Across the River and Into the Woods
A brief anecdote about a chat I had with this one guy when I was eighteen that explains everything
First, the setup.
So, I grew up in The Valley. That Valley. The one where Valley Girls originated (ask your parents).
My high school was on Ventura Boulevard. Everyone had fluorescent pink socks and crunchy hair. And while it was a perfectly fine place to teen, no one would call it a shining beacon of enlightenment to light the world.
For that I went East.
Through a couple quirks of fate and likely also my high marks in what passed for diversity in the Ivy League at the time (west coast, woman, penniless, real self-starter) because it certainly wasn’t my raw GPA or family connections, I applied to and was accepted at Dartmouth.
You may have heard of Dartmouth recently in conjunction with such highlights of elite college culture as fraternity hazing, rape, and beer pong. It also features outstanding faculty, a gorgeous campus, and an awkward (racist, colonialist) legacy with regard to Native Americans. The school sits on a wooded hill above the Connecticut River just over the Live Free or Die side of the New Hampshire/Vermont border—in an area also known as The Upper Valley.
Overall, I had an OK time that it took me the better part of a decade to process. Scratch that. It’s still weird to think about — that combination of astonishing privilege and opportunity with what I guess are the inevitable unsavory counterparts to astonishing privilege and opportunity that become invisible when you’re soaking in it. (“It” being a stunning quantity of alcohol.) Thinking you deserve what you lucked into and a complete lack of empathy for the less lucky are what come to mind.
At the time I arrived, Dartmouth had been co-ed for a mere 16 years out of two hundred and twenty. The first women students truly deserve to be called pioneers. They had a brutal time. Most notoriously, some men put up signs reading “Go Home Co-Hogs” and urinated on women out of windows. I am sure worse things happened.
It was a while before I learned this history.
I matriculated at the heyday of political correctness. We referred to our classmates as “women” not “girls”, and some “men” in my class caught hell from the administration for printing an article about “chicks” in their jokey zine. All the women I met were pretty kickass. (Whatever the amenities, tender flowers don’t choose to move to northern New England.) The men didn’t give me any trouble. And the alma mater had just that year finally been changed from “Men of Dartmouth” to “Men of Dartmouth and Guests” to be more inclusive.
Now, the anecdote
So, week two of my freshman year, I am still shocked and amazed to be there — chuffed, as the Brits say — having grown up in The Valley, on welfare, without going further east than Nevada. A mixer is happening on the first floor of my dorm. Red cups. Beer. Meeting the neighbors. And, it’s worth noting that while each room or suite is single-sex (including the en-suite bathrooms), the dorm complex is totally co-ed. On the surface, it all seems very, as they say, chill.
I strike up a conversation with this guy, the most nondescript white guy, also a freshman. It’s the usual where are you from, what classes are you taking, etc. Then, he says,
“You know, I’m fine attending classes with women, but I really wish the dorms were all-male. The women could live across the river.”
I just look at him. I’m not even offended. This is just the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard.
“Do you like women?” I ask.
“So, explain this to me.”
“Well, I just want to be able to relax and hang out in my boxers, drinking beers and goofing around in the hallways and stuff.”
“And you can’t do this if women live in the dorm? Because seriously, I don’t give a fuck if you roam the hallways in your underwear chugging beers.”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to have to worry about girls seeing me like that. You know, if I’m interested in dating them.”
I think our chat ended there and I don’t remember that we ever spoke again. He didn’t seem like a particularly bad guy, and probably went on to an illustrious political career. But that exchange stuck with me, it was like seeing a really peculiar bird for the first time.
It was so strange, because for all the jackassery and malfunction of high-school, it was very equal opportunity jackassery and malfunction. I went to a huge public school in a flashy upper-middle class neighborhood (I truly lived on the lower income side of a set of disused railroad tracks) where just as many of my female friends were being pressured to be doctors and lawyers as my male friends. My English teacher goaded the shy girls to speak up more. My calculus teacher passed out fact sheets on international women’s rights issues. There were some vestiges of The Old Way. My PE class was in what was originally the Girls’ Gym (1/3 the size of the Boys’ Gym, built pre-Title IX), but the elbows flew during basketball, irrespective of gender. And we most definitely enjoyed hair product parity.
I was so naive.
But after that interaction, and a few that followed in the same vein, I realized there are still some men who want us women to live across the river, or up on a pedestal, or on the other side of a wall for no good reason — simply because thinking of us and interacting with us just as other humans is too challenging to some preconceived ideal — even at the apex of privilege and with all the evidence of our similarity manifest (same age, same school, same dorm, wearing jeans, drinking beer).
And I still can’t accept that. No one should.