A Tale of Three Roommates (Part 1)
The former dean of the Dedman School at SMU had one of the best roommate stories I’ve heard. He would show up to speak to incoming students wearing a seersucker suit and bow tie and looking like the nerdiest professor ever. But it didn’t take long before the students and their parents were enthralled as he spun the story of a nerdy, naive student who was befuddled by both of his roommates during his first semester of college. Apparently the first thing his second roommate had done upon arriving in their shared room was to take his Rolex watch completely apart. He then spent the entire semester trying, and failing, to put It back together while not ever going to class. The Dean said he always wondered about the conversation that occurred when his roommate arrived home in December with his watch parts in a paper bag and a report card full of failing grades.
I imagine everyone who ever lived in a residence hall has at least one roommate story. Anyone who has ever worked in a residence hall also has at least one story of being asked to solve a roommate match gone wrong. Reactions from students and parents alike run the gamut from blasé to frantic when roommates struggle, but the reality is that roommates do matter. Even if the experience is simply neutral, sharing a small room with someone teaches us lessons. Usually about ourselves. Mostly, the stories we hear are about incompatible roommates, those who are too different to find a way to live together. As I learned in my first semester of college, it’s also possible for two roommates to be too much alike.
Picture a staff member In the summer of 1975 faced with a variety of housing applications and roommate forms. There would be thousands. For Walker 9 West, the women’s honors floor, there were 60 students to match. Seems like a manageable number. First, pull out all of the people who asked to room with a specific person. When Susie requests Sally, pull Sally’s application to make sure she requested Susie. Usually, all is well, but sometimes Sally hasn’t told Susie she doesn’t want to be roommates. Ugh, well, we’ll deal with that when Susie complains that we haven’t matched her properly.
Okay, next pull all the smokers and pray for an even number. If not, search for anyone who says they don’t mind living with a smoker. Great, that’s one pool. All the non-smokers in the other pool. Of course, this isn’t fool proof since students whose parents will see the form aren’t always truthful here.
When they start matching within the non-smokers, they would have come across two applications that must have been an easy decision. I suspect Debbie and I both put that we would study in our room, that we would go to bed earlier rather than later, and that we liked music for studying. All of these were true. The one significant difference would have been that she was coming up early for Rush and I was not, but for all of the rest, it would make us seem like we were destined to be best friends and perfect roommates. If that imagined roommate matcher ever learned that we were in the same five-hour Beginning Russian class, (why were there two of us who did that?! And who were the two advisors who approved it?), they would have been justified in thinking they had made the perfect match. They would have been wrong.
Walker Tower, our new home, was one of the massive residential complexes universities built after World War II to cope with the influx of students needing places to live. We had all the newest amenities – from the 1960s. Built-in furniture, air-conditioning which meant the windows were sealed, in a pair of rooms sharing one bath instead of community baths, with our own phone on the wall by the bathroom door. That meant the only people we had to meet were our suitemates and since they had pledged a sorority, we didn’t see them much. I didn’t know anyone at OU of course and Debbie didn’t have any friends on campus either, so we ate most of our meals together for the first couple of weeks. We were each taking sixteen hours and we spent most of our non-class hours in our room studying. After all, a five-hour Russian class meant we needed to study Russian at least five nights a week. If either one of us had had something else to do or even a little bit of gumption about getting out of the room, it would have been better for both of us. We were a self-reinforcing pair which made it easier to stay in the room than to poke our heads out and make a few friends.
By mid-semester, Debbie had pledged a sorority and was spending more and more time in the sorority house but by then my habits were set. Luckily, I did have to leave the room if I wanted to watch a television show. I had ventured out to the TV lounge where I managed to meet other residents in spite of myself and, therefore, had a few people besides Debbie to eat meals with. There was a vibrant residential community developing outside our room, but that semester, I opted out of the college social experience. Not a particularly auspicious beginning. But it really didn’t occur to me that there was a better way to do it. My roommate and I were too much alike and while we didn’t make each other miserable, neither of us added much to the other’s experience.
Debbie moved into her sorority house at mid-semester, and I never saw her again so I don’t know the rest of her story. But when she moved out, it meant that I would have a new roommate for the spring which had the effect of pushing me out of my comfort zone and that made all the difference. In a way, that may be the most important thing she did for me that year, but that story is for the next installment.
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