It was 1965, and I was a freshman at Wesleyan. In those days, the freshmen (all men) were housed in the dormitories on Foss Hill. Twenty-two guys lived on my floor, two to a room.

The racial and ethnic makeup of my floor was not unlike what I had grown up around: essentially all white, a handful of Jews, and a mix of hyphenated Americans of European dissent. It was different from what I had known in Buffalo in only one way, which was that two of the 22 were sons of celebrities. In Buffalo, I hadn’t known anyone whose godmother was Kim Novak or whose father was an internationally renowned recording artist. Not that it mattered much; my friends at Wesleyan were jocks, not artists.

In those days, the men’s and women’s colleges organized “mixers” to provide opportunities for social engagement with the opposite sex. Students from one college, typically freshmen, found their way to another college by chartered bus or private cars to attend a social gathering. The men and women came together to meet and perhaps begin to develop more substantial relationships. How substantial would be the subject of later negotiation.

Mixers were not unlike high school dances, with the men and women on opposite sides of the hall. The socially adept crossed the room and moved from person to person, chatting about whatever. The more reserved cautiously ventured across the room only once or twice and were met with random success or failure. Some went back to their dorms without having spoken with anyone of the opposite sex. The next day the men would compare notes about their evening; some measure of exaggeration was involved, either for humorous effect or to hide one’s abject social failure.

Mixers were awkward events for many of the students. Most of us were nerds who had found our social niches in high school through academics; we weren’t the “popular” kids. We weren’t good at small talk, and we certainly weren’t good at picking some person out of the crowd, approaching them and starting a conversation. We knew there was nothing to be afraid of, but it was scary nonetheless. Most freshmen dreaded mixers, but they attended because if you were a student at a single-gender college in a small New England town, there was no other way to meet, or even see, opposite-sex peers.

Sometime that school year, freshman women from Mt. Holyoke came to a mixer at Wesleyan. In an effort to help freshmen break the ice, the two colleges introduced a matching system that would arrange what was effectively a blind date for each person who chose to participate. There was no obligation to stay together, but at least it gave the more reluctant participants someone to start the evening with. Being one of the afore-mentioned nerds, I participated.

In order to make the pairings less than completely random, the students were given a questionnaire. We were asked to give rudimentary but pertinent personal information, including personal preferences. It was a crude, ancient precursor to internet dating – they weren’t trying to measure and match twelve categories of compatibility or anything like that, but at least they hoped to be able to avoid some obvious mismatches.

The questionnaire asked my race, which I was accustomed to giving without question. It also asked whether I would be willing to be paired with someone of a different race or whether I would prefer someone of my own race. It was 1965, the civil rights movement was well underway. I’d learned my lessons well from my parents and high school friends, and I wasn’t “prejudiced,” the popular word of the day. I knew people were people, whatever their skin color. I was okay if a random encounter with a Black woman turned into a serious relationship, or at least that’s what I told myself. I checked the box saying I was willing.

A few days later each participant was notified of their pairing for the mixer. Just a name.

In those days, the colleges annually prepared something called “facebooks.” The books contained small photographs, like yearbook photos, of each freshman, together with the freshman’s name and hometown. (When Marc Zuckerberg and his pals at Harvard developed what would become Facebook, initially they were just trying to create digital facebooks to make it easier for college men and women to check out each other.) At Wesleyan, facebooks from the women’s colleges were valuable items, because if you had a blind date with a woman from one of those colleges, with a facebook you could see what she looked like in advance. The men called facebooks from women’s colleges “pigbooks.” (Sorry, but what do you expect from a bunch of young men left on their own?)

When pairings for the Wesleyan-Mt. Holyoke mixer came out, several of us gathered in the hallway, turning pages in the Holyoke facebook to get a first look at our matches. You know what’s coming: My match was African American.

Instantly, I was the subject of good-natured, jocular ridicule. Guys pointed at me and laughed in the way young men are inclined to ridicule their friends whenever they win the booby prize. The message was that I was the one who got “stuck” with the Black woman. The message, perhaps unspoken, was even though we called it a “pigbook,” I was the only one who actually was matched with a pig. I knew my role when subjected to friendly ridicule: take it with good humor, maybe even join in a bit. I’d like to think I was above a race-based respone, but I really don’t remember what I said. I know at least that I didn’t mount a serious vocal defense of my date. The joking continued off and on for the next few days.

At the mixer, my match and I found each other. I don’t remember her name. She was as I’d hoped – a normal young woman, smart and pleasant. After chatting for a few minutes she told me about her friends. I don’t remember the relationships, but it went something like this: “I have a good friend from high school and her boyfriend is a student here. She came to Wesleyan this weekend to visit him, and I was hoping we could find them so I could say hello to my friend.” I said sure, she told me the name of the guy’s dorm, and off we went.

I soon found myself in a room with five or six young Black men and women, some of whom already knew each other. My date immediately fell into animated conversation with her friends and with others who were quickly becoming her new friends. In part because there were pre-existing relationships, in part because their cultural experience was quite different from mine, and in part, frankly, because they were just rude, I was left entirely out of the social interaction. After a few minutes, it became a small party among friends, and I wasn’t invited. It was almost as though I was the pet dog in the corner; I could stay so long as I didn’t pee on the rug.

At one level, I understood what was going on – these were friends reunited, and it was a great opportunity for them to renew their friendships. I had experienced such reunions when I was a high school senior and some of my older white friends came home from college. I also was at least aware enough to understand that they were in some ways culturally different than I. The things they were talking about, the cadence of their voices, the unspoken ideas that were behind their words all were foreign to me. I got all of that.

What I didn’t understand at the time was how these few hours together were a brief respite from the relentless pressure of being the Black kid at Wesleyan or Mr. Holyoke or any of a dozen other elitist New England colleges. This was a rare opportunity to stop performing for the white people, to stop feeling the need to conform to countless spoken and unspoken expectations. This was a chance to be themselves, to be among other people who understood what each was going through. They needed this time together. This was valued decompression.

Whatever. I understood enough of what drove the situation that I wasn’t angry. Still, it hurt. I didn’t like being treated that way. It didn’t occur to me that these Black people knew well the pain of being left out.

After about a half hour, I told my date I was leaving and said goodnight. I didn’t like mixers to begin with, I’d already had one major rejection on the evening and had no appetite for a second, so I went back to my dorm.

I’m sure my dorm mates asked about my experience, and I’m sure I filled them in about how it went. I don’t remember any of that.

A few weeks later I received a note in the mail from my Mr. Holyoke match. It was handwritten on nice stationery and came in a matching envelope. People in those days sometimes thought of the women’s colleges as “finishing schools,” places where women learned the social niceties that make women suitable wives, places where women learned how to write nice notes on matching stationery. Those days, however, had already passed. It was clear that this woman had learned about thank you notes from her mother, just as I had.

The note was lovely. It began with a sincere apology, acknowledging that what she had done was rude and thoughtless. It closed by saying she would like to have another opportunity for us to spend some time together and get to know each other.

I didn’t respond.

2 Replies to “MIXER”

  1. Mark ~ I so appreciate your insights and perspective, especially that which came in retrospect. We all grow from our experiences, we hope, and even from the experiences that others are brave enough to share with us. So, thank you for contributing to the growth of others by sharing this personal story. My best ~ Felicia

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