IF ONLY….

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Eventually you reach the point where most of your life is behind you. You have to exert considerable imagination to keep the days from being repetitive. What’s coming down the pike is at best not likely to be particularly exciting, at worst not advisable to think about too much.  That’s when some of us who are crossing over into old age may be tempted to amuse ourselves by wondering what sort of life we might have had if we’d played our cards differently.

Bill is a big one for this kind of fantasy. If only he hadn’t done thus and so.  If only he’d listened to M. If only he’d chosen a different career path, a different wife, a different country in which to settle. Right now he’s mourning the fact he never applied for dual citizenship and a Swiss passport at the time he was married to a Swiss national, had just become the father of a Swiss-born son, and was practicing medicine in Geneva. When he becomes especially disgusted with the domestic and international news, he so yearns to live in Geneva again! What he would do about me if he could take off for Geneva we don’t discuss, because it’s a pipe dream.  Not only would he likely find lots to dislike about present-day Geneva. He doesn’t have the passport, or the social benefits Switzerland affords its citizens.  Becoming Swiss was the road not taken.

He’s tried playing this game with my history, too. He thinks younger me, the one he never knew, had an unnecessarily hard time, beginning with college. “You’d have had a much better life if you’d gone to Radcliffe,” he declares.  In this scenario, he gives me a happier, more flirtatious four college years than the ones I lived through.  He also has me engaged to a Harvard man by the time I graduate, preferably someone who will go on to become well-fixed and famous.  I will then have the money, leisure and connections to develop my talents, whatever they might have been, instead of having had to “settle” for less than optimal husband material and then having to slog away at earning a living in various jobs/industries/professions while being married to men less meritorious, in his view, than I deserved.  When he talks like this, he almost sounds like my mother.

Does he really believe I could have attracted the likes of, let’s say, John Updike, who actually was at Harvard during the years I attended college? Maybe he does. (He overestimates my abilities in almost every area.) He’d be wrong. Or if not completely wrong, if John Updike had been fool enough to fall for insecure, emotionally immature me — then we almost certainly would have divorced each other pretty soon, as both of us did, with other people, in our actual real lives. Besides, would twenty-year-old John Updike, fresh from Shillington, Pennsylvania, have been attractive to irrationally picky me? Bill doesn’t factor in questions like that when he’s spinning straw into gold.

Mind you, he’s no dummy. He’s not a believer in the actual possibility of these alternate reality fairy tales.  Maybe it’s a holdover from all those years of doing psychiatric talk therapy with patients.  He just enjoys speculating. But count me out of the “if only” game. I don’t want to waste time on trips to la-la land. (We are ying and yang about that.) In my view, most of us played the cards we were dealt as best we could, often after careful consideration, although sometimes also driven by irrational impulses of which we were at the time unaware. If in retrospect, it seems there might have been preferable alternatives, they weren’t real alternatives.

For the record, I enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College — the school Bill believes I would have done better not to attend — at a time when the last few World War II vets, beneficiaries of the GI Bill, were graduating. It would be about twenty years before the college again became co-ed. I nonetheless accepted its offer, despite the absence of men, like a wallflower being asked to dance.

Sarah Lawrence in 1948 was a twenty-year-old college, slightly north of New York City, which for its first couple of years seems to have functioned as a two-year holding pen for young ladies waiting to become wives of future lawyers, doctors and financiers. But in the early 1930s it somehow managed to transform itself into an experimental four-year adventure in learning to learn for oneself. Alas, in 1948 I was a highly conventional young person of seventeen who wanted to be like everyone else. I would have felt perfectly comfortable with a conventional college education. Experimental adventures in learning for oneself sounded absolutely terrifying. I knew how to memorize, to do extremely well on examinations, and to compose in fluent, dutiful prose any number of well-organized but boring thoughts on set topics.

This was absolutely not what Sarah Lawrence was about. There were no exams, and no memorizing, except for vocabulary in foreign language courses, of which there were few.  There were no textbooks; one read source material.  Small classes met for an hour and a half around a conference table, but only once a week. In addition, there was an independent term-long project associated with the class subject matter on which each student worked by herself and on which she reported every other week to the course professor in a private conference in his or her office. The project was supposed to culminate at term’s end in a long paper called a “contract.” There were also no grades, and therefore no conventional way of knowing how well you were doing. Every semester, you received a paragraph or so of commentary on your work from the professor of each course, assessed in terms of your ability and potential. (The office kept grade equivalents of these reports, in the event you needed to apply to graduate school afterwards, but you never saw them while you were an undergraduate. You weren’t supposed to be working for grades.)

You’d think someone whose modus operandi had hitherto been to claw her way to the top of her classes might not be ideal raw material for this educational experiment. But based on my academic record and completion of a sixteen-page application consisting of thirty-two questions about myself, each to be answered on half a blank page, I was offered a full scholarship.  It was probably a mistake in judgment on the college’s part. They may have thought they could shake up the way my mind worked. As for me, I didn’t question their motives. Despite some apprehension about the novel educational environment into which I was about to plunge myself — would I be able to keep the scholarship being the principal fear — I had no hesitation in saying yes, yes, yes.  Sauve qui peut.

The situation at home which drove my acceptance was as follows:

(1)  Radcliffe, where I did really want to go (because it was the sister school of Harvard), did not give me a scholarship and didn’t even admit me, probably because there was no point in wasting an admission on someone who needed financial aid and wasn’t going to get it.  I was “wait-listed,” a polite way of saying, “Sorry.” Did being Jewish have something to do with that? Some might have said yes, although you probably couldn’t have gotten anyone in the Admissions Office to admit it. A girl from my high school with the exact same grades as mine, but who wore a cross around her neck and sang in her church choir, was admitted — with financial aid from the Radcliffe Club of New York. I had no cross or church choir membership, although I did then play classical piano fairly well. I also remember sinking fast with the ladies from the Radcliffe Club at their tea for applicants during our high-school senior year. I was entirely inexperienced at gracefully holding a teacup and saucer, plus a cookie, plus my handbag, while trying to balance on rarely worn cuban heels and searching for subjects about which to converse with the several minimally polite Radcliffe Club members in their forties and fifties circulating the room to check me out.  Bill’s reveries about my going to Radcliffe might have made allowances for these circumstances; he himself had to go to medical school abroad — in Geneva, to be specific — because Jewish boys had such a hard time getting into medical schools here at home.

(2)  Vassar, my second choice, did make an offer but provided no aid.  The Admissions Office there informed my parents that if they could swing the first year and I did well, there might be a scholarship for the second year. Tuition and board that year was $1200. My father earned $5000 a year (before taxes) when he was working, thanks to Local 802 of the AFL Musicians’ Union.  But a hotel musician had no guarantee of a steady job, could be let go on two weeks notice, and frequently was. So my parents banked half of every paycheck that came in, and managed on the other half.  $1200 would have just about cleaned out the savings account. My father was reluctantly willing, my mother less so. She believed a woman’s economic security lay in finding a husband with a good job, not in acquiring fancy higher education that might lead to who knew what. As for me, I was afraid of wiping my father out and then finding that Vassar’s conditional second-year scholarship did not come through, leaving me without any alternative after the first year.

(3) There was also a fallback school, where I didn’t even have to apply. It was Hunter College, to which the high school for girls I attended was attached, both administratively and geographically.  A diploma from Hunter College High School automatically entitled you to a place in the freshman class of Hunter College. Moreover, because it was a city school, it was free, or almost free.  I could have gone on living at home, in the tiny room at the end of the short hall behind the kitchen which I had occupied since I was eleven, and taken the subway from Kew Gardens into Manhattan and back every day, just as I had done all through high school. I’m sure I would have received a good, if conventional, college education in some subject of my choice, probably English, and then gone on to teach it, perhaps at Hunter. Maybe I might also have met someone to marry, although I wasn’t sure where. I would also have had to go on spending too much time alone in the small apartment with my by-then depressed and menopausal mother, since my father frequently had to take out-of-town jobs. This future so much didn’t make my heart beat faster I wanted to cry whenever I thought of it.

(4)  Finally, there was Sarah Lawrence. The high-school college guidance counselor had suggested applying to at least three schools if I wanted to try to avoid enrolling at Hunter. It would have been prudent for all three to be in New York State, because there was a good chance I would win a New York State Regents scholarship in the competitive statewide examinations held midway through the last year of high school, and thereby receive $300 a year for each of four years of attendance at a New York institution of higher education.  True, Radcliffe was in Massachusetts.  But even the guidance counselor thought I should give Radcliffe a shot.  However, Vassar was in New York State. Now I needed another.  Skidmore?  Barnard? NYU?  What about this one, with the pretty light blue catalogue cover?  It offered courses described in expansive terms that had nothing to do with specific subjects — “The Individual in History,” “Classical and Christian Civilization,” “Renaissance and Reformation” — and therefore sounded grown-up and sophisticated.   “Why not? What’s the harm?” I thought, with my mind focussed on Radcliffe.  I listed Sarah Lawrence as my third choice on the SATs.  The catalogue cover was really very attractive.

And that, dear friends and dear Bill, is the story of how I became a Sarah Lawrence girl rather than a Radcliffe girl (or, for that matter, a Vassar girl).  There really was no choice; “if only” never entered into it.  What came afterwards may not have been the easier ride Bill might have wanted for me if he could have rearranged things his way, or the opportunity for a rich choice of well-heeled husbands that was undoubtedly my mother’s dashed hope.  But when I look back, it seems to me I wouldn’t have become whoever I am had I been able to follow a hypothetically easier road.  At Sarah Lawrence, I did (with angst) eventually learn to learn for myself, to connect disparate facts in a new way, and thus equipped, was later able to survive and even somewhat prosper in what was then still really a man’s world. Yes, it was sometimes lonely.  Yes, I was sometimes envious. But with time it became evident that no road is really easy. Better to learn to tough it out early, while you’re still resilient and can roll with the punches. There’s also a bonus.  In your later years, you can always blog about it, and it won’t be boring.

 

 

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13 thoughts on “IF ONLY….

  1. I agree that rue-filled “if only’s” are useless.

    Sarah Lawrence is to be commended for accepting you and awarding you a scholarship. Clearly, they appreciated your intellect and academic abilities and were not anti-Semitic. BTW, I applied there because I fell in love with the pretty campus–and because my mother would not let me apply to Bennington, which had no curfew. And I’ve always taken pride in my identity as a “Sarah Lawrence girl”–the image it conjures up to many of a Bohemian with style. SL girls did not wear cable-stitch knee socks, circle pins, and bermudas, at least in my day–they wore jeans and leotards and carried Greek bags. Of course, I was only a sartorial bohemian–maybe you could say, a bourgeois bohemian. All this is very superficial, you might say, and it’s true that I was very taken up with appearances then (my mother’s legacy).

    FYI, John Updike was in Fred’s class (1954) at Harvard–so I guess you could have met him. My Brearley classmates who went to Radcliffe were actually quite boring–with the exception of my somewhat nutty good friend Annie-May, who first pursued gourmet cooking, then Tantric sex, and divorced her Harvard classmate husband. There was Susan, who didn’t meet her husband until Harvard Law School. Then Harriet who never had a job or career. Ditto, for Joanna who does “good works” in Seattle. And Bonnie, a truly brilliant student, was told by Miss Mitchell, the headmistress, that she shouldn’t bother applying to Radcliffe because the Jewish quota was already filled by Susan, who was likelier to get in. Bonnie lost all respect for Miss M, for colluding with such a corrupt system. She went to Brown (Pembroke), got a PhD at Columbia, and was a tenured professor of history at Brooklyn College until her recent retirement.

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    • Thank you for commending Sarah Lawrence, Martha. Maybe you should write them a letter; they might otherwise miss the compliment. 🙂

      As for sartorial bohemianism, you got there twelve years after me. Although Sarah Lawrence girls in my day did wear leotards if they took modern dance with Bessie (Schoenberg), and jeans (which had recently replaced skirts and sweaters, but not entirely; day students still wore them) — it was also still the style to sport Bermudas in fall and spring and circle pins just about all the time. Greek bags I did not know about until my sixties. And yes, all that was superficial, but looks did matter in college, unless you were one of those who shut herself up in her room for most of the semester and came out only for meals and classes wearing pajama tops to prove some kind of point.

      When I was in my thirties or forties, the New York Times ran an expose Sunday magazine article about Jewish quotas at Sarah Lawrence and at many of the Seven Sister colleges on the Eastern Seaboard in the 40s and 50s. The part about Sarah Lawrence surprised me; it must have been a pretty elastic quota. When I fished out my 1952 yearbook and counted names, I found between 25% and 30% were Jewish (including, of course, mine).

      I take your last paragraph to be some sort of reassurance that except for Annie-May (and there’s an exception to every rule), girls who went to Radcliffe and married Harvard guys were, or turned out to be, rather boring (and probably don’t blog about getting old, either), so that I’m better off for not having got in. If I’m wrong, don’t correct me.

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  2. Another fascinating insight into your life, Nina, and once again, I’m struck that there are parallels with my own. But unlike you, I have often wondered ‘what if’… What if I had stayed at my highbrow private girls school and continued my intensely academic education, instead of begging my parents to let me move to the more adventurous, diverse yet academically average environment of my local high school? What if I had remained within that narrow but intensive educational environment, gone to a red-brick university, embarked on the kind of career expected of a girl like me or even met a university educated, career-ambitious man instead of letting my life take the course it did…. what if… what if… what if…. No regrets, because I don’t do those, but often the ‘what if’ question.

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    • It sounds to me, Julie, as if there really weren’t any “what if”s (or “if only”s) in your life either. You were the kind of girl you were, and if your parents had insisted you stay on at your “highbrow private girls school” — how well would you have done, wishing all the time to be somewhere else? Even when it looks as if there was a “choice,” those forces within us of which we’re usually unaware until much later in our lives, if then, generally preclude real choice. Would Julie Lawford have been happy/contented as Mrs. “University-Educated Career-Ambitious?” I can’t answer that. Only you can. But I suspect probably not.

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      • You’re right, of course. We are who we are, and I made the choices I did, and insisted on the changes I did, because of who I am, and cannot help but be. As I’ve grown older however, I have certainly wondered what it might have been like, to have married some high-flyer and become a ‘professional wife’… knowing all the time that had I found that sort of person, I doubt very much I would have been that sort of a wife! And yet… as I soldiered through my thirties and forties, up to my neck in career pressure and with nobody else’s salary to fall back on, I could not but help my occasional envious glimpse over the fence, and the sight of those ‘ladies who lunch’! 😉

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  3. I agree to a great degree with your conclusions. We are influenced by the values of our parents, and those of the society around us. And it takes a while, usually, until we choose our own values. You did the best you could with what was there, and you managed to have a good and interesting life. You also had luck on your side, even if there were some down moments along the way. Very interesting to read this account of your college day choices.

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    • Some luck, yes, Shimon — especially, as the child of Jews, in having been born on the safer side of the Atlantic Ocean. But to some degree, we also make our own luck, given the circumstances in which we find ourselves. You say it well when you call it “doing our best with what was there.” Glad you found it interesting reading.

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  4. Your choices at the time sound channelled to me. You would have had trouble finding a better choice than the one you took. I think humans are pretty much geared to rationalising their choices, so most of us think we made the right choice whatever the outcome.

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    • Given the young person I was — not one, for instance, “channelled” to run off with a truck driver, despite a crush on Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire — I did the best I could with what was there. As I say, it wasn’t really a “right” choice, because there seemed to be no other even minimally acceptable choice available at that time in that society. It was more like finding an open door and walking through it. And then the outcome was what it was…..

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