IF ONLY….

Standard

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.