Oct 18, 2010

Now We Are Six(ty)

Picture shirtwaist dresses and bouffant hairdos. Lassie and The Smothers Brothers dominated Sunday nights, while the Andy Griffith Show, Bonanza, and Ed Sullivan continued as perennial family favorites, possibly reflecting the general optimism of an expanding economy.

Although the Vietnam War was clearly escalating, young men could still avoid the draft by applying to college. We quietly got the word not to trust anyone over thirty, but those in the know were “Talkin’ ‘bout My Generation” with Pete Townshend, who hoped he’d die before he got old.

By the late sixties, LSD had hit college campuses and the scent of marijuana sometimes mingled with cigarette smoke lingering in high school bathrooms. In this era, eighteen-year olds could drink in DC, and most schools allowed smoking in designated areas.

This was the world in which I applied to college.

The high school I attended was the first “vocational” school in the Washington metropolitan area and honored as such by a presidential visit from LBJ. In a class of 630, I was among a small subgroup of students on an “academic track."

A product of the "Sputnik" era, I was gently pushed in the direction of excellence in math and the sciences. Our school was located near a major Air Force Base and responded to the Russian challenge by making available advanced studies in science and math.

In fact, the bias in course offerings was such that a typical “good” student could only excel in those areas, as strength in other disciplines was dismissed as less important and largely unrecognized. I really don’t think anyone in my high school ever heard of Advanced Placement, although the program was already firmly entrenched in other areas of the country.

Nevertheless, by the time I graduated, I had taken advanced math classes (two years of calculus) and participated in innovative science and lab programs. Because I did particularly well in math, it was assumed I would pursue math studies at the university level and possibly teach—a logical profession for young women.

In the fall of 1967, I began the process of applying to college. I was a member of the National Honor Society and a minor officer in the Future Teachers of America. Along with the rest of the college-bound seniors, I had already taken the SAT’s—SAT I (Reasoning) in the morning and SAT II (Subject) in the afternoon. The scores were reasonably good, but look better now with the extra 50 points the College Board added a few years ago. I never gave the slightest consideration to taking them a second time.

My best friend and I visited two colleges in the South. There were no organized tours. We just walked around the campuses and observed young women in pearls and young men in blazers. The trip was useful insofar as it confirmed our inclinations to go elsewhere.

At some point, I decided to apply to the University of Pennsylvania. The rest of the Ivy League, as well as many name liberal arts colleges, was not accepting women. Penn seemed like a reasonable distance from home—easily accessible by train and in a major city. My mother, who never attended college, did not approve and lobbied for something closer to home.

I didn’t give much thought to the application process beyond agreeing to the terms of an experimental Early Decision program and heading up to Philadelphia for a personal interview. I did, however, know enough to wear a suit I made for the occasion and was able to point my interviewer in the direction of the Simplicity pattern I adapted for the madly flowered jacket I stayed up all night sewing.

I also didn’t think about where the money would come from. I assumed I might get a scholarship, but it turned out that newly-created federal financial aid programs would guarantee the loans I needed to cover the balance of the tuition which was projected to be about $1950 per year plus another $1050 for room and board. It took me ten full years to pay off those loans.

My guidance counselor, whom I hardly met, did not support my application to Penn. He felt I was a much better “fit” for Towson State Teachers’ College (now Towson University) and sternly warned that his recommendation would not be particularly good if I insisted on not taking his advice. I never seriously considered a "safety" school.

Lucky for me, the recommendation was of little consequence. I submitted only one college application and was admitted early to Penn.

Over the course of four years, I changed my major three times, held several work-study jobs, interned at a local high school, and eventually graduated with honors. But that was all a very long time ago.

And with apologies to A.A. Milne, Now We Are Six(ty)!


  1. Nice story. I love the detail about sewing your new suit from the Simplicity pattern all night. I still have nightmares about my only C-- in 7th grade sewing class. I worked hard for that C too!

  2. I got a D- in typing during the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. The only reason I passed was because I had perfect attendance.

    My typing instructor advised me early in the class that I would never type because I was left-handed. She also thought I was too short to master the skill.

    Go figure.