Across the divide: Finding friendship, fashion and acceptance in a college dormitory

Me and my hair, newly permed and ready for action.
Me and my hair — newly permed and ready for action.

I remember the day I met her. She strolled over from next door and introduced herself to me and my roommate, Katie,* friendly like.

“Wampum,” she said. “That’s hello in Jamaican.”

Her skin was as dark as the color of black walnuts, and she laughed a lot. I liked her right from the start.

It was the first semester of my freshman year in college, and I was having a tough time getting acclimated to dorm life. I had grown up simply, out in the country with plenty of fresh air and food but not much in the way of expensive gadgets or fine clothes. I didn’t wear makeup and kept my hair in a perpetual ponytail.

My new friend was about to change all that. “If I had your looks, the guys would be tumbling over me,” she told me. “Why don’t you put on a little makeup and wear something cute? C’mon, let’s see what you have.”

And just like that she dragged me over to the closet and began pulling out clothes until she found what she wanted. “Here, wear this,” she said.

When she couldn’t locate the perfect shirt to complement my skirt, she pulled me into her room and went into her own closet to find the best blue color. “To match those eyes,” she said.

I had never had someone fuss over me, especially not an exotic, new friend with style who was raised in New York City. I found myself opening up, like a delicate flower in the presence of the right combination of temperature and sunlight.

“Girl, we need to get you to the beauty shop,” she told me, chuckling heartily. “You leave it to me. I know a good place. It’s not a place I’ve ever been to cause they wouldn’t know how to do a black girl’s hair. But it’s where all the white girls go.”

We took the bus that ran across campus into the nearby town and entered a fancy salon. I only had $40 in cash and the haircut and perm cost $60, but the stylist was kind and agreed to do the job for what I could offer.

A rare image of me with a perm. Sadly, I did not own a camera and never snapped a photo of my first college buddies.
A rare image of me with my first perm. Sadly, I did not own a camera and never snapped a photo of my first college buddies.

I stepped into that shop a country girl and came out a sophisticated college student. My long, straight hair was now six inches shorter and consisted of tiny ringlets. As a bonus, the perm lightened the plain brown color into a golden blond. For the first time in 18 years, I felt beautiful.

That evening, the three of us went out on the town and like Cinderella, I met what seemed like a fairy prince (although later he turned out to be the green, toad variety). It was the first of many fun outings and midnight conversations over popcorn and hot chocolate.

Late one night, as we studied for finals, each in our own bedroom, we heard the sound of shattering glass, screams, and two sets of footsteps running through the hall. “He’s got a knife,” someone yelled.

“Let me in. Let me in.” The raw pounding on the resident advisor’s door across the way (or RA as we called her), reflected the panic of the knocker.

I cracked open our door to catch the action and was just in time to see a girl slip through as a man with a knife went flying by. I closed my door quickly and locked it.

There was a long silence. No one knew what to do.

“Amanda, Katie, you okay?” Her scared little voice was so close, it sounded like it was coming from within our room. For some reason, Katie and I looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“Where are you? Are you in the….closet?” I opened my closet door but no one was there. The walls were so paper-thin, that when she was in her own closet, it sounded like she was in mine.

“Yeeess,” she said, and I could hear the quiver in her voice. Clearly, she was frightened.

“Why are you hiding in the closet?”

“Ain’t that what you’re supposed to do? Girl, I’m from New York. That’s the first thing they teach you. If someone’s attacking, you’re supposed to hide.”

Growing friendship
We went to see a movie together: Jumpin’ Jack Flash. The show starred Whoopie Goldberg. I don’t remember anything about the film. What I do remember is that we were three friends, hanging out: A former cheerleader and student council president (my roommate), a country bumpkin (me) and a New Yorker with a funny, Jamaican accent.

There was no prejudice between us, no black versus white issues, no police brutality or white supremacy. It was a time of friendship and a blooming perspective. We talked politics, religion, death and taxes and found common ground. We shared some of our most painful memories and happiest dreams. We laughed, we cried, and we hugged often.

Over winter break, I took her to meet my family, and she worked her magic on my parents. So much so that my father, who had never entertained an African American at his dinner table, kissed her cheek when she departed.

She left me at the end of the semester. She wasn’t happy with her major and had run out of money. Katie and I also parted ways at the end of that year. She went to the “quiet” floor, and I stayed behind to enjoy a little noise with my studying.

A new perspective
The years have passed like gray dots on a rolling filmstrip. I have had many friendships since then. Some carried me through graduate school. Some were there when I got married. A few witnessed the birth of my three children. Many are still involved in my life today. But none carry quite the same sweet innocence, openness and profound acceptance as my first college buddies.

Sadly, those two girls have disappeared from my landscape like shooting stars in the night sky. I haven’t found them on Twitter, Facebook or any other online media. Still, in my mind, we remain in innocence, giggling at the absurdities of life, exchanging confidences and beauty secrets, and listening to one another with focused appreciation and a matching desire that all our wishes would one day come true.

*Names have been changed.

6 thoughts on “Across the divide: Finding friendship, fashion and acceptance in a college dormitory”

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top