The architect who designed my college campus tried to encompass the entire world. The chapel was classic New England, the oldest dormitory clearly based on an Oxbridge quad, and the library resembled Frank Lloyd Wright’s international-style Farnsworth House. The college itself was in Central New Jersey, home at that time to some rundown cities and bland suburban shopping malls.
The quad wasn’t the only residence hall. The one I remember best was called Gibbons. It must have been named after someone, a dean or a donor perhaps, but no one ever was curious enough to find out. Gibbons wasn’t single building. It was a double horseshoe of small individual houses, each large enough to house about 15 girls. The other dorms were close to the classroom buildings, the library, student center and dining halls, but Gibbons was over the river and through the woods. To get there, you had to cross a small bridge, walk on a roadway close to a major highway, then cut through some woods, all of this just to get to your bedroom.
My school was a small women’s college, about a mile away from the men’s college of the major university of which we were part. Freshmen were assigned to both dorms and roommates; sophomores, juniors, and seniors chose their own roommates but were assigned to their dorms through a lottery system. Gibbons’ distance from the main campus made it the least popular among the dormitories. But some of my fellow students truly loved Gibbons. They bonded with the other young women in their tiny houses, they liked the privacy the distance from the main part of campus provided to them, and they enjoyed what they considered a warm and cozy atmosphere.
My friend Laura was not among them. Her first months as a freshman living on Gibbons was a daily nightmare of struggling through wind, rain, snow and mud to reach class each morning and return to her room after dinner. She was so depressed and miserable that the Dean of Students, a woman who always tried to retain a lofty distance from her undergraduates, finally intervened and permitted Laura to change dormitories. For the rest of freshman year, she thrived in one of the newly built, apartment building-style dorms.
The lottery system worked this way: one evening each spring, you and your roommate went to the student center and drew a number out of a large urn. The lower your number meant you were assured the best choice of dorm. An unathletic city girl, as we approached sophomore year, I was pleased that my roommate and I drew low-enough numbers to be certain we’d land a room in a dorm we wanted. Just before curfew, Laura burst into our room, threw herself across a bed, and began to cry loudly. We knew what this meant; her number was too high and she had no choice about her dorm. “I can’t go back to Gibbons,” she sobbed over and over. “I can’t go back to Gibbons.” In the end, the Dean of Students intervened again and Laura was assigned to a more centrally located dorm.
All this happened a very long time ago. But I’ve been thinking a lot about Gibbons lately, and the reason for it is clear: college represented a major new phase of my life, the beginning of the beginning for my generation, and as my friends and I approach turning 80, we are at the beginning of another major new phase of our lives, the beginning of the end, as it were.
Some of my friends have already sold their suburban homes in the Northeast and become permanent residents of senior communities in Florida and Arizona. Others are buying condos in the independent-living sections of communities nearer their children, anticipating the day they will “graduate” to assisted living and continuing care services. As 80—not 18—begins to loom closer in my sight, I sometimes think how pleasant it might be to live in a community where life is designed to meet my needs. I look at the advertisements of nearby senior communities: attractive, cheerful men and women sharing a pleasant meal in a lovely dining hall, enjoying good food and good conversation. And then my mind goes back to the empty dinners in my college dining hall, where there was no choice of menu and the food was terrible anyway, where you buddied up with girls for a table at the beginning of the semester, and were stuck with the same crowd and the same conversation for the coming months. Where the “funny” girls—the ones too fat, too shy, too masculine, just somehow different—were pushed into the farthest corners of the room, eating silently with a group of total strangers. I remember the clique that dominated my freshman dormitory hall, who only spoke to girls they thought were cute or stylish and ignored the rest of us, unless they needed to borrow a sweater or an umbrella.
There were some very nice things about my college, but I never really felt comfortable there. What we called “home-home” was with my parents; “home” was the apartment I would someday set up for myself. The words “college” and “home” never connected in my mind. And that worries me as well about a community designed to support 80 year-olds. So even though walking is a little more difficult these days, I’m staying in my city apartment. When I leave the building each morning to walk to a nearby supermarket or the library. I try to avoid the e-bikes and scooters that zoom along the sidewalks paying no attention to the pedestrians. I try to avoid the cracks in the Boston sidewalks and the steep downhills that are difficult for me since I developed a balance problem. I try to remain erect as the wind rushes directly at me. It’s not always fun, but at least I can still do it, at least it’s not time. Not yet, at least. For as long as possible, I’m not going back to Gibbons.