Marcia Aldrich
Houses of Detention

 

My parents thought of college as a witness protection program where I would be given a new identity. When they picked Wells for my college education, they said to themselves, It will be safe. Above all else, it will be safe. Inside its walls, I would be protected and stay out of trouble. The campus was remote and populated only by girls, a cloister buffered from the social and political turmoil that roiled cities and other campuses. At Wells, girls lived with girls in hallowed halls with curfews, and bells chimed us to dinner. Every weekday afternoon at 3:30 p.m., faculty and students convened in Macmillan Hall over tea poured from silver pots into real china teacups and stirred with decorative spoons. Freshly baked cookies lay invitingly on china plates. In the outside world, protestors clashed with police, cities burned, the winds and snows raged, while we inside Wells were cozy and cosseted.

But nothing keeps us safe from change. I would find trouble wherever I went.

***

On the weekend, boys from neighboring colleges rolled through Aurora—that’s what it was called—on the prowl for girls. The town was thick with them. Though well out of the cattle calls that were called mixers where my classmates lined up in their heels and the boys assessed them, I was vulnerable to being picked off by more sophisticated men—the faculty. For that temptation, I was unprepared. They were worldly and experienced, at least that is what I imagined. The girls around me thought I had my head screwed on tight, but only because they didn’t see that my guard was down with older men, who seemed to know what life was, who wouldn’t rush me or paw me, who would let me stand my ground.

The faculty of Wells was almost entirely male, and they were not harmless. Some were bedazzled by their sweet young students. The Department of English had one female member, who was reaching the end of her career. She fit the profile of the women teachers at my high school: never married and isolated from the professorial culture around her. I knew nothing of her private life—she taught her classes during the day and then went home to her lodgings, the former tearoom at the Jedediah Morgan house in Aurora.

The ingredients for affairs between faculty and students were complete. The faculty had freedom of movement and action. They lived on the isolated shore of remote Lake Cayuga or commuted from Ithaca, about thirty miles away. For the greater part of the day, students were alone with professors, our learned betters. When my sister attended Wells a decade before me, faculty-student relationships were curtailed by an unwritten understanding. But the sixties and seventies had washed away barriers of many kinds.

I hadn’t confided in a single person about my flirtation with G. I had been judged solitary, someone who prowled the campus alone, followed her own schedule, and did not require a companion. My established aloofness granted me freedom, and I wasn’t used to accounting for my whereabouts. An hour here and there with G. in his office late in the afternoon or evening slipped everyone’s notice. G. himself enjoyed an arrangement with his wife and family that seemed enviable. They didn’t expect all of his time. He was his own man, free to spend an evening away from home while his wife managed his large family and household. His office was his sanctuary—they didn’t intrude. If missing dinner caused difficulties, he didn’t mention them to me.

We flirted in plain sight. No one noticed, or no one cared. Maybe those who saw our friendship deemed it a simple case of the parental professor advising his young student. Or maybe the faculty turned a blind eye to what they intuited. Perhaps it was none of their business, the coin of the academic realm. The boundaries between professional role and personal feeling were blurred—an unadvertised perk of the job.

***

My first semester I signed up for Introduction to Economics, Introduction to Sociology, the required freshman English, a biology course to begin the science requirements, and French for the language. The most promising was the introduction to literary studies, a class of fifteen students in which we practiced our compositional skills. The college had put together a reading list for the course that injected relevance—that was the watchword—into the classroom. Here, Wells was in tune with a national trend. In other schools, the demand for relevance issued from students, but at Wells, the push came from the faculty. They thought they’d shake us up, make us think in ways we had never thought before.

The readings included Native Son by Richard Wright, Dutchman by Amiri Baraka, and Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, three studies of young black manhood, white women, and the violence that can ensue when they make contact. Dutchman, a stylized and charged drama, concerns a white woman who seduces a black male and authors his demise. She is an angel of death, preying upon susceptible men who step into her web on the subway. Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Native Son, kills a young white woman and is thus brought to his own end. Soul on Ice was written while Cleaver was serving a sentence in Folsom Prison for rape and assault. Published in 1968, it was not only new but incendiary. It describes white women as objects of black plunder rightly taken to compensate for a historic wrong—the rape of white women as a revolutionary act. At least, that is the theory Cleaver attributes to his younger self.

And what about us, the students? We were docile and meek, or perhaps overwhelmed. We entered strange, unsettling territory in these books, seeing ourselves portrayed as both the object of black men’s desire and the instrument of their degradation and death. Young white girls from largely sheltered homes, we read a memoir about black rage by a man who confessed to raping white women as a political act he felt entitled to. On the one hand, Wells presented itself as a sheltering educational institution, and yet,