Life in a Bubble
Looking back forty years from the vantage of our belly-baring, pants-drooping, tattooed and lip-ringed society, I find it hard to resurrect the ethos of the late 1960s at a southern Bible college where gentlemen students wore jackets and ties to dinner each evening and all men stood when a female student approached the table.
Female students had a rigid, though annually alterable, dress code. My freshman year, coeds' skirts had to extend below the knee. Over the next three years—the miniskirt era outside the fortress—the acceptable line crept up to mid-knee and then to the top of the knee. Deans' assistants scouted for scofflaws, sometimes requiring them to kneel for a more accurate check with a ruler. The rules forbade slacks, except on some activity such as a hayride, when they were permitted if worn under a skirt. If a female student wore slacks in her room (allowed), she had to wear a bathrobe over them just to walk down the hall to the toilet or shower. A friend of mine caught robeless in the hall in the middle of the night challenged this rule; "You never know when you might run into a maintenance worker," the dean of women responded.
The Sixties' sexual revolution did not penetrate the Bible college's hermetically sealed environment. "Students must absolutely avoid holding hands, embracing, kissing, and other physical contacts," read the 66-page rule book, which students had to sign each year. To limit temptation, underclassmen were allotted just two dates a week (though not both with the same person)—double-dates, of course, and on Sunday evenings only to church. Freshman women had to apply to the dean of women in advance for each date. Apart from those dates, even students engaged to be married could only "socialize" one hour a day, during the evening meal with the entire student body. Telephone contact was forbidden.
Standing too close to your date in the cafeteria line could subject you to a dean's inquisition. Have you ever held hands? Did you kiss? Why are you flirting with temptation? Eyes were always watching and spies reported infractions of the rules. The bus driver on a school outing confronted a friend of mine: "It's my obligation to talk to you as a Christian. In the rear view mirror I saw you and that girl touching noses. Don't you know the Bible verse, 'It is good for a man not to touch a woman'?"
One revered professor, a bald senior citizen, insisted that in his own car his wife must sit over by the door handle lest someone who didn't know they were married draw the wrong conclusion if they sat too close. He sold his stock in the local Belk Gallant department store because it sold swimsuits, which went against his beliefs on "mixed bathing." "When you wear lipstick," he would balefully warn the virginal girls in his classroom, "you are saying to the world, 'Kiss me! Kiss me!' "
The school's list of forbidden activities included dancing, playing cards, billiards, skating at public rinks, movies, boxing, wrestling, and "the presentation of opera and musical programs which include ballet, dancing, and suggestive songs." In the privacy of their dorm rooms students could play only music "consistent with a Christian testimony," a phrase open to much individual interpretation in the 1960s. Periodically, guilt-ridden students would smash their questionable record albums.
Because I didn't relish most of the off-limits activities anyway, I found their prohibition no great loss. The capriciousness and inconsistency of the rules grated on me, though. Whereas women had their skirts measured, men had their hair measured: it could not cover the ears and definitely could not grow on the face as a beard or moustache. This seemed strange since our church history textbooks depicted Jesus, the apostles, and most male saints of history with flowing hair and beards. The school banned speaking in tongues, a practice that was plainly biblical. And even though the Bible refers positively to wine scores of times, on that campus alcohol ranked just beneath the unpardonable sin.
In chapel services the deans tried valiantly to anchor each of the college rules to a solid biblical principle, a task made difficult by slight adjustments in the rule book each year. The world outside was changing too fast for the rule-makers to keep up. Billy Graham steered some of his "Jesus people" converts to the school, only to have them met by deans censoring their record albums and steering them to a barber.
Sometimes on a weekend I would catch a ride downtown and wander around a large state university campus. Dormitory lounges—coed dorms, no less—had television sets! Hippie-looking students were making out on the couches in public view. Spray-painted graffiti marred the walls, and psychedelic posters announcing demonstrations and protest marches covered the bulletin boards. Elevators reeked of urine. It seemed like an alternate universe out there, and as I retreated to the bubble environment of the Bible college I appreciated the clean walls, spotless bathrooms, and neat dorm rooms (inspectors checked for made beds and room cleanliness each day). The school had managed to turn frat house values upside down, for on that campus we competed for responsibility, politeness, cleanliness, orderliness, self-control. It all worked.