The high school I attended no longer exists. The building remains, and kids still attend classes, but they are different kids in a different era -- a changed school in a changed neighborhood. My school was middle-class, zealously academic and college-oriented. Graduations always ended with a shower of scholarships and awards. Bright, industrious students went off to the best colleges in the land. About half of those students were women.
Twenty-five years later, the class reassembled. We danced, we chatted, we ate. Football heroes recalled their glory. One, a fireman, had made captain. We had our share of scientists and academics, lawyers, doctors, accountants and even millionaires. A few of us owned shopping centers; most of us owned homes. We had children and spouses, had moved to the South, the West, to foreign countries. We had been in the Peace Corps, and one of us had become a horse trainer, while another had gone him one better: He had started a dude ranch.
But these were the men, not the women. The women were a different story altogether, although once they had had, by count, half the promise -- the grades, the intellect, the energy and, in a world where it matters, the looks. Like the men, they had reached. Unlike the men, they had not grasped. Some were housewives. Some held jobs. Many had done both at different times. A good many were single, either always so or newly so as a result of divorce. The ones who worked held low-level jobs. They had either started their careers late or had interrupted them to have children and then gone back to work. Some of them had advanced degrees but, like trophies on the wall, the degrees seemed to serve no purpose. They talked mostly of their children or their husbands -- the successes of both.
Since then, I have been to another reunion -- my wife's 20th at her college. My friends, mostly my age, have gone to reunions of their own. They all come back with similar reports. They sit out on the great lawns of academia, laugh, cry, hug and then tell their stories. The stories of the women are different from those of the men.
These are the women of my generation. They are in their forties. They were raised and educated to be housewives or, if they were affluent, club types. But someone changed the rules on them. Many of them are divorced -- women's liberation, as we all know, having really liberated men. Suddenly they were told to have a career, but they were not really trained for one and, anyway, they had spent their career- building years raising children.
Typically now, they hold relatively low-level jobs, or sometimes they have had only the pretense of a career. Like the students at the Sorbonne during World War I who were sent to the front in taxi cabs, they were unprepared for what awaited them. Trained for one thing, called upon to do something else, they were slaughtered. For the women, the casualties are in self-esteem and, I guess, shattered dreams.
Once I wrote a column that I never used. It was about a woman I created, a fictitious character who was, as fiction sometimes is, more true than truth itself. She was bright and pretty, had gone to a fine college, and there attracted the attention of her professors. She was encouraged to go on to graduate school, but did not. She went to work for a magazine, fell in love with a colleague, married him and had children.
My woman was comfortable. Her husband was a success. They had a nice house, two kids and the money to have someone take care of them. My woman played tennis and bridge during the day, was home in time to make dinner for her husband. They sometimes went to dinner parties where the woman was asked what she did. She said she did nothing.
This was all right for a time. Then one day, one year, it was not all right to say that anymore. The woman felt she had to do something, be something, have a title. So she took a job selling real estate, then decided to return to writing. She wrote short stories with The New Yorker in mind, but none was ever published. Through her husband, she got an agent. At dinner parties, she said she was a writer with an agent.
She became a free-lance photographer. She took courses, bought a bush jacket and went to press conferences. She sold a few pictures -- one of an auto accident -- but the work wasn't steady or enjoyable. She was a good photographer, but too old to break in. She stopped taking pictures and became a caterer.
Her life became a succession of jobs, of titles and, I guess, a search for identity -- but since I was dealing with exteriors, I can't be sure. I am her age, but I am not her, not a woman, and my wife reminds and instructs that there are some things I cannot know. But I can see what I see, and that is the occupational flailing of women, of the fictional one I created, of the real ones who sit on college lawns years after graduation and say life hasn't turned out as they planned.
My old high school is gone now. The kids are different -- and maybe better, too. The bright girls stand a better chance of becoming successful women, of knowing from the start what they want, what can and cannot be. Maybe when their time comes to sit on college lawns and tell the stories of their lives, their tales will be happier. If that's the case, it would be nice if they nodded in the direction of the women who went before. As can happen to trailblazers, some of them got lost. ::