Sunday Scribbling: Power, full and less
Generic college picture from here.
We were there to learn to be powerful. We were the women who were going to secure the promises of feminism— exciting careers, equitable relationships, endless opportunities. No glass ceiling for us. It was going to be all sky, baby.
I remember driving up for my first view of the campus. Punkish Middle Sister volunteered to come with me (grudgingly—she was in the throes of a new romance and was loathe to leave). We drove through the snaking road, temporarily blinded by the streak of sunlight glittering in the Gothic windows of the central tower on campus.
“Wow...it's like the movies,” she said, suitably impressed. “Yeah, real Ivy and everything.” I was trying to be flip, trying to act like I was seriously considering going to another school. But this was the best college I had gotten into. This was going to be it. The air smelled rural, like tilled soil and grass. I watched the girls (I did not know to call them women yet) walking under the thickly clustered trees. Did they look happy? Intellectually fulfilled? Did they look powerful? I couldn't tell yet. But they were here, and that had to mean something. Unlike me, they looked like they could have gone anywhere.
We left shortly after a rousing speech by the college's President. “Look, why drag it out?” Sister argued. “You know this is where you will be.” And where she wanted to be was with her boyfriend.
Anyway, I couldn't disagree.
I was still surprised that I had managed to get into this type of school, coming from my decidedly ordinary high school. We were a school known more for the speed and talent of our football players than our academics. But some of us had seized on classes, challenging ourselves to do better, learn more. There was nothing better than the feeling of getting it RIGHT...the math problem, the analysis of the novel, the history question. We had found our talents and we were hooked. Truth be told, we were cocky...perhaps over-valuing ourselves to make up for a lack of enthusiasm in our peers.
I didn't know much about my new college except that it was very highly regarded, very academically rigorous, and that it was all-women. The first two attributes were enough for me. The last one...well, I'd learn to deal. “That's good. You're going to get an education. You don't need boys,” my father said. I rolled my eyes behind his back. I'd managed to juggled top grades and a complicated dating schedule in high school. I had no doubt that I'd be able to do the same in college. There were LOTS of co-ed schools nearby.
So I arrived, with my steamer trunks packed full of Gap jeans and romantic notions. My parents stood in front of me, my father in his baseball cap and my mother in her fuchsia slacks. We didn't look like the other families, like we'd done this before and would do this again. Those other families seemed confident. They knew who to ask for information. They were Fitzgerald people. Their voices sounded like money.
Nothing I learned as I settled into campus disputed that first impression. My new classmates were not only top scholars, but also poised and cultured women. They were also, mostly, wealthy. I'm not just talking about money. They had something I hungered for even more. Experience. These women had traveled, lived abroad, taken the kinds of enrichment classes I'd always dreamed about. They knew how to behave in every situation. They knew they would make their mark, their power was taken for granted. They knew where they belonged in the world. On top.
I never knew what it was like to feel so persistently wrong until I started the Right School. I watched my classmates take risks, experiment with every aspect of their lives, confident that even if they made a mistake, they would be fine. We were all women, they said—we had been kept down by society and now we had to make up for lost time. But I didn't feel that kinship. I couldn't forget that I was going to be debt for years after I graduated. I wasn't free like that.
Why couldn't their assurance rub off on me? As I inched through the dining hall line, I listened to the raucous Spanish in the kitchen. My well meaning classmates were gracious to the help, but usually they just ignored them. Brown hands spooned the baked beans into the warming trays. Brown people washed the enormous piles of plates, bowls, silverware. I looked up at the workers, smiled. “I'm just like you!” They smiled back, distant and polite. I didn't want them to think I was privileged, because it didn't feel that way to me.
I'm embarrassed to think of how condescending I must have seemed.
So, maybe they were right. I was privileged, even if it was costing me dearly. So then, why I couldn't bring myself to be practical—to study economics and go to business school, or law school like my oldest sister? Because the main privilege I wanted to claim was the right to study whatever I wanted, to follow my dreams just like my friends were doing.
Especially since I found my native heath, my powerful place. The classroom. I wasn't as brilliant as most of my classmates, but I was in love with my English classes, psychology, anthropology, sociology. The pleasure I derived from unpacking a dense poem, or from connecting what I learned about !Kung women with a nineteenth century novel—it made my class resentments, my self-hatred, melt away. I felt dizzy with it. I felt most deeply myself...walking through the campus alone, my feet crunching on the carpet of leaves, talking to myself about all the things I was discovering.
I only felt powerful when I was alone.
How I wish I could give this story a happy ending, perhaps about a caterpillar who became a butterfly. But I arrived a tentative moth, and I didn't leave that way.
Sometimes I wonder if I wasted my expensive education. I'm not a captain of industry. I didn't succeed in the world of work. I'm in a traditional marriage, a stay at home mother who is not exactly challenging the patriarchy on a daily basis. I can fake my way through an encounter with the elite, but I can never duplicate their sense of solid entitlement. Those years were marred by intense depressions that colored everything gray.
But then, I remember finally getting to know some of my classmates, and learning to see them as people, not just as little Daisy Buchanans. And I remember those ecstatic walks around campus, drunk on its beauty and surfing on the ideas that seemed to expand my vision in every direction. Over a decade later, I still remember that power.
And I long to feel it again.
Fight and claim the power here.
Labels: sunday scribblings