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 On the weekend before Labor Day I wrestled with tears, fears, and guilt-ridden joy. I always cried when I left my parents to go back to school. My joy was guilt-ridden because I was so glad to be leaving the social and cultural wasteland of my local church. At school there were men. At home there were old ladies in hats. At school there was an orchestra and a half dozen terrific choirs. At home there was Mrs. Aikens, who could not pass for Beverly Sills. At school there was an all-pervading sense of excitement. At home nothing ever happened.

My main fear was of the unknown; I was having to room with a new roommate. During the summer Karin Clausen, my roommate for the past two years, had decided to get married. She and her husband, John, were now living—bliss-fully, according to all reports—one inch above the poverty line in married-student housing. That left me, in midsummer, with all my friends settled for the next year, and no alternative but to room where the deans saw fit.

I cherished the hope that they would place me with my happiness, and not my adaptability, in mind. My hope was dashed the minute I wrestled my luggage across the threshold of my room. I have generally thought of myself as the classic type. That image had spared my self-esteem through four years of academy and two years of college. It reduced my need for concern about my wardrobe (small but tasteful), my grooming (only the basics), and my hair (clean, period).

My new roommate was sitting in the middle of her bed applying a second coat of pearl-pink nail polish. Long blonde hair fell in freshly brushed waves to the middle of her back. She was wearing a white eyelet-trimmed nightgown. Except for my half, the room looked like something from House Beautiful, with matching bed linens, draperies, and wastebasket.

The closet door was open, and it looked for all the world like a back-to-school display at Saks. Shoes lined the shoe racks, and dresses, blouses, jackets, and skirts filled every inch of available space. She might as well have been wearing a T-shirt that said, “Princess-in-training,” because that’s what she looked like.

I immediately dismissed her. I might have to room with this Barbie doll, but I had friends across the bath, and that’s where I would be spending my time.

“Hi,” she said politely, looking up from a fingernail. “I’m Tiffany.”

Of course, I thought uncharitably. I could have guessed.

“I’m Ruth.” I liked my name. It fit my classic image. “You new here?” What a dumb question. I’d have noticed this girl if she’d been here last year.

“Yes. I went to Collonges last year.” The green-eyed monster had dealt me a terminal blow. Collonges. I had wanted to go there ever since I could remember, but with three younger kids in the family, I felt I should take the most direct and practical educational route possible, and France did not fit the description.

At this point any Francophile would have asked leading questions: “How was it? Did you like it? Can you speak French? Is Collonges as pretty as I’ve always heard it is?” Instead, I dumped my things in the middle of the floor and went next door to visit Mary Ellen and Carla. I might have to room with Rapunzel, but I did not have to grovel at her feet.

Florence Nightingale

That’s pretty much the way it went for the first few days of school. I came into the room to change clothes, drop my books, and go to sleep. The rest of the time I was with my friends. I was courteous to Tiffany, but that was all.

I salved my conscience with the thought that though I might not be very interested in befriending Goldilocks, there were plenty of people—mostly male—who were. Wherever she was there were people around her, hanging on her words. As a group, my friends and I were not amused.

Then it happened. I woke up one night sicker than I had ever felt in my life. I doubled up in pain, a cold sweat drenched my face, and nausea sent me running to the bathroom. I was in there, moaning and groaning, making things right with God and begging Him to cure me or kill me—fast—when Tiffany found me. Tiffany got me back to bed, wiped my face with a cool washcloth, called the nurse, and cleaned up the bathroom. Mary Ellen and Carla never even came near.

And later, when I was in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy, Tiffany visited, bringing me strawberry smoothies from the Campus Kitchen when nothing else tasted good, and chasing away my postoperative depression with stories that made me hold my stitches and laugh.

Last summer, when Tiffany was married in a fairy-tale wedding, I was her maid of honor. Someday when I’ve found the right man and have assembled some furniture and a future, she will be my matron of honor.

You know how your mother always told you that beauty was only skin-deep? You’ve probably learned by now that she was right. But I must have been a slow learner.

Before Tiffany, I got the idea that Mom meant I should befriend homely people with sterling qualities. The fact that beautiful people could have sterling qualities too somehow escaped me. After all, there had to be some justice in the world.

Thanks to Tiffany, I learned that Mom really meant I should put my prejudices aside and not dismiss people for any reason. That includes people who look like princesses-in-training and are named pretty, trendy, and nonclassic names like Tiffany. Which, all things considered, is not a bad lesson to learn in the autumn of your junior year.


This story originally appeared in the May 24, 1986, issue of Insight. Ruth Garren worked as corporate communication and public relations manager at McKee Foods. She’s now retired in McDonald, Tennessee.




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