“Jimmy and Leslie”
[1961: Harvard didn’t give teaching assistantships to graduate students their first year, and so I had to find employment elsewhere in Boston. I landed a job at Evergreen Junior College, a fraudulent school that existed for no other reason than to allow less-than-bright girls from nouveau riche families to come to Boston and there, hopefully, get engaged to a boy from Harvard or MIT. Everything at the school was dedicated to this single purpose; academically, Evergreen was a sham. But I needed the money and so taught two courses designed to familiarize the students with current novels, whose names and authors they could then drop in fashionable chit-chat at cocktail parties. Jimmy was the name of Evergreen’s Dean who gave me this dubious job. I did meet one student, however, who decided not to follow the Evergreen trail. This is the second half of the story from An Embarrassment of Swans.]
Two weeks before my year at Evergreen was over, I had a visit from one Mary Furman, a quiet person, unusual in that, not given to gobs of make-up, she was something of pariah among her fellows students because of a half-empty date card. It was rumored that on the sly Mary had been seeing a sophomore from Tufts– “of all place” I had heard her roommate, Harrison Medgar, remark in the hallway.
“Mr. Homan, I’ve made a big decision.”
“I want to become a nun.”
“There’s a convent just north of Boston. It’s a great place. The nuns there divide their days into three parts: prayer, running a shelter for the homeless, and making fruitcakes for sale during Christmas. I want to join the order.”
“I’m sure you’ve made a good decision, Mary. What can I do for you?”
“The Mother Superior’s asked me for a letter of recommendation from one of my teachers here, and I wonder if–”
“Of course, I’d be happy to. Just give me a form, or tell me where to send it. OK?”
“Thank you.” She rose, crossed to the door, and then, turning towards me, added, “You know, Sid . . . can I call you Sid?”
“You know, Sid. This place sucks.”
Mary was right, of course. Evergreen sucked. A finishing school parading as a college. Even the faculty were a joke. None of them had any real degrees, let alone experience in the subjects they taught. The Evergreen handbook proved marvelously evasive on such issues:
Arthur Maddox: summer study at Stanford University [a misprint for Stamford University, a small Baptist college in Georgia, the entry had gone uncorrected for twenty years].
Mildred Lummox: author [in reality, Mildred had written a few short stories and then sent carbon copies to her friends].
Betty Jo Sweeney: studied jazz with Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and others [Betty Jo attended a lot of concerts where, paying extra for a front row seat, she took copious notes during the performance].
Earle Elsworth: PhD, “Distinguished Alumnus,” George Wilson University [a degree-by-mail-school, the designation “Distinguished Alumnus” representing a surcharge on the basic fee for a doctoral dissertation, for which “life experiences” could substitute for the “usual boring written work required by other universities”–to quote GWU’s glossy brochure].
On my final day the faculty staged an elaborate luncheon. My going-away present was a reproduction of Van Gogh’s “Sunflower,” across the bottom of which had been written, “For Sidney Homan–Gone but Not Forgotten at Harvard.”
Wine flowed plentifully, and with the French teacher Charlotte leading the way, dining soon gave way to drinking games, rather silly games, I thought, but then the Evergreen faculty, not a close bunch to begin with, indeed relative strangers to each other–“I takes my money each day and I runs,” Betty Jo had once confessed to me–typically used such games at social gatherings as a substitute for conversation.
Fortunately, classes had been canceled that afternoon, for soon the faculty, bored even with these games, were very drunk. Their silence at the banquet table was interrupted all too infrequently by labored stabs at conversation.
The dowager Arnette Swan, President of the College, finally took control, introducing the one topic, perhaps the only one that might unite her faculty now lost in their personal hells.
“You know, the one thing I think in which all of us–and I mean all of us–can take special pride here at Evergreen is the fact that one year after graduation ninety-four percent of our girls are married. Ninety-four percent! And mostly to boys from good families. This year–that’s where that ninety-four percent comes from, by the way–seven of our girls married Harvard boys. Isn’t that just marvelous?”
As one, the faculty broke into applause. Smiles and self-congratulations pervaded the room, re-animating what had become a rather dreary crowd. Charlotte rushed into the kitchen to prepare more drinks. Whatever else Evergreen did not do, it did get its girls married, ninety-four percent, to be exact. Ruining an otherwise perfect score a mere six percent–radical feminists, girls with some physical or social defect that had escaped the scrutiny of the Admissions Committee, perhaps lesbians. Ninety-four percent, way above the national average for women that age. Way above. Evergreen women could allude to Valley of the Dolls at the charity ball, or when leaving a party match their hostess’s pedestrian “Chou” with a tony “Au revoire” of their own. I couldn’t resist making an observation.
“I know one Evergreen woman who’s going to wreck that ninety-four percent.”
“Wreck?” There was a general gasp!
“Yes, Mary Furman.”
“Sid, she’s engaged to be married. We’ve already counted her.”
“She was engaged to be married. But she’s changed her mind. She asked me to write a letter of recommendation for her–she’s entering a convent.”
“She’s becoming a nun?”
“Yes.” I could see faces droop, the conviviality dissolve. Mental arithmetic was stamped on every forehead: they were re-dividing the number of marriage prospects by the total number of graduating students, and coming up with something closer to ninety-two percent, an unexpected and precipitous drop. After all, when you’re accustomed to that rarefied atmosphere of ninety and above, a two-percent decline is a stock-market crash.
Amidst murmurs of “Mary Furman, who would have thought?,” “How could she?,” “Did you have any hint of this?,” and “A nun, for Christ’s sake, a nun, of all things!,” I tried to make light of the situation.
“Well, you know, in a way, she is still getting married.”
“Married? But she’s becoming a–.” And here the speaker choked on the dreaded “N” word.
“Yes . . . married. I recall that in the Catholic Church, at the ceremony where she’s accepted into the order, the nun is said to become the ‘Bride of Christ.’ She weds a heavenly, a spiritual husband–of sorts.”
“That’s right! That’s right!,” cried the stately Arnette Swan, restoring a wisp of hair that had fallen over the same forehead where, seconds ago, long division had driven her to the frontiers of despair.
Mildred Lummox exclaimed, “Remember? In The Sound of Music? That big scene in the church, when Julie Andrews becomes a nun? She walks down the aisle in a wedding dress, and when she gets to the altar . . . remember? . . . all the other nuns are singing as the priest marries her, the priest marries her to Jesus Christ!”
Circling the table with an enormous tray of dry martinis, Charlotte added, “And she has a wedding ring on her left hand. Just where the real one goes.”
A tremendous sigh, no, a downright hymn of praise spread around the table. The precious ninety-four percent was intacta. True, Mary was not going to marry a Harvard boy, but Christ was, to quote Jimmy Simmons, “a fine fellow.”
“Just like a real husband–in a way,” a snickering Betty Jo assured her colleagues.
“Well, not so good in bed,” Arnette Swan cracked, setting “the table on a roar,” as Hamlet once said of the clown Yorick.