HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Gemma” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.
Part Four: Junior Year
I started my junior year with a panic attack as my mom and I drove back onto campus.
Of course, I had no idea what I was experiencing at the time—the overwhelming sense of dread or drowning, my heart beating wildly, fighting the sudden urge to flee the car, the campus, the world… By the time we parked, I had composed myself enough to articulate something like “I don’t want to be here anymore” to my concerned mother. Terrified and on the verge of tears, I gritted my teeth, got out of the car, and resumed life as usual.
It was the worst semester yet.
Dean Wilson and the Office of Student Life had retaliated to the loosening of certain rules the previous year by revising the rule book, especially the dress code and the music and movies standards.
The dress code at PHC had always been two-pronged. During normal business hours, students were required to dress in “business casual” outside of their dorms. One purpose of the dress code was to describe the rules for this professional dress code. The other purpose of the dress code was to maintain modesty standards. The burden of this second prong of the dress code fell primarily upon the women (though men sometimes got in trouble for “rebellious” hair styles and such).
This particular edition of the rulebook had revised the dress code for women on both counts. It clarified certain aspects of the professional, business-casual standards in such a way as to exclude certain modest, but patently unprofessional looks, like denim jumpers. It also re-worded the modesty code in a rather confusing way. There was outrage from the students on both counts. Apparently, some of the more conservative students were upset because they literally did not have enough clothes left to dress themselves according to the professional standard. (I happened to be in favor of the professionalization of the women’s dress code.) This half of the new rules was almost immediately rescinded.
The backlash over the modesty rules, however, prompted a women’s-only chapel to explain and clarify. In this chapel, the female students were informed that the modesty standards were worded in such a way as to give a positive impression to outside inquirers and prospective students. We current students, however, should understand that we needed to hold ourselves to a “higher standard.” This higher standard, apparently, was a little too “high” to codify in the actual rulebook, lest outsiders or prospective students think us too restrictive. Their solution to this dilemma was to install a volunteer “dean of women,” the wife of a member of the college’s Board of Trustees, who could help us with our wardrobes and decide for us what was appropriate, and what was not.
I do not mean this story in any way to besmirch this woman or her family. She was a kind, fair, and well-intentioned person. Most of us women were happy to have a sympathetic female authority figure on campus to talk to, and not just about our wardrobes.
But I want to emphasize the absurdity of a dress code written so vaguely and arcanely that this kind, patient woman had to come to our dorm rooms and endure hours of “fashion show” by exasperated and cynical female students, and to decide (often to our disappointment) which items of our clothing passed her test and which did not.
The movie standards had been updated in response to the advent of laptop computers with DVD players in them. When the college began in 2000, students mostly watched movies in communal lounges, on college-provided televisions equipped with censoring devices for bad language. There may have been explicit standards for movie content—I don’t remember—but the fact that movies had to be watched in public, and that random people routinely walked through the lounges at any time of day or night, meant that most people self-censored effectively.
But once students could watch movies on their laptops in the privacy of their own dorm room, the administration saw a need for explicit rules governing content. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember they were strict enough to exclude Braveheart, and indeed, Braveheart was even mentioned specifically as an example of a movie that failed to meet the content standards.
I will leave you to ponder the irony of a campus full of homeschool graduates forbidden from watching Braveheart.
I don’t remember the details of the music rules either, but it was around this time that iTunes introduced the ability to share music libraries across a shared network. The entire campus was a single network, so suddenly we all had access to each other’s music libraries. This was fantastic for those of us who were audiophiles. Apparently, it was also a great opportunity for pharisaical students to go spying. Most people with potentially offensive music had the good sense either to hide their libraries from the network or, at least, to give them anonymous names. This didn’t stop the pharisees from sending out pompous all-student emails expressing their shock and horror over, for instance, the vaudevillian gruesomeness of Decemberist songs they had stumbled upon over the network. Would Jesus listen to music like this?? As with most other things, the message—explicitly or implicitly—was that those of us who enjoyed such music were insufficiently Christian.
This all took place in the first couple of weeks or so.
The rest of the semester went by in a blur of exhaustion, depression, emotional breakdowns, and 6-8 hours a day translating Greek. I was also taking two courses from a psychopathological Sovietologist who dressed (and thought and taught) like it was still 1985. She trimmed her nails into little triangles, like bird claws, and tapped them ominously on the table during class. On the first day of class, she described how she once woke a student sleeping in her class by slamming a heavy textbook onto the table next to his head. She held her classes at 8am on purpose, because she knew we were all exhausted and she wanted to… I’m not sure what she wanted, actually.
But she seemed to enjoy torturing her students.
She deliberately withheld information from me that thwarted my ability to make good grades in her class, and then blamed me for not knowing what she decided not to tell me. She called me into her office on various pretexts, only to berate me to the point of tears over my grades. Then, after ruining my chances in her classes, she refused to sign off on my application for a study-abroad opportunity, telling me that, as far as she was concerned, I “had no future in academia.”
I decided to transfer. Up until this point, at least the wonderful professors and classes had been worth enduring all the BS from student life. Now, I had nothing going for me. My panic attacks and emotional breakdowns continued with growing intensity. I couldn’t take it anymore.
But I wanted to transfer to another private, liberal arts school nearby, so I could stay in touch with my friends. My parents didn’t want to pay for that out of pocket, and there was very little scholarship money available for transferees from non-accredited institutions. My only other choices were to attend a state school back home, or find a way to make PHC work.
It was a choice that just didn’t feel like much of a choice. I stayed.
I switched majors to get away from the Soviet psychopath, and moved off campus to get away from the culture and give myself some space to breathe. These changes made life tolerable, for a while.
I don’t want to imply that we never had a good time at school. My friends and I enjoyed some amazing times together and grew so close I couldn’t imagine life without them (a decade later, I still can’t). It’s just that most of the things we enjoyed doing, even if they weren’t technically against the rules, would have been “disapproved” of by the campus monitors.
For example, we all loved music and movies. It was hard to take the new campus media rules as anything but a personal attack. So we took our activities off campus. We watched forbidden movies in various students’ off-campus housing. We went to indie rock shows at the Black Cat and other clubs in the city, losing ourselves in the anonymity of the crowd, away from the eyes of the watchers, pretending to be normal for an hour or two. We wore our hand-stamps to class the next day like a secret sign.
The media was more than just illicit entertainment; it helped us process our experiences and emotions. The lyrics of longing, loss, and defiance by bands like the Mountain Goats and Neutral Milk Hotel became our mantras.
I am gonna make it through this year
If it kills me.
– The Mountain Goats
Now we must pack up every piece
Of the life we used to love
Just to keep ourselves
At least enough to carry on
– Neutral Milk Hotel
Needless to say, all of us still professed Christianity—a requirement for our continued enrollment, at the least. But the legalism, religious bullying, and anti-intellectualism we encountered at PHC had pushed us away from the evangelicalism of our youth and sent us in search of other expressions of our faith. Most of us found our way into liturgical traditions. Near the end of my junior year, a younger journalism major approached me and a group of my friends about a story he wanted to write. He had noticed a correlation between students like us, who had a deep academic interest in philosophy, history, or literature, and attendance at liturgical churches. He asked us our opinion about that connection, and why we chose to attend Episcopal or Presbyterian churches rather than the evangelical churches that most PHC students went to. He assured us that his story was only for a class assignment, not for publication. We believed him and answered candidly.
His story was published in the campus newspaper. The administration went ballistic.
We were scolded, mocked, accused from on high with the same old charges: snobbery, intellectual elitism, and the unsubtle implication that we were deficient Christians at best, and more likely wolves in sheep’s clothing. The local Presbyterian pastor and Episcopal priest were temporarily banned from campus. Fellow students began making snide comments about “popery” and “vain tradition” in the lunchroom or in class. The author of the article tried to defend himself, and us, and the whole thing blew over by the next fall, but it was one more nail in the coffin. No matter how I tried, I would never be good enough for these people.
Most of my friends graduated that year. Being the “intellectual elitists” that we were, they scattered to various graduate programs across the country. Only a couple remained in DC. But we all stayed in touch, emailing or chatting weekly if not daily.
That summer, I stayed in DC and interned for the federal government. At this point, the physical symptoms of the pressure I was under became undeniable and troublesome. I was exhausted. I would commute to and from work with my boss, and despite my best efforts, I would fall asleep in the car. Sometimes I would fall asleep while he was talking to me. Sometimes I would fall asleep at my desk. Most days, I would get home from work, eat something, and go straight to bed. I was always cold and could never seem to get warm. My hair fell out in handfuls. Everything felt like it was spinning out of control. I stopped doing things I enjoyed in my free time because I didn’t feel strong enough, or energetic enough, or happy enough to enjoy them.
That drowning, panicking feeling was with me daily now.
I turned 21 that summer and celebrated like most 21-year-olds would. But it was hard to enjoy it. Technically, because I was in the DC area and my internship was for credit, I was still subject to the PHC rulebook. My birthday celebration was definitely against the rules. And it’s hard to enjoy normal things like that when there’s always the possibility, no matter how remote, that some talebearer might have gotten lost in Adam’s Morgan that night and seen you walk out of a bar.
Gemma, thanks for writing this series (even though it is probably still very painful to reflect on, a decade later). I am grateful that you included memories of your academic experience, as that was the best part of my early time at PHC , and a decline in academic rigor was a large part of my eventual disillusionment with the college.
I’d also like to apologize, because as a jumper-wearing freshman during your junior year who was clueless about problems in Student Life, I looked down on people like you, and I am sorry. I wish I had known better then and had been willing to appreciate your insights into our campus culture.
Aw, Kate. : ) I’m a former skirt-wearer, who found my way here too.
Wow, sorry you went through this, but appreciate you are sharing. I am a homeschool mom, with a high schooler and looking at Christian colleges for my son. I am strongly desiring to weed any colleges with legalistic, cult-like, extremeist or overly authoritarian cultures. I am a conservative non-denominational, evangelical Christian. I was never comfortable with Bill Gothard’s teachings, or Doug Phillips’ (even before his immorality becoming public) but as a homeschooler interested in classical education, I am only recently becoming aware that Douglas Wilson is off too. Not that I was ever a fan, either.
Thanks again for sharing your personal story in an articulate way and without hate.