"You're a smart girl: you'll go to Wellesley."
That's all I heard growing up. I wasn't sure what it meant, only that Wellesley was a place of excellence, where smart girls go to college.
I attended a girls' college prep school in Manhattan in the late 1970s. I was to go to Wellesley. My elegant college counselor set down her cigarette and said so. I would apply there, and a few other schools for women. I'd thrived at my all-girls school and sought to go further. At the time, women weren't faring all that well at recently integrated Ivies: Yale women rowers in 1976 inked Title IX onto their bodies, then disrobed in the athletic department, using their bared flesh to protest the absence of a women's locker room and showers. Their outrage made front-page news. As teenage girls applying to college, we took note.
My mother and I headed to Boston to tour Wellesley on a Saturday in early fall. There I found lawns, a lake, brick buildings, girls strolling in pajamas and hair curlers. The guide excitedly explained—about the hair in rollers—that on Saturday nights, girls boarded buses to make the 15-mile trip to Cambridge, for parties at Harvard College.
Spending my formative years in Manhattan spoiled me. I was independent. I could walk anywhere. If it was too far, I had quick, easy, and affordable friends in buses, taxis, and especially the subway. Why would I give up that freedom?
I heard little about my proposed education that day at Wellesley: I was plotting my escape. I wanted New York. I wanted its piled garbage, its five-cent entry donation to the Met, and the Danskin store.
I headed back to New York, my expectations upended. Now what?
Back at my prep school, I talked with my English teacher, who asked about my trip to Boston. A native New Yorker, she took in my concerns, and asked where else I would apply. She listened to the list, and brightened. "Go to Barnard. You'll be happy there."
I did, and I was.
I got around New York the same way I had in high school, to museums, plays, concerts, happenings. For students new to the city, I felt like an informal ambassador. I led my Berkeley roommate way off campus, to good eats on the Upper East Side, grunge shopping in the Village, a Broadway play, and movies in Midtown. We anchored ourselves back to campus during the week, but on the weekends, I was leading friends downtown to parties and bars. (Don't be alarmed; the drinking age was 18.)
Barnard was more than just parties, though. I loved learning; I did well. And it was at Barnard that I discovered I could write. I joined a poetry seminar. I attended prose workshops. I participated in public readings and submitted my work to competitions. Professors urged me on: "Keep writing, my dear. You've just begun." I worked with others, like the poet Kenneth Koch. I saw how he edited his work, these lines out, these in with a loopy arrow up there. From him, I saw how writing was made.
At Barnard it was: Try this. Study that. Go there. Look. See. Read, read, read. Jorge Luis Borges 4 p.m. Low Library and afterwards, with others, chatting on College Walk. With Borges. Brunch with Mary McCarthy: "Write under deadline, write like there's a gun to your head."
Beyond writing, there was American history, Japanese literature, the complete Shakespeare, and world religions. I swallowed my Barnard education whole.
My peers and I were educated in a comprehensive range of topics and taught to think critically. After four years, we were prepared.
It worked. Many of us were already employed by senior year: a friend presented research to doctors, another wrote daytime soaps, yet another classmate hopped between two Broadway stages by night. My roommate was on her way to graduate school in visual arts. I earned my first writing paychecks while a student.
Would I have become a writer somewhere else? Maybe.
I had been a teenager in New York, so I knew its bright lights and everyday pleasures.
But going to Barnard opened a door to a riot of creativity and scholarship on campus and in the city. It was, and is, a place of possibility.
The author is a 1982 graduate of Barnard College, where she won the Lenore Marshall Prize for Poetry. She is a journalist in Chicago. This piece is part of a special issue on Barnard's 125th anniversary. To see other pieces from the special issue, clickhere.
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