Stepping Out

            When I transferred to the University of Southern California at the end of my freshman year of college, I had no idea what to expect. I had visited no college campuses during my last year of high school, had never seen a residence hall (we called them dorms in the 1970s), and had chosen a major in math just because I found it easy.

            USC was not my first choice. I really wanted to go to Ohio State and live with my grandmother. I didn’t know if her neighborhood was safe, how far she lived from the campus and whether or not public transportation could get me there. My primary purpose was to escape my dysfunctional family. Going to Ohio was about as far away from California as I thought my parents would let me go. Plus, I figured, living with Grandma would give my parents peace of mind.

            They refused.

            Thanks to a full scholarship from the State of California, I could attend any college in the state, tuition-free. I wanted San Francisco State College because they had an excellent teacher-preparation program. I had always dreamed of being a teacher as the classroom was the one safe place where I wouldn’t be hit, spanked, or ridiculed. Teaching, was to me, an honored profession, something to aspire to.

My parents thought differently. They believed that I didn’t have it in me to teach. Intellectually, socially, psychologically. Considering had backwards I was back then, they were right. So, once again, my parents refused. The excuse they gave was that they didn’t want me living on campus and they were terrified of public transportation Their fears made no sense to me.

            My brother also received the state scholarship. He applied to and was accepted to USC as an Engineering major. Because my brother would be there, that was the only college my parents would allow me to attend.

            When September rolled around, my parents drove us down to Los Angeles. My first glimpse of USC was of towering, impressive-looking buildings. Everything was huge. So huge that I saw myself drowning. But I nodded, telling myself that I wouldn’t let that happen.

            After unloading my brother’s stuff at his dorm, I was taken to mine. My room was on the fourth floor, with a great view of what I learned was called the quad.

I wasn’t dismayed by the tiny size of the room as I had been sharing a comparably-sized room with my sister for most of my life.

There were things about it that I liked: the closet was the right width for my limited wardrobe. The bed looked like a couch until it was pulled out from the wall. It was comfortable enough, but then I was only eighteen and so thought anything that wasn’t a floor was okay.

I had a desk and shelves. Wall space to decorate. And more drawers than I’d ever had.

Everything about my new living situation pleased me except for the trek required to get to the communal bathroom. Sharing a bathroom for private affairs was a bit of a shock. But I was okay because it wasn’t home.

My roommate was a haughty, unfriendly rich girl. Her mother arrived every week with a rack of brand-new clothes with tags on and wrapped in plastic bags. A hair dresser appeared like clockwork every few weeks and cut her hair in our room! I couldn’t imagine such wealth until I’d come face-to-face with it.

Shortly after classes began, my brother decided to pledge a fraternity. I seriously doubt that he knew any more about fraternities than I did about sororities. We knew no one who had gone to college and so had no experience with pledging and all that entailed. I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I figured that if he could do it, so could I.

He got accepted into the house that later I learned was for nerds. It wasn’t his first choice. He’d yearned to be at the jock house even though he wasn’t a jock. The only fraternity that accepted my brother was the one for the smart, geeky guys that couldn’t get in anywhere else. Despite the disappointment, my brother grew to love it. For the first time in his life, he was surrounded with nonathletes whose academic goals were lofty.

Next door was a beautiful southern-style building that was home to a sorority affiliated with my brother’s fraternity. They called themselves Little Sisters.

I convinced a rather plain looking girl whom I had befriended in the dorm to go through rush with me. We spent many dinners at that sorority, hoping to be accepted. Looking back now, I bet the sisters laughed at my wide-open eyes each time I sat to eat.

It was my first experience sitting at an exquisite dinner table with rows of utensils on both sides of the plate. Tablecloth and stark white linen napkins. Getting gussied up for a meal. Surrounded by pleasant conversation swirling about. It must have shown, yet they invited me back, time after time.

I was overwhelmed each time. There was no arguing, no belittling, no being punched or kicked or smacked.

I badly wanted to be there, to be one with this wonderful group of young women. My friend was eventually dropped. I understood, even though it made me angry. Her face was covered by acne scars, so many that her skin was permanently dimpled. Her voice was nasally and her wardrobe was as inferior as mine. She was hurt when she was asked not to return. Even so, she encouraged me to continue to try to be accepted.

As time passed, in order to prove my worthiness, I had to participate in a series of activities. The first was a fashion show for a group of women donors. We had to wear our own clothes.

That’s when I noticed how badly I fit in.

The others had designer outfits. Tailored dresses for all occasions. Perfectly cut pants with matching blazers. Scarves and expensive-looking jewelry. Casual clothes that spoke of money.

Only my underwear came from a store: my mother had made every dress, skirt and blouse.

Prior to the show we practiced sashaying down a pretend runway. I was awkward to say the least. I blushed at the thought of swaying my hips. I had difficulty breathing just thinking about parading in front of anyone. (I’d never done that at home as my mother thought such behavior was vulgar.)

Two days before the show we had to submit a 3×5 card with detailed descriptions of each of our three outfits. We were supposed to name the designer, the fabric, the trims, the details so as to wow the audience.

What was I to do? Name my mother? The cheap cotton of my dress? The discount fake-lace and ribbon? I tried to “sick” my way out of the show, but was told that it was a condition of my potential acceptance into the house.

The day arrived. I carried over my arm an A-line dress made of white cotton, trimmed with fake gold around the neck, a plaid plain-looking skirt with a matching cotton blouse and the only pantsuit I had, a bright orange cotton, bell-bottom affair that probably glowed in the dark.

Behind the stage we were given racks to hang our clothes. Except for high school PE, I had never changed in front of other girls. As I watched them get dressed in their first outfits, I realized that they were skinny and I was fat. There was no way I’d fit in with these girls!

I picked up my clothes to make a hasty exit, but the house mother blocked my way. I was told that under no terms was I told I had to go out on that stage.

With tears in my eyes, I put on the dress and stood in line. Slowly it inched forward as impeccably dressed girls went before me. When only two girls were before me, I had a clear view of the stage, the walkway and the room. To my eyes, I believed there were at least one hundred richly dressed women in the room.

My turn came. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders and walked out on that stage. As instructed, I stopped next to the emcee. As she read the description of my homemade dress, I felt my cheeks blush and my eyes fill with tears.

I knew by then that I didn’t belong there, that I would never belong and that I was foolish to think that I could. However, I couldn’t runaway, so I took a deep breath and stepped out.

I did not sashay. I did not swirl or twirl or even plant my hands on my hips. I did not stop when I got to the end, but spun around and not-quite dashed to the back of the stage.

I changed into my next outfit, knowing that it only served to show how very poor I was. When my turn came, I stepped out once again. And then did the same for my third outfit.

When the fashion show part of the luncheon ended, we found seats at the tables, surrounded by wealthy women. I don’t remember the meal, but I am willing to bet that I ate nothing. I probably only offered cursory responses if anyone bothered to speak to me. I probably sat there with tears streaming down my face.

On the way back to campus, I berated myself for being so foolish to think that I could be a part of a sorority. My poverty, my poor upbringing, my complete lack of exposure to wealth, meant that if I was invited to join, it would only be because they needed a poor girl as a token representation of their efforts to diversify.

Stepping out on that stage was one of the most difficult things I’d done, but I did it.

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