You’re not in the club anymore,” Jimmy decreed on the first day of fifth grade. Surely, he was joking. He had to be joking.
I’d been in the club since I arrived at King in third grade and beat him up on my first day. I was their best shortstop, the third best high jumper. I’d shown them how to build the fort, for God’s sake. I was the one who always brought cookies. I watched the set of his shoulders as he swaggered back to the rest of the guys and knew he meant it. Scrawny as Jimmy Callahan was, he’d turned macho, though I didn’t know the word for it yet. I weighed more than he did. I could run faster. But he had the power to call the shots and I knew his decision was final. I wandered over to the girls’ side of the playground and watched some fourth graders play with Betsy Wetsy dolls. I felt lost.
The next day I discovered that fifth grade girls played dodgeball. With my shortstop’s arm I was deadly and soon began to blend in. I made friends with the class tomboys, Taffy Wheeler and Mary Beth Grimm, and began to be asked to the right slumber parties. I could always get their attention by eating a dog biscuit or rolling my eyeballs up into my head. I still felt lost though. Some of the girls wore nail polish. Others already owned a starter lipstick called Tangee that, after a few applications, made you look like you’d been sucking an orange popsicle. All of them seemed to want bosoms as we called them. But not me. Definitely not me. When they started to gossip about the cute boys in the class I was mortified. The Randy Griffen I knew picked his nose. Billy Thomas frequently farted. The idea of dancing with one of them, or holding hands, which I was mistakenly told was ‘first base’ was a horrifying prospect to me. I’d arm wrestle them, maybe, but that was as close as I wanted to get to their grubby paws.
In seventh grade I was sent to Old Trail, an all girls private school my mother claimed specialized in academic excellence. Now there were no boys in our class to admire, only the ones in dancing school whom we saw for two hours on the last Friday of each month. These new boys wore coats and ties and had no idea I could throw a baseball or build a fort so they rarely chose me to dance. Jimmy Callahan and the rest of the old gang were off learning to smoke at Simon Perkins Junior High. I feigned indifference. But as my friends started acquiring boyfriends, I knew I’d have to find one myself before the eighth grade dance, or I’d have no option but to stay home and be whispered about forever.
Deliverance came unexpectedly in the guise of Buzzy Gammill. I’d initially caught his attention by walloping him in backstroke at swim practice. Determined to beat me, he started seeking me out. Soon we were playing sharks and minnows or mumbly peg. He took me fishing in his outboard boat and taught me to water-ski on the lake, even though his parents had forbidden him to pull a skier without an adult. We skipped stones and whittled sticks together. It felt like being back in the old club. I’m sure Buzzy had no romantic interest in me, nor did I in him. I also knew that, come autumn, he was going to become my expedient boyfriend. Buzzy wasn’t ready for this abrupt shift of gears and retreated to his old pals, but not before escorting me to that all important eighth grade dance.
In ninth grade, I was shipped off to boarding school. My mother had heard there were even greater heights of academic excellence to be found back East. All the boarding schools we looked at, all the boarding schools that were available to look at in 1958, were single sex. The only men in evidence on campus at Ethel Walker, the exclusive one where I landed, were the riding master and the janitors. Oh, and Reverend Brownstone, an Ichabod Crane of a minister who came one afternoon a week to teach a required four year course in religion. I was stunned to discover how many girls had crushes on the Rev until, midway through freshman year, my hormones kicked in and, in the absence of better specimens, decided he was kind of cute after all.
Aware that complete seclusion of her girls was unwise, Miss Ferguson, our headmistress and honorary Master at Arms, arranged dances with nearby male institutions. The boys would arrive by bus, be assigned a date according to height, and march off into the dining room where mashed potatoes were always part of the meal. As we learned from the older girls, the mashed potatoes were the best place to secrete the saltpeter that was reputed to dampen adolescent ardor. We eyed the suspect potato puree nervously and ate as little else as possible, lest we suddenly look chubby. Following the attempt to rein in our libidos with tainted tubers, we proceeded to the Pratt Gymnasium, romantically lit as if for a basketball tournament, where we danced to dated big band records that must have been borrowed from the spinster faculty. Isolated as we EWS girls were, we still knew about Elvis but the pelvic gyrations associated with his overly stimulating music were, without doubt, considered a danger to our virgin morals.
Believe it or not-- and my children still don't believe it-- those were the most exciting dances I ever attended. We saw boys so infrequently that even the pimpliest, sweatiest-palmed geek was of all consuming interest to us. Scoring the name of one of the few verifiable hunks on your dance card was a coup, but dancing with anyone male would do. We all felt like Eve picking the forbidden fruit at those dances, a joy that was exponentially multiplied if our old maid English teacher happened to be watching. As the buses rolled out, addresses were inevitably exchanged. The rush to the mailboxes the following Tuesday was a veritable stampede. We were all in love, a condition that was easy enough to affect since we hardly knew the objects of our affections.
From Ethel Walker I went on to dishearteningly all female Bennett Junior College. In 1962, most eastern colleges were still single sex. If you wanted co-ed, you had to go west and, even though I was from Ohio, I had thoroughly been brainwashed at EWS that nothing of consequence in the United States took place beyond the Hudson River. At Bennett, we were not limited to monthly dances. Indeed, on some days men even outnumbered women on campus. We didn’t hang out together casually actually getting to know one another though. Men were there in the earnest search for a date. We women were even more earnest in our efforts to become those dates. Girls went out in twosomes, as if preparing to board Noah’s Ark, where we would fall in with pre-arranged twosomes of the closely related, yet alien male species.
If my roommate didn’t get a date, that was her tough luck. I would never have suggested we bring her along as part of the gang, nor would she have done so for me. College dates were mating rituals. not friendships and winning the opportunity to participate was a cut-throat competition. If you went out with a boy long enough, you might play a game of Frisbee, or maybe sit close together solving a crossword. Little of the time we spent in each other’s company was devoted to being friends. We drank and danced, or went to the movies, where you didn’t have to talk. Even the touch football game that was perpetually in progress on the Bennett lawn was less sport than metaphor. The boys got to show off. The girls got to show off. Best of all was that the object was to touch. Gentle tackling was quite out of bounds, of course. Quaint as it seems now, premarital sex was still nominally taboo in the early Sixties. We had to be creative.
By the end of my college career, I’d come 180 degrees from my days in fifth grade at King. Oh I had amassed lots of beaux, but had no male friends. Marriage in 1965 did away with the beaux, but didn’t garner me any male friends either, not even my husband. Roped into marital chastity by social convention as we were, we young marrieds made up for it by flirting instead. We had done it for so long, so exclusively that we didn’t know how else to communicate with the opposite sex. When I divorced in my mid-thirties, I quit flirting. I quit talking to men almost entirely, in fact. My female friends felt threatened if I, an available divorcee, spoke to their husbands. Meanwhile, I felt threatened whenever I spoke to available single men. Only in my mid-fifties, with the great mating race past at long last, did I finally become comfortable talking to men again. My adult-life-long conditioning still leads me to gravitate toward other women socially though. I’m not alone. At cocktail parties in my seventies, the sexes continue to divide up like we’re back in dancing school at Old Trail. At dinner parties, the men talk over their partners to other men, while we women continue the conversations we started with each other before we sat down...the conversations which, in a sense, we began in the 1950s. It seems to work best for us. Still, I do miss those long ago days in the boys’ club with Callahan and company, and cannot help feeling as if something important was, and has remained, lost. I still wonder on occasion whether Jimmy is alive, and whether he ever misses my company in the way I’ve missed his.
Susan Evans is a life long practitioner of journalling which led her to writing memoir. In addition to a family history and biographies of her children and grandchildren she has written a book chronicling the first year after her daughter's death titled LATER, COURTNEY that is available on Amazon.