I was 17, a first-year, first semester student at a New York State Teachers College in 1953, one of eight girls sharing an attic dorm room in what used to be a mansion. We were a mixed group—two Jews, two Blacks, two Catholics, two Protestants. There was only one bathroom, which meant we had to learn to get along well enough to share shower and toilet time, especially in the morning. We made a schedule based on when our earliest classes began. We even learned to deal with emergencies: “I need to go. Now!”
Although there were eight of us, there were five double decker bunks—two upper beds were empty. Occasionally a girl would wander up, look around, then head back down. For the first two months of the semester, the beds remained unused.
One afternoon, I was resting on my upper bunk bed, recovering from the stress of a big test, when I saw the housemother, Mrs. Quirke, enter the room followed by two girls. I don’t know why, but I stayed still so they didn’t see me lying on my bunk. “It’s a nice group,” I heard her say, “despite the two kikes and n.....s.” Incredulous, I waited until I heard them clomp down the stairs before moving. Hearing the word kike coming from the mouth of the housemother was surprising, but not unusual. There were only four Jews in the whole school and I’d heard classmates say it many times, casually, as if they had no sense of the word’s meaning. But the house mother's use of the N word outraged me. From the time I was very young and learned words had power, it was the taboo word. Her use of it so upset me I knew I had to tell the Dean about the house mother's prejudice. Immediately.
I ran to the Dean’s office, too rattled to care about protocol. “I need to see the Dean, now,” I said, shaking from the word that echoed in my head. When his secretary asked what the matter was, I was too upset to be polite. “I need to talk to the Dean.”
She went into his office and soon came out, looking disapprovingly at me. “Follow me,” she said, showing me into his office.
“What’s all this about,” asked the Dean in an avuncular tone of voice. I told him what the housemother had said, expecting him to be equally outraged, maybe fire her on the spot. Instead, he patted my head and said, “You must have imagined it. Mrs. Quirke is a fine housemother who has worked for us for years. She would never use such words.”
His words: You must have imagined it, struck me as hard as if he’d slapped me. Those were the words my mother used when I tried to talk with her about something she’d said or done. I knew it wasn’t my imagination, but when I repeated what the housemother had said, saying the N word, the Dean shook his head in disbelief and escorted me out of his office with no further conversation, letting his secretary know he was ready for his next appointment.
I knew it wasn’t my imagination. I knew she’d said that word. There was no way I would run to the Dean without a compelling reason. If the Dean wouldn’t act, I could. That night, when we were all in bed, I told them what I’d heard. “I can’t live here anymore. I’m moving out at the end of the semester. Does anyone want to come with me?”
One of the Black girls said, “I’ll move with you.” None of the others seemed bothered by what I’d heard. The next day, she and I looked at rooms for rent, close to campus, with kitchen privileges. I knew she had to come with me to look at whatever room we thought would do because lots of people wouldn’t rent to a Black person and I didn’t want to rent us a room and then have the owner renege.
The Dean of Housing called my mother to tell her I was leaving the dorm and would be rooming with a Black girl. I don’t know what the Dean expected from my mother but she later told me she’d told him she didn’t understand why he was calling, what the fuss was about. I was already living with two Black girls, what difference did it make if I left to room with one?
Three years later, when I applied to be an RA, my application was summarily rejected—the only application refused without a reason. I wondered if what I’d done as a first-year student played a part in the decision since I met all the stated criteria. No matter. I did what I thought was right.
Nancy King is a widely published author and a professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she has taught theater, drama, playwriting, creative writing, and multidisciplinary studies with an emphasis on world literature. She has published seven previous works of nonfiction and five novels. Her new memoir, Breaking the Silence, explores the power of stories in healing from trauma and abuse. Her career has emphasized the use of her own experience in being silenced to encourage students to find their voices and to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with authenticity, as a way to add meaning to their lives.