Deja Vu All over Again — The Fall of My Discontent


I haven’t mentioned how my son is doing at college.  That’s because—he’s not.

Let me back up to 1978.   I went to high school in a small town in Maryland.   Purportedly, less than 10% of the students went to college.  I don’t know if that is true or not, but it felt like it at the time.

As you can imagine, I was a square peg in a round hole.   I found myself plopped down in a new school at the beginning of 10th grade.  The first day of school, I dropped my purse  getting out of the bus, and the contents spilled out onto the curb.  Not an auspicious beginning.

Back then, I don’t think parents chose their homes based on the school district—at least mine didn’t.  My dad bought the house because it was big enough to blend two families—ours and my stepmother’s.  She brought along two college age kids and her mother—Elsa (more on this train wreck later).

When it came time to pick a college, my guidance counselor (bless his heart) presented me with two choices—UMBC and College Park.  I told him I wanted to go to school out of state and he told me I would never get out of the state of Maryland.  That was the wrong thing to say to me.

As a result, however, I had no idea where to apply.   My father was a first generation American on his father’s side and the first member of his family to go to college, thanks to the GI Bill after World War II.  He had grown up in Hartford, Connecticut, so he steered me toward Ivy League colleges.

Ignorance is bliss—I set my sights high.  I applied to Yale (my first choice), Cornell, Barnard (Columbia) and Georgetown.

I was heartbroken when I got waitlisted at Yale.  In hindsight, it was a blessing.  When I went to visit it later on, I hated it.  It was cold and dark and foreboding.  And the kids weren’t at all congenial.  I’m sorry, but Yankees just aren’t as friendly as Southerners.

I was accepted at Barnard and Georgetown, both city schools—what was I thinking?  I should have applied to a school like Princeton, or UVA or Duke, but as I said, I didn’t get any guidance counseling in high school.   I assumed UVA was like Maryland, just farther south.  To be fair, the University of Maryland has come a long way since the 1970’s.   But back then, when my stepsister attended, she stopped going to classes mid-semester and still passed most of them.

I chose Barnard.  Barnard is a renown Seven Sisters School (like Vassar) that is part of Columbia University.  Margaret Mead graduated from Barnard.  So did Martha Stewart, Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) and Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying.  If you don’t know who Erica Jong is, you need to Google her.  And Joan Rivers went there too.  With such distinguished alumni, how could I go wrong?

I had been admitted to an Ivy League school!  My dream had come true, or so I thought.

Barnard College– not like I remember it.

Barnard is located on the upper west side of Manhattan.    Not only that, but it’s situated on the edge of Harlem.  In the late 1970’s, New York was dirty and unsafe.  Although there were two parks on either side of the University, students were cautioned to stay out of them.  My only reprieves from concrete were off limits.

I thought I would love living in New York—the museums, the theatre, the shopping—but wait—these things all require one thing—money, which of course, I did not have.

My dorm was located on the corner of 116th and Broadway.  Six floors up with a great view of the subway stop.  I could see guys peeing against the building across the street at night.  It was a prison.  I hated it almost from the first day.

New York City Subway during the 1970s.
Even my fearless big brother wouldn’t ride it.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that Barnard was pretty much a commuter school.  Many of the students lived on Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut.  They went home for the weekend.  In fact, the cafeterias on campus closed for the entire weekend.

There was very little social life on campus.  I don’t remember many parties.  Fraternities and sororities were not popular there.  Most students took advantage of being in the city, and so the social life on campus was nil.  Studio 54 was in its heyday then, but I never saw it.

My first roommate was a party girl from Massapequa on Long Island.  She had many friends at Barnard; my role was to serve as her social secretary, taking phone messages.  One of her friends, what we now call a friend “with benefits”, was an ex-boyfriend who was “pre-engaged” to someone else.  That someone else went to another school, so the two of them enjoyed frequent booty calls in our room.  Talk about awkward.  That meant the only place for me to hang out was either the empty lounge or the library.

I got sick of answering the phone for her, so I moved down the hall to a room with a pre-med student.  That was almost worse.  She studied all night, making sleep almost impossible for me, even with a mask and ear plugs.

The girls on my hall were not exactly pleasant.  One told me to “go back to Peoria.”  Really?  That’s how you greet newcomers?  Where was Joan Rivers when I needed her?

Many of the students were religious, so their social life revolved around their temple.  Not being Jewish myself, I didn’t get invited to share Shabbat with them.

Once it got cold, things got even worse. The cold was a biting, seep into the bones kind of cold.  Everything around me turned gray—the sky, the buildings, the sidewalks, the streets.  I missed seeing the color green.  I missed being able to take long walks.  Well, I could have, of course, but I didn’t relish the thought of getting mugged along the way.

Before Prozac, we had Stella Doro

Predictably, I got depressed.  Even Elton John failed to provide solace. On the weekends, I lived on Stella Doro Swiss Fudge Cookies, a popular treat among the Jewish girls because they were Kosher.  Depressed and pudgy, my dream of college turned into a living nightmare.

If there was one silver lining in all this, it was that the depression made me confront lingering issues from my childhood, namely my convoluted relationship with my mother.  I finally began to see a therapist, who helped me immensely.  Thank God for therapists.

As I mentioned in a previous post (Christmas 1971), my mother left us right before Christmas when I was 11 and went back to Nova Scotia.  We did not hear from her for six years.  During that time, my father married a teacher named Doris, and my dad bought the house on Elmhurst Road in Severn.

Then, unexpectedly in 1977, my father kicked Doris out, took me to lunch, and told me he was getting back with my mother.  I was so stunned I lost my appetite—something that rarely happens to me!

Naturally, my father expected us all to take the change in stride and roll with it.  “Getting in touch with one’s feelings” was a concept lost on my dad.  In his universe, he was the sun and his children were but satellites revolving around him.

My mother moved back in when I was 17.   I was glad to have her back, but at the same time I was conflicted because she had abandoned me, and it hurt.  I spent many nights during my teens sobbing at night, wondering how she could have left us with no explanation.

We never talked about what had happened or why.  It was as if it had not happened—sort of like the ending of the second Bob Newhart show when Bob wakes up with Suzanne Pleshette, his TV wife from the first show, and discovers the second show was all just a dream.

Waking up from a dream

My life, however, was far from a sitcom.

The therapist advised me to ask my mom why she left us, so I called her one day and asked her.  She told me she was so worn down by my father’s emotional abuse that she felt she could not take care of us.  She said she chose what she thought was the best course of action for us.  She was probably right.  She had moved back in with her parents, and bringing four young children along would not have worked.  Her parents old then, and were weird.  Just plain weird.  Again, that’s another story.

All of this was swirling around in my head during the fall of 1978—loneliness, depression, weight gain and emotional turmoil.

Nevertheless, I went back after Christmas break, which was called “intercession” because of the large Jewish population at the school.  That was another thing—no Christmas on campus.  Why didn’t I go to see the tree at Rockefeller Plaza?  I don’t know. I guess I was too miserable by then.  Besides, who would I have gone with?

After the second day back at school in January, I knew I was not going to make it.  I called home and asked them to come and get me.

Ironically, while I was waiting for my dad to drive to New York, I had the best time.  I stopped going to classes, so I visited museums and saw a Broadway show (Chapter Two by Neil Simon).  If only that could have been my life in New York all the time.   Dam classes and poverty got in the way.  It never occurred to me to skip classes and have some fun.

I can’t begin to describe my disappointment in having to drop out of college.  College had been my dream since I was a small child. I studied by butt off so I could go to college.

All four of us children were expected to go to college, and I couldn’t wait.  I loved school.  Most kids hate it, but for me, it was a refuge from my home life.  I was good at school.  At school I received all the positive reinforcement that I never got at home.  At home I was never quite good enough.  At school, I was a star.  Of course, like the guys in the Big Bang Theory I was a nerd and got made fun of, but I didn’t care.   I knew wasn’t going to peak in high school. I knew that my day was coming.  And that day would take place at college.

Do you want to know what I looked like in high school?
Picture Amy Farrah Fowler with short hair– and no tiara

To finally arrive at college and find that it was not what I was expecting and hoping for was the worst kind of disappointment.  Moreover, I was back living in the house of horrors.  My parent’s second marriage was disintegrating, and the fights and screaming and emotional abuse had returned.   It was déjà vu all over again.

Next, Part Two:  The apple falls right under the tree


1 thought on “Deja Vu All over Again — The Fall of My Discontent

  1. Pingback: Deja Vu, Part Two: Mom and Dad to the Rescue | I'm still standing

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