We arrived in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1960 as freshmen at the all-female Skidmore College. We sported Breck Girl pageboys and polished Weejuns. We wore gold circle pins (some notched) on the rounded collars of McMullen blouses and toted Bermuda bags with wooden handles, ordered from Trimingham’s. Those purses often held a pack of Kents, purchased off-campus for 25 cents.
We wore dresses to dinner and rotated shifts waiting on tables. Every dorm had a “smoker,” a room where we puffed, played bridge (the dummy immediately dealt the next hand) and discussed last weekend’s dates, anything to avoid cramming for a French midterm. They locked the dorm doors at 10 PM.
Our first semester we were allowed seven overnights, but only with our parents’ written permission. When the Dean received that okay, we carpooled to Dartmouth and Williams, Yale and RPI. Otherwise we spent Saturday nights jitterbugging or close-dancing with a boyfriend to “Georgia On My Mind” at the Embers, a dimly-lit lounge just outside of town.
Saratoga was a sleepy town when we hugged our parents goodbye on that sunny September afternoon decades ago. Hard to believe it was the same city where Diamond Jim Brady once squired actress Lillian Russell to the historic and opulent Canfield Casino in Congress Park. And where legendary Mary Lou Whitney reigned as the queen of August in this fabled horse racing hub. When our class arrived, the city boasted 99 bars and a coffee house. That was about it.
Returning last week for my 55th to a now vibrant city pulsing with al fresco restaurants and art galleries, I momentarily felt I was reliving that scene from “The Wizard of Oz,” when Dorothy leaves black and white Kansas and lands in technicolor Oz. The Saratoga I knew was blanketed in snow — often waist high — that fell steadily from November to late April. Daffodils blooming by the library? Green leaves on the maples? Not when I was there.
Fifty-five years later, few of us have our sylphlike figures of yesteryear. We’re older, hopefully wiser and our blonde pageboys are now silver. I still get a lump in my throat singing the Alma Mater. And every reunion I attend, I’m grateful to be reminded of a lesson that changed my writing life.
First semester, freshman year, first week of English class with a humorless, dour-faced, no-nonsense, helmet-haired professor named McGill. “Your assignment is to write an essay about your most pressing problem — write what is bothering you.” Hoping to impress my teacher and kidding myself that I was sleepless with this “problem,” I blithely, casually wrote 500 words questioning my belief, or not, in God. An A for sure, I thought. Great topic.
A week later the professor handed back our essays. Mine garnered a pitiful C. He then read an excerpt from another student. It started, “My boyfriend is coming here on Saturday night. He says he wants to stay over. Should I or shouldn’t I? I don’t know what to do.” Every girl in class was RIVETED. That “problem” was being hashed in every smoker on campus: should we or shouldn’t we? These were pre-Pill days and we were babes in the woods.
At a reunion several years ago, I was chatting with my friend Kayla, who’d been in McGill’s English class. She told me, “That was my essay. He didn’t like it. I got an F.”
I learned a lot at college, from art history to comparative government to the French subjective tense. But Kayla taught me one of the best lessons: write from the heart, write what you know, write what’s important to you.