an education. If said young ladies didn’t want to just go to finishing school and be debutantes, they could go to the Seven Sisters, women’s colleges that offered to women what their brothers, fathers, and uncles got at the Ivy League schools, who of course did not admit women. Or Jews. And definitely not pigmented people. Bryn Mawr stood for the American liberal ideals of enlightened intellectual inquiry and the benefits of training the best of society’s young minds to serve and lead. “The Best” in that case included women, if they were white and upper class.
By the late 1980s the student body included all the diversity of an ostensibly progressive institution: black women from New York City (and South Africa), South Asians who grew up in Delhi, or in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Chinese Americans from the big urban Chinatowns, or a Midwestern, Appalachian-hapa like me. There were women from Nebraska, California, Oregon, Montana, Ohio, and military bases overseas, as well as all the eastern seaboard. There were women who grew up with house servants and ones on financial aid, piecing together loans, grants, and work study in the dining halls. A fortunate thing about my education was neither I or my parents ever had enough for anyone to ever suspect us of having enough money to pay for school without grants and loans. But that didn’t make it easy or dignified. Bryn Mawr was less than a generation from the time when students on financial aid waited tables on their more fortunate hall mates. Serving their food in the cafeteria line was better, but still… And the Financial Aid Office always made going over and doing your paperwork humiliating, inconvenient, and frustrating. That level of bureaucratic dismissiveness was always in the background. One gets used to it, one way or another.
The sensation I remember most about my first year was the constant tension between fear and yearning. Fear of being lonely (I was, constantly), fear of being outcast (fortunately I had two friends from my high school to ease my transition), fear of the unknown. Yearning for friends and connection, either platonic (I made many friends second semester), or romantic (um… no). Yearning for safety and security. Yearning to belong. I was quite safe physically. That wasn’t universally true, but it was for me. But feeling safe doesn’t come naturally to me.
The College itself (the administrators, professors, or whoever was allegedly in charge of our welfare) cared if you actually flunked (my friends meeting this fate led me to think that dealing with admin was just as bad as the flunking). If you cracked up spectacularly and committed a hate crime or attempted suicide they would definitely notice and do something. Otherwise, they left you to make your mistakes and sink or swim. By sophomore year, I concluded that the most important thing to the College’s administration was keeping the Trustees happy, and any alumnae wealthy enough to give money to the school. More than a quarter century later, I have a more nuanced view of things, but I don’t know that I was all wrong.
On the up side, academics weren’t that difficult. Immersive, intense coursework was what I was there to do. I worked hard, some times butted heads with my professors, but it was a combination of tasks and skills I understood. I observed to my surprise that not everyone reacted the same way. Some failed first year English Composition. Some got swamped and broke apart under the waves of work. Just like some dove gleefully into parties at nearby Haverford College, or found themselves (seemingly light hearted) at the center of social groups in the cafeterias, laughing and shrieking, reactions to college that were equally alien to me.
Firelord Zuko, the angsty teenager
I found my tribe by the end of the first year— A group of other young women (and a male Haverford student or two) whose interests and quirks matched well with mine. We began to dine together, and I began to hang out in a particular dormitory lounge (known as a Smoker. Where people actually smoked, although mostly we didn’t). I also came to some working hypotheses about who I could try to be, given what I had to work with: no history of dating or being particularly attractive to young men (except a few who I suspected would take any one they could get), discomfort with femininity borne of having been sexually harassed in 8th grade, distrust of and awkwardness with girly stuff like makeup, and a liking for wearing my keys on my belt and my wallet in my hip pocket.
First came the hair cut. Now, I saw early that Cutting the Hair was a signal that one was leaping out of the closet, so I was of two minds about it. I happened to have particularly long hair. I wasn’t, as far as I knew, all that gay. Most of my friends were queer and I wouldn’t have resisted being gay more than I did the discomfort of liking men, but as far as I could tell, I mostly preferred dudes. Then at some point, I tried a new shampoo, which made my hair feel so terrible I was happy to ask my mom to cut my hair when I went home for winter break. (Note that before the age of 23 or so I had exactly one hair cut in my life that wasn’t by my mother.) I came back to campus in January 1990 and there was Shrieking. Fine. I didn’t have to say anything about being gay because I might as well have put on a t-shirt that said “HOMO” when I cut off my 2 foot black pigtail. (If that wasn’t enough, over the next three years the hair went through variations of mullet). By the time I’d liked enough girls to honestly assert I was Bi, people had been assuming I was gay for years.
hanging in a sarcophagus, like one does. Because it’s just there in the colonnade
Among the available formulations for how to present oneself on a small women’s college campus was Dyke. Gay students gleefully embraced the slur for lesbians and being a BDOC had great caché in certain circles. BDOC being Big Dyke on Campus—a la the preppy phrase, Big Man on Campus, for football stars and the like. Because being openly queer was still a bit bold, even in a liberal college, it was obstreperous enough to appeal to my Dad-instilled instinct to make other people uncomfortable. (If you’re wondering if my Dad was an asshole, the answer is mostly yes, but he had his good points).
Next came the leather jacket. I went to a high school where many people wore classic leather biker jackets. So I returned to campus second year with a biker jacket, purchased at the decidedly un-edgy store at Briarwood Mall in my home town, on layaway over the summer, with part of my carefully hoarded earnings from my summer job at the deli. It was a good jacket. It weighed a ton, but I wore it for nearly ten years, and it developed some nice patina from being worn through a winter or two working manual labor in a recycling plant. It was like armor.
The rest of butch was easy. I already worked in theater in high school. I liked it and kept doing it, necessitating wearing black, with work boots, and a wrench in my pocket. Swearing took little effort. I was so tired and stressed that some days the most I could manage in the way of nouns was “shit” and “doodads”. The only thing I couldn’t get into was smoking. My parents had a truly 19th century view of The Filthy Habit (and I had an uncle die of cancer related causes when I was in high school). I tried dunhill cigarettes several times, because the packaging was so elegant, and I loved the smell and feel of a burning cigarette. But no dice. Some times though, on a cool fall day even now, I really do want a burning cigarette. Not to inhale mind you, just to have in my hand.
Bryn Mawr’s elite European academic affectations came with some cool side effects: beautiful songs sung in ancient Greek, invocations of the Greek goddesses Athena and Nike (including in our school cheer), random superstitions about buildings on campus, and maypole dancing (I never tried that one, but I really liked the Greek singing). Once I got comfortable that they weren’t going to cold shoulder me out of the smoking lounge, I got very tight with a small group of friends, four or five in my class, a few in classes ahead, and a few in classes behind. I formed comfortable layers of connections with lab mates, co-workers in the dining hall or the theater, but closest was my odd little knot of friends who wrote notes back and forth in the journal we kept in the lounge (the Back Smoker Diary. The predecessor of social media!)
It took until my senior year to get completely used to how affectionate my friends were, and that were willing to extend that affection to me, accepting me into their puppy piles and lunch tables. I made sure to keep all layers of armor handy, just in case, and hide out on my own on a regular basis, to make sure I could still do it. Once I fully adopted my protective coloration, I was free to freak out quietly in my head, cry my heart out over unrequited crushes, date a man back home, and otherwise go about about my business. That business included designing my own major, taking a semester to do independent research in Oklahoma, going home 2-3 times a year (where I felt less on my guard), poking at the administration over why they didn’t have a course requirement that included ethnic and cultural diversity (Bryn Mawr was still known for giving a rigorous 19th century gentleman’s education including Latin and Greek—and a swim test), and worrying over my friends when they got stressed out. And someone was always stressed out. Or miserable.
The thing about the stress was, because I walked out alive, after four years, with all my credits and my summa, I thought I passed The Test, and it hadn’t a left a scar. When my friends and classmates cried in the dining hall and broke the glassware, or wouldn’t leave their rooms, or cut themselves, or went away for a semester, or a year, or the rest of our undergrad years, I thought I was different, or had better skills. Likewise, when others seemed happy, running around laughing, looking elegant and relaxed, serving on the Honor Board or student government, winning fellowships and honors, I thought they were different, or had better skills than me.
I know another man, fifty or so now, who has no knees to speak of. When he was a rapidly growing teenage boy, his knees began to ache. Again, not an uncommon thing. His doctors told him to power through it. So he kept doing track, and baseball, and whatever he did. The growing cartilage never got a rest and never developed properly. In his 30s and 40s he started having surgeries. By his mid 40s, he had multiple failed surgeries, cadaver grafts, braces, scars, and it was painful to watch him walk. He couldn’t do sporty things with his kids.
I’ve never wished I had a different undergraduate experience. I loved the great dense swathes of history (Quaker thought, American Imperialism, Asian immigration, Native American boarding schools), biology (AIDS, cholera, embryology, fruit flies) and sociology (African American psychology, urban studies). I swam in the adrenal sea of exams, papers and every semester I felt like I battled an octopus, wrapped in its tentacles, grappling with one arm while others seized my legs, but emerging at the end each time and flipping off the octopus, as it slid beneath the waves. (somewhere in the Bryn Mawr archives is an actual caricature or two I did in the smoker diary, depicting me and the octopus. I feel I maligned the gentle cephalopod, making it the villain so.)
I’ve gone back for four of my five class reunions. There are some women who I wish I could see, but I know I won’t because I heard their voices shake with rage when they talked about being done and being able to leave the place behind. Or they left before graduation and didn’t come back, finding a better, or at least more accessible path for themselves. Some may come back once and say “nope, not for me”. I know there are some who come back to remind themselves of the bad as well as the good, almost like returning to the scene of a battle memorial.
Sometimes stubborn suffering doesn’t do any good. Bryn Mawr was a “weed out the weak” sort of place, when it didn’t need to be. Those of us who came out valuing the place and what it had made of us, didn’t so much do things “right” as have the right luck. I was someone whose skin stretched, marked but whole, over my expanded bones. I could just as easily have been someone whose punished joints never became what they ought to have been, because the people who could have watched over me and counseled caution did not. Bryn Mawr expected honor, but did not teach empathy. It required self-discipline but discouraged self-forgiveness.
I graduated. “Walked” they call it. I walked across the stage and walked away to the next stage of my life. What I didn’t realize was the growing hadn’t stopped. The best of Bryn Mawr was in seeds that began to grow only after I left.
Fall of senior year, on the back steps of the theater building where I worked. Because theater buildings look like Gothic cathedrals, right?