Other Walls

Hayden Lindsey

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Rebecca replied as she weakly shook my hand, quickly looked away, and started unpacking her red rolling suitcase. Spying her nametag on the desk, I had asked her if she went to ECU (East Carolina University). I am from North Carolina myself, so I thought this might be a point of commonality for us.

           

However, I did a double-take at her words – “Yes, ma’am” – and could not think of any way to keep the conversation going. A college sophomore, with whom I would be rooming for the next few days at my Christian sorority’s national convention, had just called me “ma’am.” This honorific was based solely on my appearance and demeanor in introducing myself to her when she arrived in our dorm room at Georgia College. I had told her only my name; I had not uttered a word about my status as an alumna, my profession, or anything else. Something about me triggered the ma’am response in her, and I wanted to know what the criteria in her mind were and which one I had satisfied. Though I had gotten used to (and even appreciated) being addressed as “ma’am” by my students in the classroom, I could not reconcile it with myself in this context. I had come here to resume a role that I’d laid down when I graduated from college years ago, yet my first interaction at the Sigma Alpha Omega convention in Milledgeville reminded me that I was not that same girl.

           

In my work, I am always accused of looking young – too young to teach at a university. The people who say this are invariably older than me. I cannot possibly be a part of academia like them; I must be “the other.” For whatever reason – perhaps the registration folks had filled her in on who I was, or perhaps I had tipped her off myself when I offered my hand in a handshake – Rebecca seemed to conclude that I couldn’t possibly be of college age like she was; I must be “the other.” My students also wonder how old I am. They seem to have different motivations. Rather than excluding me as the other, they want to include me in their age group so they can justify not having to answer to me as an authority figure. This motivation may possibly be worse than the exclusion techniques – a different kind of wall.

           

I left our room with the “ma’am” incident still fresh in my mind, and went downstairs with a bit of apprehension at the thought of meeting the other girls at the convention. As I introduced myself to one college student after another, I saw many walls go up. Some were fairly translucent; others were more opaque.

           

“Hi, my name is Hayden,” I fished, holding out my hand to a young college student who was standing next to a group of her friends. She did not seem too eager to accept the bait.

           

“I’m Ellen,” she replied.

 

“Where do you go to school?” I asked.

 

“I’m with the Omicron chapter,” she answered. “What about you?”

 

Though I didn’t tell her so, I had no idea where the Omicron chapter was, but I knew it was pretty far down in the Greek alphabet. I was in the founding pledge class of the sorority; there were no other chapters when I was an active sister in Sigma Alpha Omega. “Wow – things really have changed,” I thought.

 

“I’m an alumna of N.C. State, I mean, the Alpha chapter,” I responded.

 

“Oh,” she returned, quickly striking up a new conversation with one of her friends nearby.

 

As I walked around the dorm activity room, introducing myself here and there, I avoided mentioning my line of work, but some of the girls would drag it out of me. The minute they associated me with their professors and instructors at their respective colleges, walls would spring up. It seemed like the rings on my left ring finger, like the simple word “alumna,” could trigger the wall-building as well.

 

I eventually lost my confidence with the introductions and went to sit off to the side. I unconsciously started constructing my own wall at that point. I only wanted to be on the inside, but if these “sisters” would not allow me in, I could at least pretend that I was outside by choice. I felt like a child who has gone off to camp for the first time, with a tinge of homesickness for my husband and a desperate hope that my fellow alumnae would join me soon. I consoled myself with the thought that I was not the parent-forsaken child; I had my car and could drive myself home if things got too miserable.

           

After a few minutes of this agony, I looked up and saw two familiar faces; my friends Emily and Debra walked into the room. I’m sure the smile must have stretched off my face when I saw them.

           

“Hey, Hayden,” Emily exclaimed with her characteristic beaming smile. There was always a bit of a laugh in her voice when she smiled like that.

           

“Hey, girl,” Debra greeted me in her North Carolina mountain girl turned Texan drawl.

 

Though I hadn’t seen either of them in years, I knew them, and they knew me. There were no walls here; we were sisters, and we shared a collective bank of blessed memories from our time in college at N.C. State. We had some catching up to do, but we also had some withdrawals and deposits to make in our bank of good memories.

           

Though I had friends to spend time with now, I still ruminated on the walls. I didn’t feel so much older than the college students who attended the convention, especially as other alumnae joined us and we started reminiscing about the fun times we had when we were active sisters in the sorority. Were those Balderdash games at sleepovers, silly inside jokes started on retreats, and sleepless initiation nights really so far behind us? They came flooding back, and I had to remind myself that those experiences did not happen just yesterday. There were over five years between the memories and my present self. I realized that I really was at a different place in life than the college student who shared a room with me. Still, did being part of one life stage make me wall-off-able?

           

What is this tendency to separate others from ourselves? Why go to the effort to build the walls? Perhaps keeping the walls down is a harder thing to do than building them up. I wasn’t able to break through many of those walls in the few days I spent with those college students, but I found some windows in a few of them. I hope my young sisters in Christ were able to look through those windows and recognize something in me to which they could relate as well.

           

“Congratulations on winning ‘Best Chapter Secretary,’” I offered to Rebecca as we were packing up our belongings to head home on the last day of the convention.

           

“Thanks,” she said shyly, a small smile beginning to touch the corners of her mouth.

           

“Were you surprised?” I asked.

           

“Yeah,” she admitted, a quiet smile now taking possession of her face.

           

That was enough for me. Rebecca did not hate me; given time, we may have even become friends. Maybe at some future convention – if the demands of work, home, and family allow me to go – I will be able to welcome Rebecca as an alumna. She’ll certainly have a place on my side of the wall.