A Walk in Someone Else’s High-Heeled Shoes

Last weekend marked the occasion of the second Pima Hall Zoom reunion. Only forty girls at a time made it into that dorm at the University of Arizona, they generally stayed on for all four years.

We mostly came from small towns, many of which were places where the populations were smaller than our freshman class in 1962. In order to land in Pima, girls had to be nominated by a teacher, and potential Pima Hall girls had to have good grades. In other words, although no one actually said so, Pima was an honors dorm—one that involved doing our own cooking and cleaning. For the most part, we all worked our way through school, with a few scholarships thrown in on the side.

People who have seen me do live appearances know that I often close my presentations by singing Janis Ian’s song, At Seventeen. It starts with the following words:

I learned the truth at seventeen,
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired.

Well, Judy Busk was one of those girls. I never went on a date until after I was a freshman at the U of A. (The girls at Pima Hall called my boyfriend Jerry Janc, the Jerk, which only shows how much smarter they were than I was at the time, but I digress.)

Sororities were a really big deal on campus in those days, and Pima Hall was not sorority territory. We called ourselves GDIs—GD Independents. (Pretend you’re reading a Zane Grey book and feel free to fill in the missing bad words!) For decades sorority girls had had a lock on the title of Homecoming Queen. But in 1965, that longstanding tradition took a hit when Emily Sult, a Pima Hall girl from Florence, Arizona, walked away with the crown.

We were all thrilled when she was nominated. But what we didn’t know is this: Being homecoming queen costs money, something Pima Hall girls were short on. She needed head shots from a professional photographer. She needed to print posters. And being homecoming queen required a whole new wardrobe.

At the point, Pima Hall pitched in. We held bake sales to raise money. (Please note, with my lack of cooking skills, see previous blog, I did none of the baking.) Wonder of wonders, she won! And you know what? There was always a part of Judy Busk who was a bit jealous of that.

When my one-year roommate, Virginia Reyes Kramer, was organizing the reunion, I asked about Emily Sult. Virginia told me that due to a vision issue she wouldn’t be attending because she was afraid she wouldn’t recognize some of us. I told Virginia, “Hey, we’re all in our seventies. None of us would recognize the others if we met walking down the street.”

I wrote Emily a letter, and thinking reigning as Homecoming Queen was probably the high point of her university career, I told her how proud we all were of her back then, and how much I hoped she would attend. And she did. When we signed on to the Zoom, there she was with all white, curly hair, but as beautiful as ever.

As a side note here, there were 2,500 kids in our freshman class at the University of Arizona. Emily and I were both English majors. In our junior year, seven students—five girls and two boys–were chosen to be in the Honors English Literature class taught by a full professor, Dr. Paul Rosenblatt. It was a challenging class, but during the first year, the boys seemed to dominate all the classroom discussions. When the second year came along, the boys had dropped out and only the five girls—five very smart girls—remained. Two of those were Emily Sult and Judy Busk. That class gave me a tiny glimpse into how attending an all-girls school might have been a totally different experience.

But during the Zoom, Emily gave us a glimpse of something I never knew—that there was a dark side of being homecoming queen. During the two weeks leading up to Homecoming, there were all kinds of mandatory appearances. Although she enjoyed those, especially the parade and the part about welcoming alums back to campus, the events cause her to miss several classes. One of her professors (Not Professor Rosenblatt!) forced her to drop his class because a paper was late. (I wonder if he ever did that to one of the star football players!)

After being crowned, Emily found herself stalked and jeered at on campus. She received any number of cards and letters from men wanting to meet her—including several prison inmates. What I had always assumed to be a highpoint of Emily’s life had, in reality, been a nightmare, and probably one she would have preferred to forget. I’m lucky she decided to attend the Zoom reunion anyway, despite my sending her the letter reminding her of her Homecoming triumph.

When, as a junior, I wasn’t allowed in the U of A’s Creative Writing program, I took Article and Essay writing instead—and was the first person in the class to have an article published before the end of the semester. (It was an article recounting the history of Pima Hall which was published in the U of A Alumni magazine. Guess who still has a copy of that article? I don’t, but Emily does, and she’s going to send it to me!)

But I wasn’t the only one subjected to that kind of treatment back in the Sixties. Emily wanted to earn a biology minor. One of the requirements was taking an ecology lecture. Lectures for that were held in an auditorium with probably 200 students while the lab work was done in smaller groups. At her first lecture, Emily was the only girl in the room. When the professor showed up, he took one look at her and said, “The last time I had a girl in this class, I threw a snake in her lap.”

Unfortunately for him, Emily grew up in the desert and wasn’t afraid of snakes. She got her minor in biology anyway!

I’m so grateful Emily Sult showed up at our Zoom meeting. She’s been happily married for more than fifty years. She’s led an amazing life, living and working in Washington, DC.

The end of Janis Ian’s song goes like this:

And dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me.

Turns out, the same thing is true for the girls who really were the beauty queens back then. And what my Pima Hall Zoom reunion taught me is this: You never know what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

44 thoughts on “A Walk in Someone Else’s High-Heeled Shoes

  1. Yes, I, too was an ugly duckling in high school; never was asked for a date, the Christmas dance or prom. Unfortunately married the first guy that I dated (turned out to be an alcoholic) but got 2 wonderful sons before divorce. On my 40th class reunion, got brave enough to go as I had “wintered out” nicely & wore a red dress. Well….. people did not even know who I was, but me & the red dress proved to be a success!!

    • Christine, you and I lived almost twin lives. Alcoholic first husband? Check. And dowdy Emily Combel at our 40th reunion in a flashy red dress? Check, check, check! Have you read After the Fire? I think it wold speak to you.

  2. Please weave Emily’s homecoming queen experience into one of your books. The lightness of being elected and the darkness of the horrors (stalking including cons!) would be very interesting. Surprising, too! Who’d thunk it???

  3. This post almost made me cry. What a shock to be reminded of a time when the highs were so high and the lows were so low. In some ways times have changed, but unfortunately, in many ways they have not. Thank you for the reminder of Janis Ian’s song – it really resonated.

  4. Thanks so much for this reminder that we usually haven’t walked in others’ shoes…I try to remember that, but still get lost in my perspective more often than not. I love your blog and newsletter!

  5. Wonderful story and so true. Love the blog, these stories are life experiences and so true. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Someone else’s shoes usually don’t fit!! You are such a wonderful writer. I look to your tales on Fridays. Thank you.

  7. Your blog took me back to my time in college in northern Ohio. I, too, was a proud member of GDI.

    • I think that GDI probablu had more members than any sorority. I was quite proud of my affiliation. U of A was huge and I don’t recall ever meeting up with Judy although we were both from the same class in Bisbee. There we had at least two hours a day together. Journalism and Eanglish seemed to go hand in hand.

  8. Once again, you’ve hit the nail on the head! Truer words have never been spoken with regard to someone else’s shoes. Thank you so much for sharing this story and reminding us that life goes on no matter what.

  9. Thank you! We women of a certain age have many stories that our daughter and granddaughters, thank goodness, have not experienced.

    At age 23, 1970, happily married & 3&1/2 months Pregnant, I worked part-time at a national retail department store. (Teaching degree and no jobs available. The Post War Baby Boom had made it through the school system and 3 Seattle area High Schools were closed the year I graduated from UDub. My HS graduation class numbered about 535 and was one of the schools closed) Seattle historically has been historically a union town and I was required to pay dues as a member of the Retail Workers Union. I had NOT disclosed my pregnancy to anyone at the store. “Something” told me it would be best to keep it under wraps. Our work schedules were posted 5 days prior to the upcoming week. I called in sick 1 day due to stomach flu. Much to my surprise, coming back to work the next day, I was not scheduled to work the following week. When I asked the department manager about it he shrugged and told me to talk to the Store Manager. I had never had a one on one conversation with him!!!! I had to wait 4 days before he made time to see me. He told me there was a rumor that I might be pregnant. I told him I was. He smiled and obviously was pleased with himself. His exact words: “It would be obscene for you to be seen in public. He did not add “serving our customers”. We won’t be scheduling you any longer.” I went to the Union and got 2 more weeks at the lowest amount of hours allowed. When I applied for unemployment (while seeking a job) I was denied by a woman about 10 years older than myself. She told me snarky she knew I had no intention to take any other job due to my “condition”. 3 years later the Federal Government passed a law that made my situation illegal. The state of Washington paid me a total $31 unemployment settlement.

    • Sad story. I have never understood the old prejudice against pregnancy. I owned a chain of women’s retail stores in the 1970’s and I always was happy to have pregnant employees work as long as they desired, but unfortunately took a lot of crap from people who disagreed with my decisions.

    • Peggy,
      I was in a similar situation at about the same time and place in Washington. I was teaching in the Highline School District in early 1970 and was informed my services would no longer be accepted after my pregnancy reached 5 months.
      I was not considered eligible for unemployment and my position would be forfeited to someone else. Young women today are shocked when I share this story.

    • I too was denied unemployment benefits, but in 1964, for being pregnant. The person at the unemployment office was a man sitting at a desk lounging back twiddling a pen and if he could I’m sure he would have put his feet on the desk he was that smug. I still remember that humiliating day. My girlfriend who was pregnant earlier than me managed to collect benefits by wearing a coat much like an A line disguising herself. Well, you do what you have to do.

  10. As an other U of A “GDI”, beginning in 1967, I spent my time in Cochise Hall. We certainly did not have to get letters of recommendation to be there. We did have our own special dorm overseer, “Ma Herrick” a unique elder who smoked Turkish cigarettes. Cochise Hall was later to receive special honors by being the dormitory in the movie “Revenge of the Nerds”. A special place with special memories.. like when my roommate and I parachuted our pet hamsters off the front balcony (they survived with no problem). The parking area to the back (toward the 7-11 a couple blocks due south) was, however, a bit problematic, as all the gloss was sandblasted off my vehicle by the wind and particle in the air. — Bear down, Arizona! Bear down, red and blue!

  11. I really enjoy reading your blog. A wonderful peak into your life. I never went to college, as I went directly into nursing school from high school, we did have some college courses but mostly hands on. I don’t feel I missed anything and still love the path I chose, even though I retired after 45 years. Keep up your amazing work. I love all your series, but my favorite is Beau, showing his human side and how much he changed.

  12. Thank you so much for your posting. I truly enjoy them, and appreciate the effort you make to write them. I am a bug reader, and you are one of my favorite writers, with all the varied series. I recently turned a friend on to your books, he is already on #17 of the Beaumont books, has finished 3 Brady books, and is ready to start the Ali Reynolds series. He really has become a fan. I have seen you in person at The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, and appreciate the effort you make in doing those live events. Keep up the amazing work. Thanks again. I know you brighten the lives of many.

  13. Oh, this one is especially good–brought tears to my eyes. I’m so glad you encouraged Emily to attend and am sure she got as much out of the reunion as you did. Though I envied my pretty, talented peers in high school, I’ve since come to realize that beauty is very often a curse disguised as a blessing. It can bring, as you say, much unwelcome attention, including abuse, and the psychological effect regarding romantic options can set them on a lonely perpetual search, since it seems they can have their pick, for the absolute perfect mate. It sounds like Emily was one of the wiser ones. (Not to suggest that she did not find the perfect mate, mind you!)

  14. Really enjoyed today’s post. What it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes or foot prints.

  15. Last year at my 50th high school reunion, one of the local people who chose NOT to attend was the Homecoming Queen our Senior year. One of her friends said that Mary “says she never felt like she fit in”. She came from a part of the high school’s region that was very impoverished. Your story is making me wonder if maybe she experienced harassment, especially from residents of better-off areas. I was sad that she didn’t come, but maybe she had reasons she didn’t share.

  16. What a beautiful story…kudos to Emily…laughed, cried, and remembered my old days. So happy the reunion went so well!

  17. Proving once again that things are rarely as they appear! Thank you for sharing that experience – enclosed in another of your well-written stories. God bless you and keep you writing!

  18. So true–you never know what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

  19. I, too,was an ugly duckling. Never got to go to a prom as no one asked me. Never went to a Tolo (girl asks boy) as the 2 boys I asked declined. However, I had my mentor’s horse to ride in Bridle Trails Park, and my love of Country Music to occupy my time. Both evolved into an exciting life in both venues until I had to retire myself to writing about them only. I don’t miss those other highlights so important to most young gals.

  20. Great story. Everyone should read this. I’ve experienced this at reunions as well. You think someone has it all figured out because they are popular or a sports hero but the reality is we were all feeling like misfits.

  21. I went to an all girls school for most of the k-12 grades, and I think I was very lucky-
    I did not learn to defer to boys- However, that did not prevent me from encountering sexism in later years- Once I was visiting my parents in Fla. for Christmas, and got a ride with the son of friends of my parents- I told him I was planning to study anthropology- He said, with a smooth southern accent, “Why don’t you marry a rich husband?” I was so shocked and enraged that I could not speak!
    I attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, after a gap year working at a hospital in my home town of New York City- This was 1968- Fortunately sororities were out of fashion during that period, so I did not feel pressured to try to join one-
    I did know of some girls traumatized by rejection based on petty imperfections-
    One thing I did not know about or expect was the night crowds of young men started roaring outside of the dorm- I soon learned from natives of Wisconsin in the dorm that this was a panty raid!
    During those years U. Wisconsin was in the grip of anti-Vietnam war protests, so that there was usually tear gas in the air, and at one point the entire campus was shut down, with armed National Guard all over the campus- I did participate in demonstrations, but I never approved of students calling the police, “Pigs-” I thought it was hypocritical to claim to be on the side of the working class while deriding police who were working class people doing a difficult job-
    It is simply not easy to be an adolescent or young adult- As the experience of that beautiful Homecoming Queen shows, women are vulnerable to demeaning attitudes if they are seen as not pretty enough, or to vicious envy if they are seen as too pretty-
    In my role as counselor to insecure High School girls, I often told them that adults will tell them, “These are the best years of your life-” But in fact for many these are the hardest, and life will get much better as they mature- That was certainly my experience-

    • Robin Jeanne Loomis your comment about “these are the best years of your life” hit me hard. I have 2 grandkids in high school and am guilty of using that phase on more than one occasion. ALL KIDS only tell their loved ones what they want them to know. They exist in a whole world that we know nothing about (shaming, pressure to get all A’s, not being good enough to make the team, bullying, trying to live up to your parents standards while still being cool to your friends, alcohol/drugs, dating?!?!?!, and the list goes on and on).
      Because of what you posted (“these are the best years …”) I may have hurt my precious grandkids. I swear I will never use that phrase again. Thanks for writing!

  22. Hi Judy,
    Another wonderful post leaving just a few tears in my eyes. I love your novels, but even more, I love your heart. I hope to see you at the next LCC. My husband promises he won’t drop coffee at your feet.
    All best,

  23. Amazing how we always think the other person has a wonderful life or all the luck, when in reality we know nothing of what they actually contend with daily.
    The best part of your story is that you have stayed in touch with your good friends for all these years. I only have one of my closest friends left from high school. As I look back and remember some girls that were good friends I regret we didn’t stay in touch after school was over. Of course, these days we can “Google” someone, but at this late date we often find our friend is deceased. Yes, I wonder if anyone ever “Googles” my name.

  24. What a wonderful story. My Mother Evie used to always say don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins.

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