I prepped for Harvard—if prepped is the right word for it—at a large public high school in Fort Worth, Texas. The dominant social activity there was going out on dates. From the day I turned sixteen and got my driver’s license until I graduated, I took girls out on dates as often as possible in our family’s Dodge.
We went to the Jack-in-the-Box (my first date), to the movies and to the Six Flags amusement park. I took dates to the junior prom and the senior prom, on both occasions wearing a goofy rented tuxedo and presenting my date with a large corsage.
I blush to think about all this now, of course, but at the time dating seemed pretty cool. Then I got to Harvard and, without thinking any more about it than I would have thought about asking my roommates to head over to the Casa B. for drinks, I asked a cute girl I had noticed in my introduction-to-psychology class out on a date.
After the lecture one morning, I ambled down to where she was sitting, introduced myself, and said, “So, I was wondering if you might want to go with me to a Judy Collins concert in Boston Friday night.”
The instant those words popped out of my mouth, I knew that everything about the proposition was wrong.
My first clue was the bewildered look on the face of the girl in question. Her name was Isabel Swift and she had prepped for Harvard at the all-girls Madeira School outside of Washington, D.C. I don’t think Isabel had ever even heard of dating.
But she accepted, probably because she was too startled to think up any good reason not to, and we did actually go to the Judy Collins concert together. The two things I remember most vividly about the date were that Judy Collins got sick and sang for only 30 minutes, and that my face, ears and the back of my neck burned red the entire time, from embarrassment.
Why such trauma? Even now I don’t totally understand. Certainly it was nothing Isabel said or did. She was a game, good sport about the whole affair. Mostly, I think, it was my own confusion and insecurity. In one instant—the instant I asked her to go on a date—the full depth of my cultural, social and even intellectual naiveté was exposed, to myself if to no one else.
Not all girls go out on dates the way we did back in Fort Worth. Not all teachers can be won over by the jockish charm of a good old boy showing a little interest in their subject. Not all battles can be won with just a little bit of effort and some sincere good will. The brave new world I had chosen to enter by coming to Harvard was not going to be a cakewalk.
I walked Isabel home from the Harvard Square subway stop to her Radcliffe dorm room despite her protestations that it was unnecessary. I did so in part because I was stubborn about good Southern manners, but also because I wanted to prove to her that I was at least aware enough of eastern-sophisticated-feminist norms to not try to kiss her goodnight. It was a way of salvaging a little dignity. And so it ended well.
If I run into Isabel at the reunion, I will be eager to hear what she remembers about our long-ago date, if anything. I read in a magazine recently that for twenty years she has been an editor (now the top editor) for the Harlequin series of romance books. Surely there is some kind of poetic lesson in that.