Realizing that there was no backing out of college at this point, I resigned myself to my fate. I was in college, like it or not, but I didn’t believe that I really belonged in college. I felt like a stranger, suddenly thrust into a weird, unknown world. The college culture was completely foreign to me, and I had no idea how to make sense of the things I was seeing and experiencing.
I was always afraid of standing out, worried that people would notice me and realize that I just didn’t belong. That perspective haunted me for years, even after I was actively engaged in the campus community. Throughout my undergraduate years, I never walked into a class late. If the class had already started, I’d skip the session rather than walk in and have all eyes focused on me (interestingly, I had no such hesitation about leaving classes early).
Even though it was a girl who had shamed me into walking into my first class, it was dealing with and relating to the women in my class that presented my first significant challenge. I had gotten very used to the idea of only having males in my class (including teachers in high school). This had been one of the root causes of my original college phobia. How would I relate to women in my age group, and more importantly, how would they relate to me?
I had no framework with which to relate to the women in my classes, and very little experience talking with women at all. I had often heard discussions about the decadent non-Jewish culture and how a complete lack of morality was the norm. That scared me at the time, although in retrospect, obese, bearded men with big cloth yarmulkes were not exactly all the rage among college coeds.
Because my experience with girls was so limited, I was used to being on my best behavior in their presence. I was used to projecting the kind of persona one would expect on a shidduch date. That kind of behavior is very hard to keep up over a long period of time, especially in a classroom setting in which I was already used to being a bit of a character.
It took me years to begin to relate with women in my class. My default reaction was to always pair with men in group projects and teams, and when a professor announced the highest class grade, my gut reaction was to wonder which of the men received that grade. Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) is a commuter campus. Students come and go through the day and there are no dorms. As such, the open level of immorality that one associates with college campuses wasn’t as stark at NEIU. However, I was aware of certain campus areas that had nicknames and “bad reputations,” even though I wasn’t quite sure what that meant exactly.
That being said, I clearly was clueless about some of the things going on around me. I once innocently floated the idea of a sleep area for students with long breaks between classes. It seemed like a perfect idea to me, and a way to provide a service to students who were frustrated at the long wait times between classes. It took me a few moments to understand the problem, especially after I persisted against the incredulous objections of my fellow student government members.
My ignorance and innocence did lead to a couple of humorous stories. I took Spanish as my foreign language requirement. The professor was young, probably only a few years older than her students, and attractive. One morning, in order to demonstrate some cultural differences (multiculturalism and political correctness were the rule of the day in the 1990’s), she decided to go around the class kissing all the students on the cheek – as she explained that was how people of Spanish decent greeted each other. As you can imagine, the sight of me backed up against the wall, arms crossed in front of me to ward her off got many a laugh. It must have been quite a sight. In the end, she bypassed me (a non-Jewish student sitting directly to my left did make a similar protest, pointing at me as an example, but he was ignored), but that was probably my single most embarrassing experience as an undergraduate. Another such situation came up when I was donating blood. At the time due to blood safety considerations, during screening, the donor was asked numerous questions about their moral behavior. Being uncomfortable with the line of questioning, as soon as the screener began, “Have you ever…” I would answer ‘no” without letting her finish the quesion. After a few such answers, she looked at me in a frustrated way and asked how I knew the answer before she finished the question.Chaim Shapiro