Dating Myself: Reflections on Coeducation
Together, At Last: SLC goes coed
by Miles Beller '73
More than three long decades have come and gone since I attended our beloved alma mater, this with no small help from a sizable student loan. Yet it seems like only yesterday that I was turning into the old campus parking lot in my chartreuse VW “bug,” headed for my cozy dormitory, that comfy yet stately structure with the memorable name....What was the name? Well, I did live on campus in a building that surely had a name, something with a “T,” or was it an “M?” These letters look so much alike, don’t they?
Anyway, I do remember that those nascent days of young men joining young women were an exciting turning point in our collective history. For myself, I discovered I’d rather be a writer than a painter. It was far easier on the ego to let an agent mail a manuscript to an editor than personally appearing on slide-day at a gallery and being rejected in seconds rather than months. Moreover, writing was considerably less messy than painting and offered more opportunities to acquire nifty office equipment. Also, I could sit at restaurants and look infuriatingly pretentious, hunched over a notepad as I scribbled what was certain to be the post-Joyce masterpiece. (That would be Joyce Maynard.) All this I came to realize and understand while enrolled at our dear school during its pioneering days of coeducation.
Yes, by Jove, I was there at the dawn of coeducation at SLC, admitted as a junior, a transfer student, not long after men were first let into our school. Let me add that when I decided to enroll in our alma mater, I was abandoning a revered center of learning in Boston not far from the Charles River. (If I wanted to give the impression this were Harvard, I would have identified the city as “Cambridge.”) Simply put, I left this unnamed university because of its educational philosophy. True, I could study the Hudson River School, an American artistic movement of the 19th century with roots in European Romanticism that, paradoxically, set out to heed Emerson’s call “to ignore the courtly Muses of Europe.” However, since I was not an art major, I wasn’t allowed to take an applied painting course. And, really, what good is an education if it limits rather than enlarges your parameters? That was one of the great gains in my switching schools. As my don, Debra Pincus, put it, I could now actually do things rather than just read about them. And she was absolutely right. For as far as I was concerned, knowing about painters such as T.P. Rossiter did not a rosy liberal arts education make.
So I came to attend our happy haven of education, a place I would have referenced more artfully than “happy haven of higher education” were it not for the limited synonyms spit out by the thesaurus bundled with MSWord. For me, there was a sense of finding kindred souls. Whether playing rhythm guitar in a band, called The Chubby Bunnies, with Gregory Fleeman ’73 and Dan Azulay ’75, that specialized in cover versions of Young Rascals and Zombie tunes, or just knocking around campus with Dan Rudanski ’75 and Jay Fortgang ’73, I felt I was home— or at least not far from it—which, in point of fact, I was, since Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, was only a commuter train/subway ride away. But I digress. Rather, if these old walls could talk, how boring they would be!
As I continue letting my thoughts travel back under the haze of some three decades and over the pileup of mixed metaphors, I strike other memories. Can I ever forget those nights-turning-into-mornings spent passionately debating the finer points of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” while watching the sun spill over the central lawn?
Certainly my confrères from the class of ’73 are engaging their own memories even as I type this. Therefore, let me turn my attention elsewhere and proffer a theory as to why my personal gaze back on “coeducation” holds meaning for us yet today. Furthermore, let me state—indeed, let me affirm—that as you consider “coeducation,” I hope what comes to mind is not something ripped from the title sheet of a covert Soviet Union social engineering report circa 1954, during the long sleep of the Eisenhower years. No, I trust you are focusing on “the human equation,” which logically leads us to ratios; specifically, why the inchoate days of coeducation at our school saw so few men and so many women.
I fell in love, fell into debt, and fell head over heels for our school, a nurturing and encouraging oasis that helped me fully grasp who I could be.
Now, I bet you’re expecting the illuminating anecdote, the gem-like revelatory incident making manifest the radiant whole. I suppose I could recount a stirring senior-year romance with a freshwoman that chivalry compels me to refer to simply as quote, Helen, unquote. Or might I write of how my heart was shattered by a redheaded modern dancer from Ohio, who moved with more natural grace than ought legally to be allowed? All this I could tell you were it not for the fact that none of it happened. Well, actually, the redhead business surely did. I met her in a European drama class taught by one of my favorite teachers, Hyman Kleinman. And though I have long forgotten the plot to the Fredrich Dürrenmatt play that we studied, I vividly recall the redhead floating in one spring day, entering through a half-open long window, her hair as brilliant as the roses I would soon buy her on our first date. If memory is to be trusted, neither one of us ever formally ended things. But her sure, steady drift from me was like a boat slipped from the dock: finally detached and distant and irretrievably lost.
Pragmatic readers might be expecting stats and facts concerning my coeducation years at our school. For this, I advise consulting the article on page 44. I suppose I could add that I once was the lone guy in a medieval history course of 26 women. But in truth, I cut this class so often that I might have missed any other fellows who possibly could have wandered in.
Having exceeded my contracted word count, let me not waste another vowel or syllable before banishing the lighthearted humor, the affable, albeit amiable, badinage. Instead, let me turn to “keepin’ it real,” as today’s young people say. For at this Homeric juncture in our school’s fabled existence, I must admit I was blessed to be there when things were heroically changing. I fell in love, fell into debt, and fell head over heels for our school, a nurturing and encouraging oasis that helped me fully grasp who I could be. And in the end, in essays as in life, knowing what is essential and what is extraneous is a sure virtue. Indeed, suffice it say that I would gladly relive my formative coed years at Sarah Lawrence and return to my room on campus in that comfy, yet stately, dormitory...that is, if I only could remember its name.
Miles Beller is the author of Dream of Venus (Or Living Pictures), a novel of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He served as the Joan Nordell Fellow at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, and is an editorial board member of the Carl Jung Institute’s Psychological Perspectives. He is co-editor of American Datelines, a journalism anthology of notable reporting from 1700 to the present, and is currently writing a biography of Robert E. Sherwood for Putnam.