Transitions: On the Road Again toward Nonconformity
by Susie Duncan Sexton
Curmudgeonly poet Robert Frost’s “road less traveled by” transformed the rest of my life at the precise moment I devoured his verses which spoke directly to my soul forevermore. His collected works occupy an entire shelf in my personal library.
Amidst the clutter, trivial turmoil and aftermath of that blast referred to as Holiday Season 2009-2010, I milled amongst local humanity and became inspired by conversations, renewal of long-ago and far-away friendships, and thoughts of happy yesterdays. Fun chats transpired with class-mate and mathematical wizard “kissin’ cousin” Brian Sherman, my former pupils Bruce Coyle and Cathy (Lemmon) Schrader and Valerie (Byer) Rouch and musician Phil Black and Betty (Phillips) Overdeer and first sympathetic superintendent Ralph Bailey, handsome “younger kid” Greg Fahl, and dry-witted Bill Webber whose mom Mildred worked with my dad at the Blue Bell factory for years and years.
Still reeling from a movie marathon featuring main crush Alec Baldwin, political activist George Clooney, a gymnastic Robert Downey, Jr. portraying a wired and emotional “basket-case” version of Sherlock Holmes, AND Daniel Day-Lewis channeling absurdist Italian movie director Federico Fellini, I fixated on the number “9”. Daniel’s musical film, NINE, although a bit of a disappointment, continues to haunt me as I still wrestle with the title’s significance. However, the goddesses who trigger artistic impulses total nine, my favorite number, and this I offer as my ninth installment of OLD TYPE WRITER. Dames aplenty, perhaps nine significant ladies, drift in and out of Federico’s life…from his age of nine onward. Oh, who knows?
Thus, I jotted notes onto the back-side of a Kroger’s receipt as we dined in Richard’s Restaurant recently, much as Abraham Lincoln did when he completed the “Gettysburg Address” writing his thoughts onto an envelope during one of his lengthy plane-rides? (What’s wrong with that sentence?) My muses struck…so enjoy the ride—and the story!
Life performs its swirling dance around all of us…we savor so very much of it and tend to survive by denying the bulk of its unpleasantness.
Rites of passage, commonly reserved for stories “of boys becoming men” whether at boarding schools or as savages ship-wrecked on islands or as rugby team players, happen to “All God’s Chillun” (borrowing that play title from Eugene O’Neill if his estate doesn’t object, but omitting the “…Got Wings” portion).
VIET NAM CONFLICT!
Apron-strings loosened and untied during the mid-sixties as I discovered myself wandering the campus of Ball State Teachers’ College, founded (not losted) by Muncie’s local native Hoosier inventors of canning jars. My alarmingly miserable S.A.T. scores dictated that I possibly might withstand this collegiate experience more successfully than experimenting with those universities Indiana or Northwestern or Harvard OR my accompaniment of dream-boat Harry Lee Staley down south of Indianapolis to Wabash, an all-male school nestled in a wheatfield near Crawfordsville, where General Lew Wallace penned BEN-HUR.
My dad re-mortgaged the house, loaded up way too many shoe-boxes, sweaters, blazers, below the knee pleated plaid skirts, belted “007”-GET SMART-style trench coats, boots, an oversized “outer space” hair dryer 2001’s Keir Dullea would have envied, huge pink curlers, notebooks, tins filled with home-baked cookies, a type-writer, and me…drove 70 miles away from the house where I happily had wished to spend the REST of my existence…and dumped me at Wood Hall. Thus, I majored in Speech and English as both academic disciplines were located within a huge brick building located directly across the street from my dormitory. “Walk to work”—an old adage which held new meaning for me!
I vowed to make my family proud though home-sickness mercilessly attacked me precisely at that very second whence our 1961 partially-rusted out Pontiac pulled away from the desolate parking lot. I vowed to avoid situations which required butting my mind against that cliquish-girl-gang mentality which had plagued my high school days yet found myself pledged to a sorority within one month’s time. I resolutely vowed to ignore all males in order that I might return to my parents’ hearth and home with a bachelor’s of art/science diploma clasped under my arm rather than a M.R.S. degree. Rules of the road.
I learned a great deal as a co-ed. For instance, eye-make-up applied with a heavy hand might produce more requests for “Coke-dates” than a girl could feasibly handle. Such a trampy demeanor was never sanctioned by my sorority which instead encouraged frosted, streaked Jackie Kennedy–esque bouffant coiffures OR long blonde hair straightened by actually ironing one’s tresses. Our signature “natural”, though a tad artificial, beauty regimen? Achieved through Max Factor Pan-Stick slime slathered from hairline down to and including the neck area and translucent pale pink lipstick slightly hovering upon pouty lips, and a discreet touch of mascara or even false eye-lashes? Yes. Allowed. The raccoon look, however, remained the hall-mark of that “other” competitive “band of sisters” whose suite bustled with energy/activity directly above ours on Monday evenings with secret hand-shakes and friendship circles and ritualistic candle-lit business meetings steered by a rudimentary knowledge of parliamentary procedure.
(A fashion side-note here: until Jane Fonda introduced “panty-hose”--as a young newly-wed in the popular late sixties’ film BAREFOOT IN THE PARK--we college girls wore garter belts to hold up our nylons. What a shame such a screwball comedy had not premiered earlier. Ironically, years before, Clark Gable removed his shirt during IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, and startled audiences gasped that he was t-shirtless and bare-chested causing retail sales of men’s under-shirts to plummet. Geesh, Jane, the convenience of panty hose might have caused far fewer incidences of tardiness to classes clear across campus? “Stockings” stock would have soared off the charts. Where were you when we babes needed you? Slacks, shorts, and jeans absolutely “verboten”, the exception involving Stagecraft Class consisting of scenery construction and heavy lifting. Ah, well. My gratitude to Nancy Sinatra, though, for precipitating white go-go boots accompanied by fish-net stockings. After parents simmered down, we “grown-up”co-eds continued to pursue our “ladies of the evening”/“these boots were made for walking” raunchy stylishness as we scuttled to our classes, some of us 70 miles from our hometowns. So there! Vogue Magazine alive and well within Muncie, Indiana, heart of the Mid-West.)
Sisterhood, certainly uplifting and generally jovial, often seemed conflicted. “Do this. Don’t do that.” Prior to initiation’s “flying up” rituals, at which time our delicately-billed pastel-hued pledge caps would be retired, we girls were indoctrinated into believing, for example, that true “ladies” never carried lit cigarettes while ambulatory. However, bring on the entire football team for fun, French-kisses, and frolic? (Oh, why not?) My appraisal may elicit darts and arrows zinging my direction. I apologize ahead of time to all who “organized” into sororities, fraternities…or teams? (Note to Judy Langohr Ebeling: Thank you for the loan of your beautiful diamond-and-pearl-studded sorority pin which I proudly wore until I purchased my own “scaled-down” version.) Here I go again, off the “beaten path”.
My heart, though, beat most strongly for the professorial aspect central to the “halls of ivy”. Fantasy romances numbered about seven, focusing upon English Profs mainly. Blends of tweed jackets, pipes, genius mastery of British and American literature and also classical plays throughout the ages as well as Radio and Television Sciences—a killer combination obvious in the good Doctors MacGibbon and Powell and Bloom and Strother and Shepherd, etc. This fascination with “thinkers” has never died, even though my first campus love, who provoked tremendous angst in my parents, hailed from Massapequa , New York and played rough and tumble soccer while boasting a hot-blooded Italian heritage. I matriculated as an over-protected somewhat sequestered, cloistered nun/monk and graduated having progressed from lavaliered to pinned to engaged. My brother-in-law referred to “freshman” Susie initially as the “Lavoris Kid” who gargled after every date but who eventually discovered that “bussing” qualified as a great hobby within the short time-span of four years.
Two quotes which I evoked as an under-graduate have served me well these many decades since: Dean of Female Students, Miss Martha Wickham, soothed my troubled concerns while I served as Pan-Hellenic President, over-seeing all twelve sororities, with some amazing advice “to learn to live outside one’s self.” Easier said than done! An accidental compliment emanated from my officiously rigid sorority pledge trainer when I reported for a group photograph wearing the incorrect (uniform) blouse color: “Ah, Duncan…always the individual!” My claim to fame--or infamy-- intact!
Emerging from Ball State University which had matured from a mere college for teachers to full-blown contender, I carried with me great allegiance toward the world of academia, a 3.8 GPA, one diamond ring, THE John R. Emens Most Outstanding Senior plaque, my sorority’s Amy Burnham Onken award, the possibility of a graduate assistantship, a continual BLUES BROTHERS propensity for donning sunglasses at night, and appreciation for the wondrous patience of my parents.
“Good-bye” to bespectacled collegiate guys wearing skinny ties (no tacs!) and even skinnier pants and whose hair styles suggested the JFK part-on-the-side ring-a-ding-ding “fresh off the links OR the sailboat” ambience and who subscribed to Uncle Hugh Hefner’s PLAYBOY magazine monopoly simply “for the informative articles”! “Farewell” to button-down collars, pretentiousness, and insular “dreamy dream land” lifestyles. Apologies to Henry Mancini.
“Hello” to Whitley County’s eighth grade boys who swaggered, challenged, spit-balled, paper-wadded, schemed, and practiced irreverence at every damn turn. Yep, I was the new quasi-feminist “teach” in town, all 115 pounds of naive, wet behind the ears, trusting innocence. The ride of my life commenced only to arrive at a screeching halt nine months later—childbirth much easier than winning over kids whose parents thought they knew this hometown girl “back when” and announced that fact at our very first round of Monday parent-teacher consultations on “Back-to-School” night during the nuttiest September which I ever experienced. The “natives were restless”! Mr. Chips had nothing on me!
Complicating my “maiden voyage” or “year of living dangerously”, the “Hippie” movement filtered all the way from UC Berkeley, Kent State, and Haight-Ashbury to every Secondary Education-al institution dotting America’s landscapes from coast to coast and from North to South. An anti-establishment anthem “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, though not completely comprehensible to teen-agers, nevertheless influenced school-room discipline or the lack thereof! What a time that was. Grammar rules, sentence diagramming and classical literature lost in the shuffle of translation. Peace, love…chaos!
However, Ada Smith saved my dignity by entering “Miss Duncan” in the Business and Professional Women’s Young Career Woman contest in South Bend where I presented a certifiably “impromptu” speech, incredibly winning first place ranking. The judges requested that I replay my talk at that evening’s banquet. I could not remember a word, improvised another sincere diatribe, and received a standing ovation? Go figure. Luckily for me, my wonderful eighth graders supplied me with enough sometimes hair-raising experiences that I could regale audiences for the rest of my life? Thanks for the memories, kids!
I now revere and respect the meaningful lessons which those students as well as empathetic, enthusiastic colleagues Dave Heinbaugh, Helen Morris, Ron Myer, Pat Reed, Margo Langohr, Grace Hurtt, and my own fabulous eighth-grade English teacher Mary Jane Lesh (who inspired my future “career” choice during my junior high days in that very same building) taught me as together we embarked upon my life-time of teaching…and learning… inside and outside the perimeters of traditional class-rooms. Frisky shenanigans of those “boys and girls” I lovingly refer to as “the Brief-Case Gang”, as well as my cluelessness, remain legendary, and my charges currently Facebook back and forth with their former educator. We reminisce in great good humor, notwithstanding that my maiden name changed from “Let’s see what tricks we can pull on Language Arts schoolmarm Miss Duncan today” to “Tee hee, Miss Duncan got married over Christmas break…and just guess what her name is now?” Installed by our school custodian, a revised name-plate poised above the old wooden door of Room 28 read: “Mrs. SEXton”! The parlor games started anew!
POSTSCRIPT (though Prequel?): Thanks to navigating a myriad “coming of age” roads “less traveled by”, I am a rather happy and hippy “Hippie” myself at this late date and remain true to my nature. My choice “…has made all the difference.” Perhaps, that “good fences make good neighbors” poet might congratulate me as he simultaneously forgives my mother her frenzied retro-indiscretion of once mis-placing our habitually purchased T.V. GUIDE magazine while she sorted through our Friday-night-shopping-at-downtown-Kroger’s groceries, freshly lugged into the kitchen. Eventually, we found our weekly edition for January of 1961…“Dewey decimaled” within the refrigerator’s freezer section…so that the hour of JFK’s televised inaugural ceremony would not be missed. “The Gift Outright”! How appropriate. That iconic gentleman of letters, New Englander Robert Frost born in San Francisco, graced the cover. Only in the Duncan household! FROST found! Filed in the freezer!
Susie Duncan Sexton graduated the MOST OUTSTANDING SENIOR EVER (JOHN R. EMENS AWARD...DAVID LETTERMAN AND JIM DAVIS AND GARFIELD MY CLASS-MATES, TOO! HA!) from Ball State University, became a speech and language arts teacher and has occasionally taught literature/public speaking on the college level. She has performed in several theatrical productions and commercials. Also among her credits is museum curator, health center lecturer, and publicist.
"Mostly, I exist as a free-spirited, animal activist independent thinker!" she says.
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