My mom gave me Last Semester as a present two years ago during my last semester at Cornell. An Etsy find, this semi-gag gift is a fun one. It may have taken me two years to read this, but seeing as how this is another “last semester” for me, I couldn’t resist!
Phyllis Crawford wrote Last Semester, published in 1942. The back of the dust jacket has a letter from the author, urging the “Girls of America” to purchase U.S. War Savings Stamps. “In peace time a girl sometimes needs a soda, a movie or a wad of gum to keep up her spirits…Ten years from now you wouldn’t even remember if you didn’t have that soda and wore the same old dress to the dance Saturday night.” Actually I still do remember the hand-me-down dresses that never quite fit during some of the more awkward years, but that is besides the point.
Last Semester is set at Langhorne-Evans, a small all-girls liberal arts college. The end papers are illustrated as a map of the school, and there is a statement on the rear flap of the dust jacket that Miss Crawford spent two years researching contemporary collegiate life. It is that level of research and detail which makes Last Semester such a gem. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the dating parlor and curfew bells.
Our protagonist is Janey Lou Cates, or J.L. for short. She’s generally very happy to be at Langhorne-Evans, and doesn’t take herself too seriously. Janey Lou lives in the moment, enjoying the company her lively dorm presents, and is always involved in the latest passing activity. The underclassmen take up perhaps too much of her time. She’s clumsy. She has a “magnificent” orange cat named Augustus. It’s no wonder my mom bought me this novel.
Unfortunately, Janey Lou has always had a problem with grades, and she’s in zero formal extra-curricular activities. She can probably recite the academic probation policies of Langhorne-Evans all too well. After seven semesters of coasting, she’s faced with the abrupt reality that she might not graduate. This book is about Janey Lou securing her degree no matter what.
Langhorne-Evans is a small college with strong spirit. The “even” and “odd” graduating years are always at war, pranking each other. Janey Lou helps the sophomores with “even day,” where they decorate the entire college with a theme for a day, and she also helps write the senior class graduation song. There are also the silly activities, such as the day Janey Lou and a friend dress up as two old ladies and parade around introducing themselves as Miss Spitch and Mrs. Eaple to everyone they come across.
It is Janey Lou’s idea which becomes the senior gift, although a letter may have been forged in the school paper that she didn’t actually write. The school president actually listens to her ideas, has a dialogue with Janey Lou about her suggestions, and generally appears and interacts with the students several times throughout the book. This is foreign to me. My last semester, I wrote to the president of my university about the prison fences that were being installed all around campus. As a friend sarcastically said, “yeah, I’m sure the university president carefully read your letter and took your opinion into serious consideration.”
Oh, and Janey Lou just happens to have a job fall into her lap on the last page of the book. She graduates of course.
Last Semester is an undergraduate novel at heart. Reading it two years after the fact at the beginning of another “last” semester is quite the trip. Of course, this last semester is very different from my last-last semester. Last-last semester I technically could have graduated early, and was in it for the experience. I took two freshman-level electives, and two deeply interesting upper level and graduate level courses in my major areas of study. I actually had some time to enjoy that semester.
This last semester is different. If I could trade in my current worries for mere bad grades, I’d do so in a heartbeat and never look back. But I can’t. Doesn’t work that way. The challenges facing my family this last semester are too great to sum up in a paragraph. Like J.L., this last semester is about graduating no matter what, because that is what someone very important to me has requested I do. And so, it is what I now aim to accomplish.
Copies of other books with a university setting are available for purchase here.