As my 25th college reunion approaches, the impact of “Beowulf” and Biology 101 have long since faded. But the enduring lessons of seeking out different perspectives and learning to get along remain.
These lessons didn’t come from a textbook or a lecture hall. Everything I learned about tolerance I learned from my freshman year roommate: how to reach “across the aisle”; how to find common ground; how to share; and how to make a lasting friend with someone who is different from you.
She expanded my cultural horizons, stretched my comfort zone and, thankfully, returned my lucky sweater.
My side of the room had stripes. Hers had pastels. I brought cassette tapes of Foreigner and Phil Collins. She brought Madonna and Tears for Fears. I brought Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. She brought Kentucky Derby shot glasses. I graduated from a small Hebrew Day School in the suburbs of Boston. She came from a large public high school in Kentucky.
We decided to meet in the Food Court of a local mall the summer before freshmen year. Why wait until September? Let’s end the mystery and get right to it: Who’s bringing the mini-fridge?
I chose a veggie pocket. She chose a meatball sub. I broke the news to her that I was “kind of kosher.” She stopped chewing mid-bite. She said she went to church on Sundays. OK, maybe just Easter, Christmas and when her grandmother was visiting. We tried to find some common ground between us. It wasn’t easy.
Through orientation, we barely crossed paths. I hit the Hillel House. She hit the frats. At the dorm icebreaker, we stood on opposite sides of the lounge. Our sophomore resident counselors advised us all to look beyond our differences. There’d be exams, papers, and other storms ahead. The challenges, they said, would be made infinitely easier by sticking together. Practice random acts of roommate kindness, they said, and don’t forget to share that pint of Chunky Monkey. I caught my roommate’s eye and smiled. She smiled back.
During the first few weeks, our counselors herded us to the cafeteria, encouraging us to break bread together. Over all-you-can eat bowls of cereal, my roommate told me she’d always wanted to be a reporter, and would try signing up for the campus radio station. I told her I loved the theater, and would try auditioning for plays. We started wishing each other luck in the morning and alternating use of my lucky sweater.
“Tell me everything!” became our signature line.
That Christmas, my roommate invited me to Kentucky. The smell of homemade chocolate bourbon balls greeted me at the kitchen door. I looked up at the first Christmas tree I’d ever seen up close, gasping audibly at its shiny silver bows, bells and dangling ornaments. I wasn’t exactly sure where to set my tiny, travel menorah. My roommate suggested the windowsill upstairs — a sacred space of its own — so passersby could admire it too. I went along to Sunday mass, mouthing the words to hymns I’d never heard of, but impressed by the comfortable choral harmonies and the “sit and stand” choreography everyone just seemed to know instinctively.
I invited my roommate home for Passover. She sat speechless at the Seder table, mesmerized by over-sized, burnt crackers, and the jiggle of the gefilte fish.
“What’s with the schmutz on your forehead?” I asked one spring day, looking across the room genuinely puzzled.
“It’s Ash Wednesday,” she replied, as if explaining herself to an alien.
“Ash what day?!” I asked.
“Ash Wednesday. Much easier to pronounce than Challah?” She said, clearing a few fur balls from her throat as she tried to pronounce the sabbath and holiday bread.
And just like that, our deadpan dialogue broke into doubled over laughter. We had become the ecumenical odd couple.
By sophomore and junior year, we hung up our Jack Klugman/Tony Randall routine and went our separate ways. We each spent time studying abroad in Israel and Kenya respectively. And by the time the postcards — filled with romantic escapades, waterfalls, temples and safaris — came unglued from sticky putty on cinder block walls, it was time to come home.
Senior year, we decided to be roommates again. This time, we’d fill an off-campus, three-story house with half our freshman dorm. And we’d give our first apartment — our first grown up apartment — a fresh coat of paint. My room had stripes. Hers had pastels. Our first freezer purchase? Chunky Monkey.
Fast forward 25 years to her annual Kentucky Derby party. This year, I showed up with a blender under my arm, and my 7-year-old twin sons in tow. I couldn’t wait to share a recently discovered recipe for bourbon milkshakes with my old roommate and her Jewish husband.
As my boys joined their two daughters, who were occupying themselves by climbing through the coat pile until the race began, I asked her, peaking out from under my ridiculously wide brimmed hat: “How was your Passover?”
“The brisket was kind of tough,” she admitted, “Next year, I told my mother-in-law it would be at my house instead. You’re invited, of course.”