In 1979, when I entered Bryn Mawr College as a freshman, the most animalistic part of my experience was the cafeteria.
Having been raised by an Italian woman, I was so used to good cooking that I'd already accumulated the "Freshman Fifteen" as a fifth-grader. Being forced to stand in line with strangers and beg for my morning granola was not my idea of freedom, academic or otherwise.
Aside from that, the conditions of my life on that leafy Seven Sisters campus were essentially pleasant.
The stone buildings reminded me of the ancient castles of Grimm and Andersen, the autonomy was exhilarating for a girl recently sprung from the halls of a benevolent but regimented Catholic school and the intellectual stimulation was exactly what I'd been promised when I told my parents I wanted to be admired for my brain, not my beauty. (The fact that they digested that one without breaking out into paroxysms of laughter shows you why I loved them so.)
There were some strange things lurking around the edges of this ivory tower, although perhaps "strange" isn't the right word. Idiosyncratic is a better fit. For example, in October there was something called Lantern Night, when we all dressed up in black robes (called "bat robes" by the upperclassmen) and gathered in the cloisters where we'd raise our class lanterns and chant in Greek.
OK, forget idiosyncratic. That was strange.
At exam time, we'd approach the statue of Pallas Athena, a/k/a Goddess of Wisdom and Good Grades, and leave offerings. Sometimes you'd see a Snickers bar, other times money. I suppose it depended on how desperate you were.
In the spring, we'd celebrate May Day (known to my grandmother as "that pagan festival") and dance around the Maypole after eating strawberries and cream and drinking champagne. That was the only time I imbibed alcohol on campus, which might explain why I was one of the few Bryn Mawrters to ever cause a knot in the Maypole weave.
Suffice it to say, Bryn Mawr was not exactly the place you wanted to go to get your buzz on. As of 1979, it hadn't changed all that much from its genteel beginnings almost a century before, when M. Carey Thomas established a school for women who wanted to feed their minds, not mind their manners.
That's why I was a little surprised to hear that my studious, boring little campus was invaded by actual college students, the kind who do stupid things like drink beer, act rowdy and make their parents wonder why they ever opened a college fund.
This happened during Hell Week, which traditionally falls at the beginning of the second semester and involves good-natured ribbing by the upperclassmen of the uptight and overwrought freshman lassies.
Of course, Bryn Mawrters have a history of rowdiness, including our most famous alum, Katharine Hepburn, who skinny-dipped in a campus pond. But unlike some institutions that have to deal with dangerous hazing rituals, Bryn Mawr has never made her students feel that their lives or even reputations were in danger (their dignity, perhaps).
During my freshman Hell Week, I was forced to play "The Highwayman" on the guitar and sing it in the manner of the great Hepburn. You can imagine how horrible it was to sing "And thee-ah Highwayman came a-ryyyding, dahling, ryyyding, ryyyding, the Highwayman came a-ryyyding, and the callah lilies were in baloom."
This year, apparently, it got a little rougher in one of the dorms. Some of the poor dears in Radnor dorm were pummeled with toilet paper, doused with cold water, forced to play wiffle beer ball (that is, wiffle with beer cans) and listen to the "Radnor Goddess Speech" (I can only imagine . . . )
As reported this week, the upperclassmen were required to write a letter of apology to each freshman resident of Radnor dorm.
Although their behavior did seem to violate the code of conduct that I honored during my happy four years on campus, it's not as if it violated the International Convention on Human Rights. I'm a little surprised that some aggrieved Mawrters (note the similarity to "martyr") snitched on their fellow students. I suppose this was to be expected in the "anti-bullying" age when even speaking harshly to a delicate flower of a child invites comparisons to Stalin.
But seriously? My collegiate homegirls need to man up. Even if it is a women's college.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer.