Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Have you ever felt that while everyone you know agrees that you are wrong, they just can’t agree what part of you is wrong? And you just feel sort of helpless, not wanting to upset anyone, but instead not being able to please anyone? My college often tells us that it’s important to be your own person, develop your own personality and opinions; yet sometimes when that person isn’t what your family likes, it’s hard. Sometimes when that person isn’t what the college wants, it’s hard. And what about when neither the college nor the family likes you?
You probably know there must be a reason for my saying this, so let me explain a little what happened. It all started last Saturday.
My parents, like so many parents, are wonderful people who love their children. As I was the first of their children to leave for college, they were quite emotional about parting from me, and miss me very much. They went to an all-guinea pig college back in a different era, met, and have lived a happy, sheltered life ever since, working in a rural town with their friends and family all forming a close community. My mother enjoy theater, but sticks largely to Jane Austen-eque reproductions; if the play requires fewer clothes than you would wear to Queen Victoria’s church, the local acting company will refuse to touch it. My father in addition to being something of an amateur chef, makes a habit of fishing. Ignoring the slight disapproval of my mother, he heads over on Thursday nights to his best friend’s house to play poker for pennies. He is quite good, and though he would never admit it, he could have become quite a professional. I’m sure that seeing him bringing home his jar full of old, worthless pennies makes my mother just a little pleased.
Neither of my parents are intellectuals. The world of books and dusty pages holds little interest to them, and they were mystified at my interest in anything which could be found between two covers; and to speak the truth, though they have come to accept it and actually admire this difference in their son, they still don’t understand it. I’m not sure they ever will – I don’t understand it either. Still, fully understanding or not, they nevertheless encouraged me to try to apply to a good school and continue my education.
Last weekend my parents thought up a marvelous plan to pay me a surprise visit. They packed up my two younger brothers and baby sister and drove the several hours to my college, arriving unannounced in the late morning at my room. They walked in, expecting I would be there.
A flurry of activity on my roommate’s bed.
“Shut the door!”
“John – move!”
And the door shut on that scene.
My roommate, I had carefully neglected to tell my parents, does not come from the same background as I do – and neither does his girlfriend.
I’m sure you can imagine how the topic of sex is treated in my town. In my 18 years growing up in the same town, no one I knew personally had ever had sex before getting married; we didn’t even use the word much. I knew those sorts of people existed, but none of my friends did that, or even defended it for others: everyone more or less figured that sleeping with someone before marrying was one of the worst things you could do. Things like condoms, sex education, and the like were never mentioned. Maybe in some ways we were too sheltered, but there is a purity in such a childhood that I neither deny nor regret.
Nevertheless, my roommate did not grow up with such old fashioned views, and he happily invited his girlfriend to share quality time together on a regular basis. I usually went to the library to study and not think about it.
My parents decided the whole family needed some time to recover from their shock, and something to distract the children from unfortunate questions, and they took up an old suggestion I had given them to try Nifty Fifties’s milk shakes. They toured the campus a little, and a few hours later they returned to my room, sure that by now I had certainly returned and they could make the day somewhat right again. Returning to my door, they called out, “Oh, Henry!” and opened my door.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Shut—the door, you idiot!”
“Daddy, what’s going on?”
And the door ungracefully yet mercifully shut once again on that scene.
My roommate, indeed, had not yet gotten out of bed, nor had his girlfriend. I arrived several hours later to discover my siblings upset, my parents livid, and my roommate and his girlfriend gone.
Now, this would be difficult enough a situation as I’ve described it up unto this point. The story becomes even worse, though, because my roommate’s girlfriend is, in fact, also a guinea pig. Now, I love my parents, but they have some views on which I part ways. Mostly where we grew up everyone was a guinea pig, we all hung out, and eventually little guinea pigs would grow up and marry other guinea pigs. Guinea pigs just didn’t marry humans. It’s not that anyone could express why, exactly, it shouldn’t happen. Everyone just knew that it wasn’t accepted: so no one accepted it.
You can imagine my parent’s shock and outrage, mixed with their embarrassment, all coming into play when they discovered not their dear son, but instead some young guinea pig in bed with a human. Once my younger brothers and sister were safely out playing on the swing, my mother brought it up.
“What could she be thinking? Where are her parents?”
“Mom, her parents are at home”
“Do they know what their daughter is doing?”
“Mom, it’s not our business. Let’s talk about something else.”
“She is a disgrace to her species!”
“How can you let her—“
My father doesn’t like to talk, that’s why he plays poker and leaves the theater to my mother. His silence was less than encouraging now, however, as he clearly agreed with the basic sentiment, if not the exaggeration, of my mother. It took a long time before we could talk about anything else. Eventually I dissuaded her from trying to find the girl’s parents or reaming out my roommate, and shortly thereafter we all realized it was best for them to just go back home.
My college friends, on hearing about this incident, were polite but clearly thought my parents must have come straight out of The Scarlet Letter. After all, no reasonable person today opposes interspecies relationships; that attitude was held by people who started genocides and held slaves and were bigots and racist and speciesist and rotten through and through. And furthermore, having sex is natural and an important part of deepening a relationship. There’s nothing wrong with it; in fact, it’s perfectly normal and expected.
But that’s not exactly how I feel.
Sure, I agree with my friends that interspecies relationships are not morally questionable, and that my parents’ view is rather close-minded in this way. (Of course, I would also think that the more different two people are, the harder it will be to bridge the gaps, but I would never forbid things just because they are difficult; if so, I’d quit Swarthmore tomorrow!) I think it is reasonable for people to value their own culture and not to be interested in getting involved in relationships outside their own culture, but in the end, I figure it should be up to the people involved to make that choice for themselves. This is hard to explain to my parents.
My friends were happy to see I had joined the ranks of the enlightened, until I had to disappoint them too. You see, while I don’t disapprove of interspecies relationships, I do feel that sex really should be reserved until marriage. This has a very simple religious element: my religion forbids sex with anyone other than the person to whom you are married. Beyond simple restrictions, however, I also believe that having sex is sharing an intimacy with someone that ought not to be done until you have mutually promised that you will live your lives together till death do you part. It’s often about this time that my college friends begin thinking again about puritans. Nevertheless, I firmly stand by this position; and when people have casual sex, even with their current boyfriend or girlfriend, it seems they are cheapening something that could be really precious. This is hard to explain to my college friends.
That’s mostly my story. It’s kind of hard to not agree with anyone; I guess my father’s words really are true: “Coming to college means standing on your own four feet.” It’s hard to say to your family and your past, “I no longer completely agree,” because it’s so familiar and comforting, and who knows what else is out there. It’s also hard to say to all your friends and new environment, “Actually, I don’t wholly agree with you either.” It’s hard to strike the balance and decide what to conserve, and what to adopt, not to be swayed either way by one’s own fear and cowardice.
I guess there are lots of people out there with just the same sorts of problems every day, working out these conflicts as best they can. Maybe you also have felt something like this. Dear Somebody, what do you think?