From the moment of the girl’s arrival at CU, she doubted the wisdom of her choice. Even though its location in a big city had granted her the anonymity she had wished for, the new status did not provide the satisfaction the girl expected. Oh, she put a brave face on the liberated life she could now experience, telling anyone from back home how great it was to blend into a bigger crowd. And then, she did have to admit, if forced to, that college professors engaged her in a much more demanding learning process. It was rather a thrill to have to compete with more than Gerrit VandenTop for the highest grade in the class. But being an academic success was not new. What she wanted most-a revised identity-eluded her.
Assessing the first nine months away, the girl slowly realised the big city could have few advantages while she took refuge in a Free Methodist university where the small town mind flourished: no drinking; no smoking; no women in pants until after 6 p.m.; no women out after
10:15 p.m.; not even any dancing. Just the kind of place her parents would approve of in spite of its exorbitant tuition and distance away from their supervision.
Such conditions resulted in a pretty pathetic record. The girl could claim one new friend (female, of course, and even more socially awkward) that she had made entirely on her own. But not much more than that. No bouquets of red roses, no invitations to Homecoming events, no Friday night dates that got her in past the curfew. Precious little to cheer her on unless she took into account her 3.6 GPA. The girl smiled a bit at that. After all, 3.6 was respectable, but not brilliant. She seized some pride in ruining her perfect record even though she had to admit that Bob Worthington deserved much of the credit. It was his comment, after all, that had forced her to achieve second best.
The afternoon had been stunning; the campus sparkled with pink cherry blossoms and purple clusters of rhododendrons, and the air was warm enough to shed heavy winter coats. The girl and her classmates didn’t exactly rush from their French lecture to the language lab, stopping on the way, in fact, to admire the campus’ adopted family of ducks. A certain pair of mallards flew in each spring to set up a nursery. Their parade of ducklings interrupted many a lecture as students and professors welcomed the promises represented in the Mallards’ return. Today the students praised the ducklings’ growth, trying to outdo each other with flowery French phrasing.
And then potential bliss. The girl sensed Bob Worthington, one of the few upper classmen in the course, at her side, brilliant in his student government blazer and strong self-esteem. Then, she heard him speak: ‘Congratulations!’ The girl froze, knowing from all those romance novels that she had stopped breathing. Even the ducks sensed a change in conditions. With what sounded like very maternal quacking in the background, the girl called on her memory, trying to discover what she had done in the last five minutes or even the previous six months to warrant this greeting. ‘For wha-at?’ she responded (for romance aficionados, read stammered). He
chuckled, releasing those same warm tones his answers in class to Madame Saba always did. The girl allowed herself to melt into the sounds until she heard, ‘For achieving a 4.0 in the first two quarters. I saw your name in the Spinnaker.’ The girl iced up again. Of course. Her grades would be the only thing a Bob Worthington would observe about her. Not a word about how her new cardigan matched her grey eyes or how her long neck delicately curved to the collar. No doubt surprised by her dismayed silence, Bob walked away, unaware of the resolve she had made. Proof came with the girl’s term report: English 103, A; Religion 204, A; Speech 123, A; P.E. 100, A; French 103, B. Now, she thought out loud, Bob Worthington will have to notice something else about me.
To give college a second chance, the girl abandoned scholarship for sleaze. Instead of a summer-long investigation of 19th century novels, she devoured Glamor and Cosmopolitan, applying equal diligence to a study of articles and ads. Her research expanded into television. It didn’t matter that soap operas cared nothing about realistic plots or valid character development. All the girl kept track of were dress designs, hip slang, and flirtatious body language. She then took her notes to the fabric store where she purchased the material she needed to eradicate the small town.
Secluding herself in the basement of her parents’ house, the girl went to work with her mother’s slant-omatic Singer while a portable television kept her research alive. To her delight, she learned that her skill of literary analysis adapted well to the reading of a dressmaker’s pattern. She just had to apply the process in a backwards method. Instead of reading an entire story and then identifying the different parts that enabled the whole to be put together, sewing developed in a piece by piece way until the whole of the design revealed itself in the last stitch of a hem. And on the way, the girl imagined bits and pieces of herself evolving into a whole new identity.
Somewhere in the middle of a side seam, a TV ad for a new Clairol product challenged, ‘Is it true that blondes have more fun?’ The question awakened possibilities. ‘Be a blonde and see.’ No dangerous peroxide treatment that would turn one into a Hollywood floozie, this gentle shampoo promised to foam seductive blonde highlights into the girl’s natural colour. Even the girl’s mother was a willing accomplice, making the girl wonder for the first time if her mother also had had doubts about her social potential.
When the girl’s first appearance in the university’s compulsory chapel that September had little impact, the girl chose to believe that her new look left everyone speechless and wrote down the times for auditions for the fall play. Although Midsummer Night’s Dream was still outside the girl’s Shakespearean repetoire, she decided it must offer her new identity a suitable role.
Thompson Auditorium looked very different at 3.30 p.m. than at morning chapel. Almost empty, the now enlarged space made the girl think of caverns and pianorecitals. She took a seat near the back and watched others arrive. Greeting each other as old friends, theseobviously experienced thespians alarmed the girl. Sheshifted forward, readying herself for an exit, when the mantra of her revised image pushed itself into her consciousness: ‘Be a blonde and see; be a blonde and see; be a blonde … ‘ Her attention refocused on the scene just in time to raise her hand, announcing her intention toaudition.
Someone tossed a script at her and the girl skimmed the assigned page, alert to difficult pronunciations, while also trying to take in the director’s set-up for the scene. It was too much, too fast. The entire page appeared beyond deciphering with its ‘amorous Phillida,’ ‘forgeries of jealousy,’ and ‘hoary-headed frosts,’ but she did manage to hear the director say something about this Titania character, some queen of the fairies, being pretty upset at the moment with however-one-pronounced-his-name Oberon. The girl cursed herself for not checking out the play the night before, even though she had been convinced that that would have been the tactic of her old identity, not what a blonde would do.
The director insisted that all readings take place on the stage; he wanted to see the actors ‘on their feet’. The girl was no stranger to being on stage, but in the past her position there had already been earned. She was not used to being judged before having already made the grade. In this case, the audience suddenly developed individual faces of criticism rather than being a blur of rapt attention. The girl grimaced at the squeaky sound that asked the director if he had said Titania was angry, while fingering the blonde tints at the back of her neck. His nod urged the girl into action. Turning sideways, she turned away from the hostile faces and toward her partner in the scene, concentrating on her reflection in his glasses. She then pitched out the words, and although they didn’t exactly fall trippingly from her tongue, the words became petulant stones and stinging arrows. The released energy refueled line after line, forcing the would-be Oberon to step back and then back some more. Only the director’s ‘thank-you’ stopped the girl’s relentless attack. As she and her co-auditioner returned to their seats, he asked, ‘Is this your first year at CU?’ When the girl admitted to being a sophomore, his ‘Where were you all last year?’ gave her hope.
She spent the evening reading the play and projecting herself into each female part. Her self-confidence waxed and waned with this year’s blonde certain she was the definitive Helena and last year’s grind convinced she didn’t even have a chance at Hippolyta. Her dreams were filled with audiences throwing stones and arrows at blonde figures. The next morning the girl put on a hat once again seeking comfort in anonymity-and delayed checking out the cast list. Then, she heard him speak: ‘Congratulations!’ The girl froze, dreading from experience the disappointment such a greeting could bring.When she dared face the speaker, she almost didn’t recognise her audition partner and never did find her voice. ‘Haven’t you heard?’ he asked, readjusting his glasses to confirm the girl’s obvious bewilderment. ‘You got Helena.’
The girl threw her hat toward the wind.