While I was at Vassar

While I was at Vassar I believed myself to be more intelligent, beautiful and fascinating than I ever had before or have for most of the time since. I was a transfer student sophomore, someone who had made a ghastly mistake in college choice, and my expectations of Vassar were limited to a modest hope that I would find a less preppy and more intellectual student body than the one I had found freshman year.

Maybe Vassar is like this for everyone, or maybe I fell into a crowd that was among the wittiest, most stylish and iconoclastic to grace Raymond Avenue. I don’t know. It may all be in my head, but it certainly seemed real then and seems so in retrospect. The time was right; the garish 1970s were ebbing and the 1980s’ effort to return to classic style (see Annie Hall and Ralph Lauren) was rising, albeit to a disco beat.

As young adults, we seemed to have little to fear. We were largely unrestrained by the patriotic and conservative seriousness of our WWII parents. On the other hand, our older siblings had done all the hard work of protesting and poking holes in cultural norms. All we had to do was enjoy the fruits of their labor and focus on more entertaining things. Each of us was the symbolic last child in the American post-war family. We were the beloved end of the baby boom generation and, despite the downer decade of the 1970s, our generational personality was crafted by the fun, pop art, Disney-like, optimistic American golden age of the 1960s.

We weren’t afraid of the Soviets anymore; the Berlin wall would be coming down soon (in general, though, international politics seemed so beyond our understanding that we declined to make any real effort in that direction). Few of us had any real religious concerns. There were no AIDs cases yet, and at least at Vassar, gays were out and having fun (although I’m sure it wasn’t that simple). Vassar being Vassar, we had no compunction to attend football games or get engaged by graduation or anything else to fit a tedious gender role. Of course, Vassar didn’t have the racial and ethnic diversity it has today, and there were some awkward moments and inexplicable facts (why did all the Black girls live in Strong?), but our live-and-let-live philosophy meant that we didn’t think too hard about it. We could do and be anything we wanted and assumed everyone could.

We did take some things seriously—we eagerly pursued knowledge and culture with the goal of re-making ourselves into Vassar-worthy specimens. We dedicatedly enjoyed assessing our professors, fellow students and administrators against standards of grace, wit and intelligence. We went to classic movies, concerts and lectures, museums, galleries, performances and, of course, our classes. We did it all with incredible freedom from social restraint; is it really possible that a friend and I dressed for a Halloween dance as Jack and Jackie Kennedy on the day of his death? It is true; I had slipped over the edge from irreverence into callousness, but I was 19 and the iconic image of those two was one of the few things left with real shock value. Our humor was acerbic and sometimes not so nice. But we laughed and made others laugh.

We read all the great writers who lived or wrote about glamorous stylish lives: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, Mary McCarthy, Lillian Hellman, James Thurber, John Cheever, John Updike. These were educators who could help us be the people we wanted to be. Of course, there were other great writers who didn’t suit, who reflected a different America to which we couldn’t relate.

We wrote silly songs comparing our love to nuclear reactors and sang them with gusto. We dressed up and went to discos on Route 9W and to all-night diners. We read the New York Times and did the Sunday crossword puzzle for far too many hours in the ACDC. We left each other notes in those little boxes guarded by the White Angels in the dorm lobby. We did our share of drinking and other things best left in the shadows. We met for tea in the Rose Parlor. We loved Vassar history and the beauty of campus, managing to largely ignore Poughkeepsie, except for the shops and bars in the immediate neighborhood. We all fell in and out of love with each other. Of course there were jealousies and hurt feelings. After it ended, there were a few moments here and there when we were together again in New York or in the Hamptons, but of course, it couldn’t be, and wasn’t, ever the same. Without really being perfect, my time at Vassar was ideal for the girl I was then. I wish that every girl or boy who seeks such a moment in time can find it, too.

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