This piece is part of Moment Memoir, expanding the conversation through a monthly exploration of the personal and beyond by some of our finest writers.
In my junior year of high school, my principal called me into his office and asked me where I wanted to go to college. I said, “Duke.” He said, “Duke?” I said, “Yup.” He said, “Why Duke?” I told him I heard it was the Yale of the South, and “Yale doesn’t take girls.”
The year was 1958. He said, “What about the University of Virginia? They have a great theater department.” I said, “Yeah, but I don’t want to go that far south.”
Dr. Rives leaned over, opened a drawer and pulled out an atlas. “Here,” he said. “Look, here’s North Carolina and here’s Virginia.” He could have said, “You have no business going to college if you don’t even know the map of the United States.” But he didn’t. Instead, he said, “Send away for a University of Virginia (UVA) catalog. You’ll love it there.”
On the very first page there was a black-and-white photograph of the Daisy Chain. Seven blonde girls, with perfect pageboy hairdos, organdy gowns and white gloves sitting in a semi-circle surrounded by a field of daisies. My immediate reaction was I have to go there. If I go there I will become a gentile. That, more than any education, was my goal.
I had had it with being Jewish. My parents had tried to assimilate but it wasn’t enough for me. Jews couldn’t have Christmas. I had had Christmas envy from birth. Jews couldn’t be cheerleaders, Jews couldn’t go to the Cotillion Ball, Jews couldn’t belong to the only country club in Hartford. The biggest compliment I could get was, “You don’t look Jewish.”
Those blonde beauties were my ticket.
The next page had photographs of the Ring Dance, a big, formal annual event. Marines in full-dress uniform, from Quantico, down the road, were the escorts, and once again the girls were picture-perfect, feminine and beautiful. I was six feet tall and weighed in at 195. My hair was dirt brown and frizzed when the dew point was up. I would go to the University of Virginia and Eliza Doolittle would have nothing on me.
My mother, who had been widowed only three years before and hadn’t found her power yet, had never driven on a highway. So there I was that September in seat 11B, on a Greyhound bus from Hartford, Conn. to Fredericksburg, Va. to begin my freshman year at Mary Washington College, University of Virginia girls’ campus. For nine hours and one changeover, I clutched my small suitcase, which held three cotton shirtwaist dresses with the traditional rope belt, one pair of sneakers, a cardigan sweater with pearl buttons that my mother had put on layaway, my Ban Roll-on deodorant, a bar of Ivory soap and a box of Kotex. I hadn’t read the what-to-bring section thoroughly so I didn’t know we were supposed to bring our own towels. And sheets. I didn’t pack a great pillow because it would be decades before I would know from great pillows.
I had never traveled farther than New Jersey. I was not prepared for what the South would be like. When I got off the bus, I looked for the ladies’ room and saw that there were two. One marked “Ladies” and the other “Colored.” I remember standing outside the two doors not quite knowing what to do. There was no way I was going to buy into this backward prejudiced small-town thinking. I was a Northerner. I had friends who were Negro. What was this?
If I went into the one that said Colored, how would people feel? Relieved or invaded? Finally, because my convictions of being an ally of the underdog were so strong, I tentatively walked into the one that said Colored. If there had been an audience yelling “Door number one! Door number one!” that would have helped. But there was no audience. And as it turned out, from the few folks standing around, that wasn’t the correct choice.
But nothing could dampen my spirit. The campus was magnificent; weeping willows, little bridges over trickling streams, brick buildings with white columns that told me Thomas Jefferson slept here.
On the second night, a bunch of us were gathered in one of the blonde pageboy girls’ rooms. There were about nine of us and everyone was telling stories and jokes and laughing. I was in heaven. Then someone told an antisemitic joke. Everyone laughed… including me.
I spent the next two days having a right brain/left brain argument with myself.
What am I doing here?
I should have gone to Cornell.
But you are here.
Think of yourself as a cultural exchange student.
Maybe I just won’t tell.
Oh, and you’re gonna keep your secret for four years?
If I tell them I’m Jewish, I won’t have any friends.
You came here to not be Jewish, didn’t you?
And on and on I nattered.
On the fifth night, I found myself in the same room with the same girls listening to the same stories and brand new antisemitic jokes. And suddenly I raised my hand and then I called on myself. I proceeded to tell a Jewish joke with my perfect Yiddish accent. Every blonde pageboy roared with laughter, and as the giggles died down, I raised my hand again and I said, “I am a Jewish person. I am the only one who can tell these jokes.”
Their silence was excruciatingly loud. And then one of the adorable pageboys said, “O Naincy, I cain’t believe you’re a Jew. You’re just so darlin’!”
And another one said, “Ah have got to bring you home to meet my Daiddy. He’s not gonna believe I met a Jew!”
Now, I knew in my heart that both of these were meant as compliments, even though they sounded brutal. But it was the third one that threw me. She asked if she could touch my “hayah.” She was clearly looking for horns. I wish I had known then what I found out years later: Moses, it turns out, was depicted by Michelangelo with two horns on his head. The Hebrew word for horn, keren, can also mean beams of light.
I let her touch my “hayah” and as soon the laughter and the joy resumed, something shifted in me and I knew I had to stay.
For part of my tuition, I worked in the dining hall. All of the kitchen help was Black. And all of us scholarship girls were the waitresses. Once we had served everyone, we could go out into the dining room and eat at a special table reserved for the help. I usually chose to stay back and eat with the guys who were becoming my buds. We would sing the songs my sister and I used to listen to late at night on the one Black station our radio could pick up, out of Buffalo, New York.
One day in the middle of my solo singing at the top of my lungs, pretending to be one of the Platters, “Oh-oh-oh YES! I’m the Great PreTENder!” Mrs. McGinnis, my boss, came barreling out of her office yelling, “NAINCY! I know you are from up nohth, but evrah tahm you bring them nigres up, I got to bring ’em back down. Now if you want to keep this job you got to go out front and eat with your people.” I knew what she meant. My people were white people. But the guys I was working with were my people.
Mrs. McGinnis caught me a few more times and I worried that I would lose my job, so I stopped hanging out with my sweet new friends and started “behaving.”
One day, one of the guys came up to me, waving tickets in his hand. “Naincy, you like Jimmy Reed?” I said yes, even though I didn’t know who Jimmy Reed was. He handed me four tickets that read “Friday night at the armoury!” I got three other Yankees to say yes and we ordered a taxi to take us off-campus. We were right on time, but not a soul was inside except for the three white policemen who greeted us with, “Y’all from up the colich?” Yes, I answered. “Well,” one of the central casting cops said, “this here is the nigre armoury.”
“We have tickets,” I snapped and handed them over.
Nancy Wilson’s honeyed voice blared over the loudspeakers. Empty seats lined all four walls. One of the pasty-faced policemen came over to me, gesturing with his chin at the fat cop in the corner. “Sarge wants to know how much you weigh.” Without thinking, I gave a wiseass answer: “Tell him he can’t count that high.” Little did I know that that would be my undoing.
We had a Friday night curfew of 10 p.m. and it was 9:27 when all my guys walked in. When they saw me, they went wild. “Lookee here! Lookee here! Naincy, our Naincy is here!” The Twist was playing. Twist again like we did last summer. I jumped up and danced with all of them.
We made it back into the dorm just as the headmistress was locking the door. When I got to my floor, there was a phone call for me. “Hah Naincy. This is Mary Beth Lawla. You are required to appear at Dean Harding’s home tomorruh at three p.m.” Required. “Can you tell me what this is about?” I asked. Her answer was chilling. “Ah think you know.”
I hung up and called my mother. I said, “I think I’m going to get thrown out of school tomorrow. But don’t worry because if I do I’ll be on the cover of Life.” I didn’t feel as glib as I sounded.
The next day I was seated on the couch in the middle of a semi-circle of seven deans and the President of the University of Virginia. I was shaking. Dean Harding spoke first. “The entire community is shocked,” she said. “Even the nigres are shocked.” Then Dean Honeywell spoke. “Naincy,” she said, in all earnestness, “would you dance with a maintenance man?” I cleared my throat that didn’t need clearing and said, “I have been to three mixers here. All the boys I met were drunk and rude. The boys I danced with Friday night were respectful and polite. I work with them. I know them. They’re my friends.”
Then the Dean of Social Activities pulled a dainty flowered handkerchief from the cleavage of her ample bosom and said in her smokers’ low-throated voice, “Mah only complaint, Naincy, is that you would have gone to a social event”—and as if the vapors had finally gotten her, with hankie in hand she fanned herself—“unescorted!!!”
I wish I could have known that one day I’d realize this would make a great “Saturday Night Live” bit but in that moment in 1959, sitting in an inquisition waiting to hear my fate with absolutely no intention of going to Life magazine (what was I thinking?) I just sat and blinked back the tears.
Finally, they asked if I had anything to say. Barely able to find any volume, I spoke.
“I know when in Rome…” I said, “but I grew up with Negroes and they’re just people with darker skin. They are just like us. Some are good and some are bad. The guys I work with are good. I don’t think I should be punished because I don’t think I did anything wrong.” In my heart, I knew the only wrong here was their prejudice, which I only understood much later was based on fear.
The president of the entire university, girls in Fredericksburg and boys in Charlottesville two hours away (which I only found out, by the way, on my first day, after I had unpacked), never said a word. But the Big Dean, the Dean of the women’s college, said, “Naincy, we’re not going to throw you out. We don’t want this kind of publicity. Howevuh, we will be watching you.”
“We will be watching you” became my rallying cry.
Once I knew I was teflon before anyone knew what teflon was, my inner rebel, who’d obviously been under the influence of an elephant tranquilizer, woke up. That’s when I started my own little mini civil rights movement.
A month before graduation, I played Flora in Tennessee Williams’ 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and in the middle of a sexy scene, the swing broke. Splayed on the floor, wearing a satin Victoria’s Secret kind of slip, I went into a riff, a monologue about hypocrisy and the War between the States (as the Southerners called it) and the slave block they still had in the center of town. I said, “When I first saw it. I wanted to throw red paint all over it. Who’s up for a little trip to William Street this Friday night? We’ll call it Shabbat Tikkun Olam.” Tennessee would have been proud as I instigated my one-woman protest right there, center stage.
My mom, who had never left Connecticut, courageously drove with my 92-year-old grandfather the six-and-a-half hours to see me graduate. I introduced her to my friends, the daughters of the daughters of the American Revolution, and I dragged her to meet Dean Alvey, who charmed her with his drawl and compliments on what a great job she had done bringing me up.
Walking down the aisle, seeing my precious small family, looking forward to flipping that tassel to the other side, I made myself memorize every detail for what I somehow knew I’d need for future reference.
“What happened up there?” my mom asked after the ceremony. “It seemed there was a perfect rhythm. Every girl stepped up on the platform, received her diploma, shook hands with three official-looking old people and moved off and down the other side. But when you got up there, the rhythm broke. The dean you introduced me to, Dean Alvey, said something to you and they all broke up laughing. What did he say?”
I said, “Oh, this was a riot, Mom. He said, ‘Naincy, now that you’re leavin’ us, the earth is finally gonna settle.’ And you’re right, they all chuckled.”
The joke was on them, though. Virginia was right on the cusp of the 1960s. When pot and cocaine and legal abortion and civil rights exploded, they probably yearned for my return, where their biggest worry would be an errant student from up Nohth doing the Twist in the armoury the administration had declared verboten.
But staying all four years was the best thing I could have done. Running away would have kept me in the closet as a Jew. Instead, I left Virginia more Jewish than when I arrived, with my fantasy of becoming someone else put to rest, leaving behind a bunch of Southern belles using Yiddish expressions sprinkled in their everyday conversations: Now that was a greps, I’m shvitzing, He’s a schnorrer, Oh, this old schmatta, and a BA degree in English that would get me my first job teaching high school in San Diego.
I had made peace with my dirt-brown curls and planted and began watering the seeds of my own activism. With the help of those beams of light, those keren, I knew that the next time someone thought they were paying me a compliment by saying “You don’t look Jewish,” I would belt out the beginning of my Haftorah and say, “Oh, but I am. I am so, so, very, very Jewish.”
Nancy Slonim Aronie is the author of Writing from the Heart and the founder of The Chilmark Writing Workshop. She was a commentator on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and won the teacher of the year award three years running when she taught at Harvard University.