Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Southern Education

When my parents drove away and left me in my corner dorm room on the third floor of Buist Rivers Residence Hall, alone in a city 500 miles from home where I knew no one, I braced myself for a shocking transition. At 18, I was fully aware that I’d grown up in a homogeneous circle of evangelical, middle class people in suburban West Virginia. I cringed admitting I’d attended the same school since kindergarten and graduated with a class of 25 students. Only to me was my moderately sized university of 10,000 students  an eclectic metropolis. But looking back five years later, the most bewildering revelations from freshman year didn't relate to the urban surroundings or collegiate depravity that I'd been warned about. My real shock was my introduction to Southern culture and erudite classmates.

“Good grief.” my best friend had muttered in disbelief when she'd accompanied me to my orientation seminar a month earlier. "This is like the Stepford Wives College." I defended myself, insisting that when I’d visited the school that spring during Scholars Weekend the crowd had been different. That summer short, flippy skirts were in, and we were the only girls on campus wearing jeans. We went shopping that afternoon, and I bought a bright yellow, pleated mini. I wore it that evening and the next morning.

The night before classes started I sat on a beanbag on a dorm room floor with a group of girls from my hall.  One tried to explain to me what a debutante ball was, showing me pictures of herself wearing a pink gown on stage with a dorky escort at a country club. “Nowadays it’s just a tradition, but it used to be a coming out ceremony where girls from high society families of marrying age were put on display,” she said. Can we say archaic, classist, and demeaning? I thought.

The trauma continued my first week of college. My unruly hair that I’d learned to tame with a laborious blow-dry and ceramic flat iron routine became a frizzy mess in the thick, coastal Carolina humidity. My skin developed a layer of grease as soon as I stepped outside in the 95-degree heat. But everywhere I looked on campus packs of smooth-haired blondes with matte bronze skin marched around in Lily Pulitzer sundresses, designer handbags, and heels. In West Virginia we only wore skirts and heels to church. After being derided most of my life for being overdressed, I’d discovered a place where a dress was appropriate for any occasion. If any of these girls had spoken to me, or if my own appearance wasn’t such a disaster, I would have felt as if I was finally home.

It wasn’t until the end of my first semester that I realized sorority rush had taken place during the first two weeks of class. That explained the daytime cocktail attire on campus. Although the stilettos eventually disappeared from the classroom, I can still hear the stampede of clacks on those 19th century brick sidewalks.

That fall I'd learn that sorority types or not, Southern girls agreed it was a crime of fashion to wear white after Labor Day. I’d thought that was a myth from my grandmother’s time, but these girls were dead serious. Had they not seen Demi Moore's winter white suit? And if I put on my jean jacket when I was wearing jeans, they'd joke about my Canadian tuxedo. I ignored them, thinking they dressed like soccer moms, wearing the same pearls around their necks and in their ears day in and day out. In class they wore their sunglasses around their necks attached to awful strings I later learned were called Croakies. Later I figured out that their daily uniform, a Ralph Lauren pastel button down shirt or polo paired with Citizens of Humanity jeans and Rainbow flip flops, cost half as much as my wardrobe. At church I saw guys my age dressed in seersucker suits with bowties. They were not trying to be ironic.

My other cultural awakening related to intellect rather than fashion. I lived in an Honors College dorm and couldn’t keep up with my hall mates’ conversations. They talked about bands I’d never heard of. In high school I thought I was pretty cosmopolitan because I listened to music on top-100 radio and not just Michael W. Smith and Casting Crowns. My new college friends only listened to indie music or classics like The Rolling Stones. At first I thought Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were two guys, but I caught on. Soon they were asking me if they could burn my Garden State soundtrack with all the songs from that new Postal Service band. 

Not only did my classmates drop names of obscure musicians, but they also loved to compare their trips to Europe, boast about the difficulty of their high schools’ International Baccalaureate programs, and argue about Nietzche versus Kant. They discussed authors and poets and foreign film directors. My roommate and our neighbor had to explain what a nymphet was to me while we watched the independent movie Lolita. At least I’d read the Bell Jar so I could make intelligent commentary when one of my friends showed me her Sylvia Plath inspired journals and verses. My horizons broadened daily. One night my roommate pulled her secret box out of the closet. She showed me her journal detailing all her lovers and conquests, a pair of handcuffs, and some tacky dice. “What’s Kama Sutra?” I asked when I saw the photography book in the bottom.

In my honors English and astronomy classes I kept my mouth shut while my peers discussed the merits of iambic pentameter and the quirks of special relativity. They debated the ethical implications of the racial and economic segregation in their high schools. I was afraid I’d pronounce Goethe wrong or unwittingly reveal that I’d never read Paradise Lost in high school English. I had never felt so ignorant and unsophisticated. My professors must not have noticed, because they gave me all A’s.

Outside of the classroom I learned lessons about the South. I learned not to freak out about the Palmetto bugs (Charlestonian for giant cockroaches) that swarmed the streets at night or try to debate any heretic South Carolinian who believes the Confederacy should have won the Civil War. I also found out what a Lowcountry boil was. Every fall I got invited to several of them -- cookouts with just-caught shrimp, potatoes, corn on the cob, and kielbasa boiled together in giant pots. My first bite was always a horrifying crunch because I'd forget to peel and de-leg the shrimp. In the spring I learned to pry open still-grimy oysters served by the bucket at oyster roasts. I preferred other local specialties – she-crab soup (a crab bisque with sherry and roe) and shrimp and grits (actually delicious at the right restaurant). My last year of school I finally went sailing, but I never learned to shag (the dance) or tolerate the sweet tea. And I'll never say y'all or appreciate a Vera Bradley design.                           

After four years under the Palmetto flag I accepted that I’ll never be a Southern belle or really get the South, but some dismal days in Europe and and West Virginia I've wanted to repeat Scarlett O'Hara's declamation  -- “I'm going back to dignity and grace. I'm going back to Charleston, where I belong.”

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