I’m not sure boarding school is totally responsible for my lack of understanding of women. I think there’s some natural ability at work here. I have quite a few witnesses to that effect. I can see them raising their hands high to be heard. But boarding school has its share of the blame, I’m convinced.
The boarding school I went to in the 1950s and early 60s when I was a teenager, until I graduated, is located in the Midwest. It’s classic, beautiful on the outside, austere and hierarchical on the inside. And there were no girls. None. The faculty were all male. For nine months out of the year, the only females you were exposed to were the kitchen staff and faculty wives at dinner.
The result was that girls were alien to me. With no daily exposure to girls, I had no way of learning anything about them, of relating to them as people, of becoming friends with them, even, maybe, with great fortune, being a boyfriend.
It’s hard enough being a teenager. When everything inside you is pinballing around, and you have no idea what you’re doing, or where you’re going, or who you are, or might be. But to throw in the fact that all this is happening in an all-male environment, when you’re check-by-jowl with boys just as messed up as you are, and you have a recipe for the unnatural—like priesthood.
I learned all too well about my lack of understanding of women when I went off to college. I went to the University of Michigan. I soon discovered there were females. In class, on campus, in the library, at football games. Everywhere.
I remember going to the cafeteria in the evening and seeing girls walking around in short shorts and T-shirts, calm as anything. I realized then and there I had absolutely no idea of how to approach them, much less how to speak to them. The same was true in classrooms. I simply did not know how to interact with females. I could have had a better chance flying a 747.
I finally mustered the courage one day to talk to a girl in the cafeteria. She was very pretty, blonde, slim, lively. We were both in line. She grabbed a tray, and so did I. I watched her as she piled her plate up with food. She heaped on fat scoops of mashed potatoes, covered them with gravy, slapped slices of meat beside that and took a few rolls along with some token vegetables and a hefty dessert.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. But you’re a girl! I screamed in my head. You can’t eat that much! We sat down together, and I watched her tuck it all in enthusiastically. She was enjoying herself! Eating!! Aren’t girls supposed to be, well, delicate? Reserved? Not hungry?
We sat down together. I was in awe, didn’t know how to react, didn’t know what to say. It occurred to me I hadn’t seen many girls my age eat. And that was the thing! I hadn’t seen many girls do anything normal or ordinary, like eat, walk, read, study, laugh. On a consistent, daily basis.
I remember when the girl finished eating her food. She looked over to my plate, eying my unconsumed mashed potatoes. She asked, calmly,
“Are you going to finish those?”
“Uh, no,” I said. “I’m full.”
“Can I have them?” she asked.
“Yes. Sure. Go ahead.” I think my voice broke.
She did. She polished them off handily. I was dumbstruck.
I metaphorically raised my eyes to God.
“Please tell me,” I prayed, “what to do next.”
Her name was Susan Koloski. (I’ve changed her name, because she’s alive and well, and not everyone wants their youth paraded in front of them.)
We started going out. She was from Detroit, from a traditional Catholic family. She was hungry for everything. From her, I learned many of the things I might have learned had I gone to a co-ed high school. She didn’t hold back her desires. She wasn’t ashamed of her appetites. We had a great time together. She was my real prep school.
Later, she cheated on me with a hockey player. Even that was an education. My first real hurt of betrayal. She'd been seeing him while we were still together. I was so clueless, I even went with her to visit him in the hospital after he had some kind of operation. I should’ve guessed something was going on by the way she fawned over him. But I didn’t know how to read those things.
“Why?” I asked her when she told me she was leaving me for him.
She shrugged her shoulders. “I guess I fell out of love with you and fell in love with him.”
so precise, so to the point, thank you, Richard!
Wow! Walking, talking, and eating. I wonder what you learned teaching nonfiction workshops with women in them!