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Dorms took look of budding sense of style

Published August 11, 2006

We packed the family car with clothes, sheets, towels, shower tote, notebooks, footlocker, backpack, bean-bag chair, typewriter, my beloved, bright-yellow three-speed Schwinn bike.

A few hours later I stood with my parents among throngs of other possession-laden students in front of the 1970s-era dorm at the University of Missouri, where I would start my freshman year.

I was 17.

All around us were the mini fridges, hot pots and corduroy study pillows that would make habitable - and memorable - our woefully small double rooms outfitted with twin beds and little else in the way of charm.

With long Formica-topped study counters, built-in drawers, and high-rise-style windows, the undecorated empty rooms resembled communist-era housing at its grimmest.

Once decorated, though, they became the domain of their inhabitants, first homes-away-from-home, barely bigger than glorified walk-in closets.

I can still picture those rooms today, the girls who lived in them, and how each one decorated her own special space.

My own room was eclectic, bright, pulled together on a shoestring, much like my homes would be later in life and still to this day.

I brought a Marimekko comforter and matching sheets - purchased on sale at Crate and Barrel, I think - as well as a few cheap but colorful Chinese kites to hang from the ceiling. My cherished Henri Matisse poster from the St. Louis Art Museum went on the wall.


Up and down the halls, these highly individual rooms mirrored the personalities and the adults we would become.

Across the hall, a budding photojournalist hung matted photos she had taken over the summer. The pictures were displayed over her bed alongside her prized dulcimer.

Her roommate, an all-American girl, former lifeguard and future homemaker, set up her workhorse ironing board on a semipermanent basis and goaded the slovenly rest of us to get the wrinkles out.

The beauty queen and sorority girl with her pretty floral comforter and bells and whistles makeup mirror lived down the hall in a yin and yang room with a serious, studious girl who immediately told me to forget about fancy clothes and high heels.

What I really needed to get by at college, she said, were sensible sneakers for the long walk to campus from the dorm.

At the time, I thought, "wonkish."

Now I think she had her head on straight.

Though home decor and technology are perhaps more important to college students now than then, I have a feeling they will someday look back in a more meaningful way on those first dorm rooms, no matter how small.

Those rooms were havens of comfort, really, nests that cradled us as we got used to being out of the bigger protective nests that our families had once made for us.

Over the course of our freshman year, we roamed from nest to nest, for all-night study sessions, morning coffee, pizza on Sunday nights or after-movie discussions over glasses of wine and James Taylor.

Lifelong friendships were formed, values sealed, secrets kept.

We decorated, cleaned and re-decorated our minihomes, learning to be kind and tolerant (even if it took awhile), to forgive a roommate who borrowed favorite clothes or stumbled in late from a party on a school night.

Most important, we learned to share close quarters with others, no matter how different.

We learned to make our own nests wherever life took us.

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at

[Last modified August 10, 2006, 08:51:05]

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