I was having lunch with my friend Robin. She and I have known each other since 1968, which means she’s my oldest female friend.
Over a dish of pan-fried noodles at a trendy Austin restaurant, I asked her whether she remembered that morning in August 1968 when we went to a park together. It was only a few days after we’d first met.
“Of course I remember,” Robin said. She shrugged a little. “I’ll never forget it.”
The park, as I recall, was on the edge of Lubbock, a couple of miles away from the Texas Tech campus. In this flat, desolate part of the world, it wasn’t much of a beauty spot — just some grass with a few scattered trees bent and gnarled by the fierce West Texas wind.
Robin and I got out of her car and walked to the swing set. Then we both began to cry and sob and howl. We were 18 and our hearts were breaking.
It might have been 1968 in much of the rest of the country, with student demonstrations and anti-war riots and love-ins and be-ins and psychedelics and dropouts, and Dylan and Jimi Hendricks and Eldridge Cleaver and all power to the people. But the Sixties hadn’t arrived yet in Lubbock and — to my knowledge — may never have gotten there. A few weeks later in ’68, when some Lubbock hippies knelt to pray about the war in Vietnam, a group of cowboys threw rocks at them.
It was a different time and a different place. Robin and I were freshmen at Texas Tech. We still lived in a world where women students couldn’t wear pants to the library because that would be disrespectful and unfeminine. We ratted our hair, we froze it in gallons of hairspray, we applied makeup with a trowel. The women’s dorms had curfews. We worried about what most of the other 18-year-old women did on that campus: We wanted to be attractive, popular, sought-after, part of everything.
Do you think this sounds superficial at a time when American culture was spinning out of control on both coasts? Then you’ve never been an 18-year-old girl in Lubbock, Texas, in 1968, who was shy and eager and insecure and yearned so painfully to be accepted in this new world of college. Maybe you can’t understand.
To be accepted, to make a successful start in college, Robin and I had both gone through sorority rush. My mother had taken me shopping for acceptable outfits, both of us hoping that this time, in a new place, I would get it right. I would stop being so sadly awkward and shy. I would finally “bloom” like my mother, becoming pretty, popular and desirable, with my phone ringing constantly. I would be a member of a good sorority the way she had been — along with her sister and their aunts, and part of the fraternity system everyone in her extended family was in. Then, I would stop being an embarrassment to her and my father, who had once been young and beautiful and sought-after together.
Maybe it all sounds silly now, but it wasn’t then. Robin and I were both extremely shy and socially awkward. But we shared the same forlorn hope we might get invited to join a “good” sorority. Then, everything — magically — would be different in our lives. We wouldn’t be who we were; we’d be like the girls we saw during rush who were well-dressed, pretty and confident. You know, the ones who in the good sororities and the ones who were about to join. Those girls.
But, in the midst of all the happy cries of girls getting the invitations they hoped for, there were — along the edges, skulking in the corners, setting their faces and willing themselves not to cry, not yet — girls like us who’d been told they weren’t good enough. We believed this to be true, to the marrow of our souls. Why had we ever imagined otherwise?
So, Robin and I had ended up in the park swings, where we could cry and nobody but us would know. Eventually, we would dry our eyes and go back to our dorm rooms and plaster on big, phony smiles and pretend we hadn’t been gutted.
“You never forget a moment like that,” I said to my friend Betsy on Sunday morning, as we were nearing the end of our weekly walk on the hike and bike trail. “Ever.”
As it turned out, Betsy had had her own adolescent moment like that, which was similarly unforgettable. In high school, she’d been so hopeful that she would be chosen for the pep club that revved up the crowds at sporting events and got to wear really cute uniforms. One of their cheers spelled out the name of the school, ending in: “D is for defiance, not defeat!”
A few days after she tried out, two girls in the cute little pep club uniforms came knocking at her family’s front door. Betsy was pretty sure they were there in person to welcome her to the group.
Instead, they handed her a card reading “D is for defiance, not defeat” and told her they were sorry and hoped she would find some other group she could join.
“I think that moment was part of the reason I left Utah to go to college and never went back,” Betsy said now. “It kind of changed everything.”
This leaves me thinking about those early wounds that still mark us in some way — even though they seem kind of trivial when we talk about them years later. Maybe they make us into better people. Maybe they make us a little kinder.
Damn, I’d like to think so. Otherwise, you end up with a couple of aimless, sad-sack stories about park swings and pep squad uniforms. I don’t like that kind of ending, so let me add my own, personal coda. Three women get rejected when they were young. They go on to have wonderful, rich, satisfying lives. When they think of their former tormentors — which happens very, very infrequently, you hear me? — it is with a certain rueful pity.
Yes, that’s right, rueful pity. Just the right tone: a bit patronizing, magnanimous, yet elegiac. It certainly beats out my first thought that all of them can just kiss our sweet asses.
(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)
OK, so please enjoy the tragic story of the local woman who refused to come out of fetal position