Cinderella at Jersey Girls State by
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(149 Stories)

Prompted By Leap Day

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Author’s Note: The image above is from the 2019 session of Jersey Girls State, which is alive and well. Much progress has been made since my experience there 50 years ago, and I was pleased to note the strong overall theme of female empowerment while doing some reality checking for this story. Though some patriotic exercises and “non-denominational” prayer still play a role, thankfully the graduation ball I will describe in the story is no more. According to the program on the website, there is a morning graduation ceremony when nice, but not formal, clothing is worn.

Problem number one: I had no boyfriend and, although I was 17, I had never been on a date.

I couldn’t believe it when the letter arrived in the spring of 1970. I had been chosen as my school’s representative to the Jersey Girls State workshop, sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary. This, after the disruption of Kent State, culminating in my demonstrating on the Caldwell town square. My opposition to the Vietnam War was well known at school. While not a member of any clique, I gravitated to the artsy, hippie crowd, not the jocks. But, I was intrigued by the program and the exercises about government, and it wouldn’t hurt to have this on my college applications, so a couple of weeks after school ended, I was off to the campus of Douglas College (now Rutgers) for several days of role playing in local and state government positions.

Once I arrived, I found the other girls friendly and intelligent, and my roommate Carol, nicknamed Til, especially nice. Another Jewish girl and I secretly wondered whether the organizers knew about our religion. Despite the opening prayers and pledge of allegiance, the program was genuinely interesting, and I soon became active on the local water commission, where our group addressed water quality in our fictional community.

Sweeping the Cinders

All would have been fine, except mid-way through the week, the organizers told us about the last night’s “graduation ball,” which was a formal event to which we were supposed to bring a date. Problem number one: I had no boyfriend and, although I was 17, I had never been on a date. This situation was due to a complex set of circumstances involving my shyness, my GPA (in my high school the guys didn’t like smart girls), my parents prohibiting the dating of non-Jewish boys (even though were only about four Jewish boys in my entire class), and their belief that there was no reason to date in high school anyway. (Aside: my parents later admitted this was probably the most serious parenting mistake they ever made.)

What to do? I had no choice but to ask someone, but school was out and social groups disbanded for the summer. I called my mother as a last resort, and she suggested I call my second cousin Russell, who had just graduated from high school–and he was taller than I as a bonus. He probably had a tuxedo from various proms and could come over from Queens to attend. I have no recollection of that phone call, and cousin Ceil, who was Russell’s mother, probably facilitated the interaction, but by some miracle he said yes.

Pumpkin or Princess?

Problem number two: because I hadn’t gone to any proms, I didn’t have a formal dress. Luckily my mother, who was trained as a textile designer and is still an amazing seamstress, had closets full of material and patterns, and whipped up a beautiful dress without my even being home. It didn’t look like a prom dress, but instead was a sleeveless, fitted sheath with a high collar in green organza printed with leaves. Totally sophisticated.

The late afternoon before the ball, everyone was scrambling to get ready. It seemed as if most of the girls had dates easily lined up and weren’t in the situation I’d found myself–except for my roommate Til. She didn’t have a date and hadn’t found one, and was lying on her bed sobbing. Looking back now I realize that probably she was gay. What a terrible ordeal she was going through, and here I was being embarrassed that my cousin was taking me to the ball! It hurts to think about it today.

Oddly, my memory of the rest of the logistics of that evening, Russell taking me, and the ball itself is almost a complete blank. I can’t tell you where we went or what we did, only that there was a photo taken of the entire group of girls in our gowns, and I loved the fact that I stood out in my homemade dress that looked like it came from a boutique in New York. Otherwise, I only remember feeling very stressed but making it through the evening.

What a confusing time of mixed messages it was. Here were these accomplished girls (we’d say young women now) representing their high schools and showing their capabilities, and yet having to find dates to “graduate”! It was such a relief to look at today’s Jersey Girls State newsletter and see photos of AOC and Kamala Harris as role models for the young women today, and sorry, guys, not a man in sight.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: been there, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Great story, Marian! I love that it’s a case of having to ask a boy out, but it’s mitigated by the fact that he’s your cousin. Interesting that you remember so much about the details leading up to the event yet so little about the event itself. I had the same experience with my senior prom…I remember getting my hair done, my dress, my mom taking my picture, and that’s where it ends. Selective memories? I wish we could see that photo you mentioned of all the girls with you in that dynamite dress! My heart goes out to Til…and what an unusual nickname.. Maybe you’ll tell us about it on the upcoming Nickname prompt? And, finally, cheers to Jersey Girls State!

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Barbara–I think there was so much drama and anxiety leading up to that ball that I blocked out the actual event. The photo is somewhere buried in a box, but if I remember correctly, it’s a very large group and we are the size of ants. Should it turn up in one of my forays, I’ll be glad to share it. That’s a great idea about Til’s nickname, but I don’t remember how she got it. Time for some dreamwork to see if I can remember.

  2. Suzy says:

    Why did I never know about Jersey Girls State when I was growing up in New Jersey? Sounds like a lot of fun. I wish I could have gone, but my school was probably too small to get a representative.

    I can imagine that getting a date for the ball could be a problem even for girls who did date, if they were from all over the state. It’s a big imposition to expect a guy to come to New Brunswick for a dance – for your cousin to come all the way from Queens must have been close to a 2-hour drive. Poor Til, was she really the only girl who didn’t have a date?

    Btw, Douglass College (with a double S), still exists as part of Rutgers, although not as distinct as it used to be. Several of the women in my family went to Douglass, so I feel a connection to it.

    • Marian says:

      You would have liked Jersey Girls State, Suzy, with your interest in government. My spelling of Douglass did seem suspect. While I don’t have direct ties to it, I’m glad it still exists in its way. My sweetheart’s youngest daughter went there.

  3. Marian, What a fascinating look at an early feminist initiative, good for New Jersey!
    And thanx for an honest look at the adolescent angst we all remember!

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Dana, I found it so revealing to revisit this time, when feminist developments were very much in process. Very much like an adolescent, when some aspects were very “evolved” and other, more anti-feminist practices were still in place. It was fun to read Laurie’s story, which took place a few years before my incident, and realize how quickly things changed at that time.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Your story is spot-on for those times, Marian. Having a formal dance as part of graduating from a program on female empowerment was ridiculous. I love how your mother made you a very sophisticated dress, something mine could never have done, but their rules were similar about having to date Jewish guys. Even my daughter had a formal dance as part of her graduation from Brown, that bastion of liberalism. Luckily for her, she was dating someone at the time. So glad my granddaughters can do the asking, go with their friends to prom, and date anyone of any sexual orientation who interests them.

    • Marian says:

      It’s gratifying to know that there are so many more options for your granddaughters, Laurie. I was thrilled that, about 10 years ago, my niece went to her prom with a group of friends. This was an experience denied to me because no one asked me to go.

  5. Dorothy Rice says:

    A wonderful story, Marian. Your dress for the graduation ball sounds absolutely gorgeous. Hopefully you still have the photo. In general, these kinds of balls are stressful. My daughters struggled in high school. The youngest went to a few dances, never with a date, but with a group of girls – there’s still that sense of disappointment at not being asked. Homecoming, etc., are a huge deal in high schools, both public and private, and an occasion for lots of competition and feelings of insecurity. As if adolescence weren’t hard enough!

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Dorothy. It’s too bad that your daughters had to go through what most of us did. Talk about feeling different and left out … It’s amazing we got through as well as we did.

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    Fascinating story, Marian, both about your program, and about the prom ritual and all that followed. I believe I am two years older than you. I began dating in high school and at first was only allowed to date Jewish boys, but ran through the guys at Temple (boring) and the kids at school weren’t interested in me for various reasons (I also understand the smart part, I told a story to friends this past weekend about a kid in 9th grade math class who walked me to second period on the day we got our first report cards. We didn’t have much conversation, so he asked me about my grades. I told him I got “As”. He said, “That’s nice, what else?” I said, “Nothing, just ‘As'”. He didn’t speak to me again, and I learned to hide the fact that I was smart. My parents were not happy when I began dating non-Jewish guys, but didn’t stop me, though made it very clear that I COULD NOT marry one.

    A second cousin had dated a close friend and a whole group of us used to hang out together (he fixed me up with his friends). When they broke up (he went to a private boy’s school, so didn’t know many girls), he asked me to his Junior Prom. It seemed natural at the time, as we were friendly and didn’t think of ourselves as close relatives. He was from the fancy side of the family and our parents rarely saw one another. It was fun and we had a good time. His mother (my father’s first cousin) and aunts were always gracious to me and took a strong interest in me. I remain friendly with several second cousins from that side of the family. They appreciate my knowledge of the family; but I am no longer in touch with Dale, though he still lives in the same town where we grew up.

    • Marian says:

      Seems like there were some parallel experiences, Betsy. In an attempt for me to socialize with Jewish kids, my mother sent me to a temple out of town where the kids didn’t go to my high school and were very different from me. I went to two dances and then declined to go after that. I see my second cousin Russell, who lives across the country in New Jersey, about every couple of years. Besides the ball date, his claim to fame for me was his stint on Romper Room (see my Children’s TV story).

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