I’m back to blogging sooner than I expected because I heard we are losing Sweet Briar College….
It has taken me a week to digest this and I still can’t believe it. We always think our colleges will outlast us. Will be eternal. And it’s a shock to lose one that meant to much to so many of us…
First of all, I did not go to Sweet Briar. I am a man and therefore excluded from the Sweet Briar sorority. But I did go to Washington and Lee University in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when it was still an all male school. And Sweet Briar was a big part of my college experience. I dated Sweet Briar Girls. Sweet Briar Girls are some of the best friends I ever had….
Let me first of all say, I mean no disrespect calling them Sweet Briar “girls”. I was a Washington and Lee University “boy”. We didn’t think of ourselves as “men” or “women” in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. But looking back, we were so much more mature than today’s college “men” and “women”, yet we knew we were just kids trying on sophistication like a new sweater. And we really preferred to think of ourselves as “Ladies” and “Gentlemen.”
Let me take you back…
Washington and Lee University in the late 1970’s- early 1980’s was coasting a bit on its past and its reputation. This was before W&L went co-ed in the fall of 1986- a decision that probably led to its survival.
During my time at W&L, it saw itself as the Oxford or Cambridge of the American South. It was based on tradition based on tradition based on tradition. We were only a few years past the “Assimilation Committee” which taught young, Southern Gentlemen and wannabe’s from up North how to fit the “mold” and how to behave in polite society. It was academically rigorous and socially staid. The goal was to turn out proper, liberally educated Southern Gentlemen to “take their place” in society and the business world.
Most of us went there more than willing to be indoctrinated. Our backgrounds led us there. We were taught not to question the status quo.
I’ll never forget my shock my Freshman year when my Politics 101 professor started the first class by saying: “Gentlemen, you are all anachronisms. Your day has passed, but you don’t yet know it. You are privileged, white men. I want to make you think outside what you were raised to think so you can survive in the new world coming.”
And this was at a school some of my friends back home called “a rich, bitch preppy Southern Boys School.”
Sweet Briar had even more challenges in perception. Some people called it the “Virgin Vault” where rich families sent their daughters to be properly “finished” before they met their future husbands at W&L, UVA or, god forbid, Hampden-Sydney.
Both perceptions were wrong.
I met girls at Sweet Briar who were much smarter than their counter parts at W&L, UVA or that other boys school….
What we had in common was that we needed a small school where we could safely learn to question what we had been told not to question…
We needed to be at small, liberal arts colleges as opposed to big Universities so we could grow and thrive….
If you want to get a picture of how it was to be at W&L and Sweet Briar in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, watch the opening credits to “The Way We Were.” In many ways, that was our journey. We were Hubbel Gardners, Katie Marowsky’s, Debutantes, would-be writers, social butterflies, and fraternity boys learning to find ourselves and who we were in a changing world.
We were Protestants, Catholics, High Church Episcopalians and Jews who didn’t wear our religions on our sleeves or take them nearly as seriously as we did our wardrobes. We were all, to varying degrees, intellectually curious and wanted to learn, but we also firmly believed our pursuit of an education should not get in the way of our exceedingly active social lives.
We danced the nights away at parties where the music was early 1960’s soul and balls where the Lester Lanin Orchestra played dance music from our parent’s generation. There was an intense debate at my fraternity over whether we should play Evelyn “Champagne” Kings hot new disco song “Shame.”
And there was a Motown song by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes , “The Love I Lost”, whose lyrics we swore included the words: “She went to Sweet Briar.” We were also masters at self delusion…
Even then, I think we knew we were caught in a bit of a time warp. We were the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation. A bit of a Lost Generation ourselves as we didn’t yet have a defining moment. We were children during Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. We didn’t know AIDS was coming. We were at a loss to define ourselves individually and as a generation, but we didn’t worry about it too much. We danced to the Tams singing “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy” and we tried to do so….
I was engrossed in my F. Scott Fitzgerald fantasies of the American aristocracy at that point in my life. I had not yet reached my equally Fitzgeraldian disenchantment with the rich. Several of my friends from those days say I was like “The Great Gatsby”‘s Nick Caraway character of our time and place. A financial aid student from a small town, who never felt like an outsider, but who saw things through a different lens.
We saw ourselves as the privileged “best and the brightest” and were yet uncomplicated by the realities of life in a multi-cultural world. Some of us would later embrace the changes to come, be grateful to our past and what we had learned and move on. Some of us would be lost in the myths they weren’t willing to challenge. But we were still too young to know that then…
I’ll never forget the Friday afternoons at W&L. None of us would ever dream of taking a class after 1:00 pm on a Friday. My friends and I lived in an apartment building over stores on Washington St/Route 60. Around 3:30 or 4:oo we would start having cocktails-bourbon and waters and bourbon and ginger. Or just bourbon….
And we would wait…
Route 60 went from Amherst, Virginia over the mountains from Sweet Briar to W&L in Lexington. It’s amazing we all survived the drunken commutes between dances, balls and fraternity parties. Miraculously, luckily we did….
But on the average Friday, we would sit in the open, ancient windows of our apartments and drink and wait for the girls to arrive. Very few of us had cars, so everyone car pooled back and forth over the mountains…
I’ll always remember one family who sent their daughters to Sweet Briar with then elderly Cadillac convertibles. We would watch for them to come into town in a yellow ’68 caddy convertible and wave to them from the windows as they arrived in town and went to check into Mrs McCormick’s Guest House. Sweet Briar girls were not “rack dates.” They did not spend the weekends in the apartments of their dates-no matter how long they dated. They understood propriety and keeping up appearances. And it was frustrating and it was nice. It was our life and we played by the rules.
But that caddy driving into town, packed with Sweet Briar girls is one of my fondest memories. They were young, they were smart, they were beautiful and they were enchanting. Each in their own way.
When I heard that Sweet Briar is probably closing, I couldn’t help but think back to those Friday afternoons and the breath of fresh air and excitement those young women brought to us in our all male world at W&L.
We didn’t think the fact that Sweet Briar was giving women a chance to excel at the sciences when women were discouraged from doing so. We didn’t think then that they had a week of freedom from competing with men and the social expectations of the time. We didn’t think about them having a special, non-competitive, social arena to bond and grow as women. We didn’t think they had a special time and place to find themselves as women just as we had a special time and place to find ourselves as men.
I think of those girls, women today, when I hear Sweet Briar is closing. I can already see they have many different perspectives and different thoughts on what the proposed closing means. I also see us all looking back to those years we shared…
I think of Carolyn, Tish, Sandy, Rachel, Charlotte, Julia, Anne, Katie, Myth, Lollie and so many other Sweet Briar girls who crossed my path. Some who became life-long friends. Some who are magical shadows in my past….
And I hate to think other young women won’t have the chance to know and learn from them and be inspired by them as fellow Sweet Briar alums.
Sweet Briar should survive. Maybe not as what it was, but as what it could be in the 21st Century. I hate to think there is not a place in the world today for Sweet Briar and those special Sweet Briar girls…
There are still W&L and other Southern men-and women- who need to meet them…
We still need women who can both wear pearls and kick ass…
Women who can make a point subtly when needed and not so subtly when necessary….
And a place that gives them the environment to learn and grow and to have the courage become women who can take on the privileged men in a changing, modern world….