Boy Meets Girl Meets Dartmouth

by Abigail Drachman-Jones | 5/10/02 5:00am

My grandmother is 81 years old and she jokes when she says that she went to Cornell University to get her MRS. But she is only half-joking. Even though she was voted as having "the best legs" in her sorority, even though she had an army of men "calling" on her, my grandmother graduated with an engagement ring already slipped onto her finger. When she recently came to visit me at Dartmouth, she tried to understand what she called "the young people's social scene" in comparison with her own experiences in college.

During her visit, I took my grandmother on an incredibly modified walking tour of the campus; we circled the Green, the greatest distance she could walk. I pointed out Dartmouth Hall, the Hanover Inn, some dorms, Baker Tower. Then, figuring it was time for a rest, I brought her into Berry Library and sat her down at a computer. At this point, she had seen neither an email system nor the Internet -- she had simply heard of this "Yahoohoo program thing." A computer virgin for sure.

Signing onto BlitzMail, I showed her the inbox, and how to compose and delete messages. But my grandmother was not so much interested in how my email worked as in what she saw. Looking at the names in my inbox, she focused right away on three messages I had received from the same boy.

"This fellow here," she said, pointing at the screen. "He called on you three times in a row!"

"No Grandma, it's not calling on me, it's just writing emails. It's different."

"He called on you three times, honey. He must really like you."

Yet when I tried to explain to her how dating works today, she was baffled.

"You mean boys don't call on you in your sorority house?"

"No, it's more like we just hang out, girls and guys together," I explained.

"In my day, young men would ring the doorbell of our dorm or sorority and give their name to the person working at the desk downstairs. That's how it was. Proper, always proper." Like the boys in "Animal House" when they visit the sorority, I thought to myself but did not say aloud.

She turned back to the computer screen in front of us, back to my inbox, back to those three blitzes. "So he would call on you and your friends, in a group. Do you go on dates then?"

I was not sure how to answer. While she envisions a date to be that magical evening when the boy takes you to dinner, pays for it and walks you home with butterflies still in your stomach, I did not know how to explain a possible alternative: That random night when you meet someone, talk to them, kiss them or go home with them and wake up in the morning realizing you might not have even gone to lunch with them. To meet someone sober and to meet someone drunk are two very different scenarios that I am not quite sure my grandmother needs to understand.

So I say instead, "People go on dates, in town or somewhere nearby. But that's more often if they are dating each other, boyfriend and girlfriend."

And still, my grandmother struggles; she cannot grasp dating today. Instead, she calls it settling. "In my day, I would go out on dates with different boys, sometimes three in a week! If I was going to be with one, I wanted to know what I'd be missing out on!" In her mind, dating equaled eventual marriage, an inevitable end. Her path, then, was preset: date a few boys with an eye to the future, and then date a couple more; strive to find that one person for a lifetime; find him; marry him; turn 23. Again, I tell her I am not getting married soon. Again, she tells me not to settle.

"And what about getting dressed up?" she persists. "When I was at Cornell, I was invited to Dartmouth's Winter Carnival weekend all four years. It was a very big deal. The young men would give us flowers and everything." With her fanciest dresses (she brought seven ball gowns to school her freshman year) and her nicest clothes, she was wined and dined by young men in tuxedos, taken in by the magical excitement, the snow, the ice sculpture on the Green, all of it.

What happened, then, to my grandmother's Winter Carnival? Where did the tuxedos go? Where is the charm she always talks about? When do I get to wear fancy ball gowns? True, I would not want to walk around Hanover in the middle of the winter wearing elaborate dresses, but my grandmother's memories are worth considering.

At Dartmouth, for example, you can be "wined and dined" at Food Court. A girl might wear jeans and a sweater while her date sports the male equivalent. She can wait in line for almost 15 minutes to have a sandwich made and then offer her meal card to the woman at the cash register. Sitting down at the end of a long, sticky table, she eats her food off a tray with plastic silverware because the dining service ran out of forks by the time she got there. Yes, this is a possible date, Dartmouth style.

Consider Dartmouth's own dating path, the one my grandmother cannot quite grasp: boy and girl meet through friends and learn each other's names; they meet a second time, kiss, and decide to be together; boy and girl break up, meet other boys and girls, and begin again. Certainly this scenario does not speak for everyone, and should not even try. But it does take on the sense that relationships between people no longer hold on to those traditional customs my grandmother remembers.

Surely, I do not want to give up the ways people interact today. We have that relaxed mind-set between friends and lover, parties and group settings where we can meet people, and the freedom to experience relationships without having to think about graduating with an MRS. Today, girls also have the ability to approach a guy and not simply wait for him to come to her. But after my grandmother's visit, I am suddenly sentimental for the cordiality and romance she talked about. I wish boys would wear tuxedos to formals once in a while. I wish they would use the telephone more than email. I wish I could get dressed up in a ball gown, receive flowers and go on a date. I want to be called on.

But it seems that the social customs of my grandmother's time don't quite have their place these days; while sentimentality certainly exists today, it does so in a different form, and is based on more casual approaches to relationships. Although I do not really want the strict rules of calling, the pressure to find that one special someone while in college, the control given to the boy and his desires to pursue a girl, I am still drawn to this idea of traditional sentimentality. I don't want my grandmother's experience, but instead some combination of hers and my own. Just something enchanting, different, surprising, unexpected -- a tuxedo, a phone call. The smallest, simplest thing. Romance, in a new way. That's all.