Saturday, September 29, 2007

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.

“'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.



Blogger Herb Urban said...

Very riveting. You are a wonderfully talented storyteller. I felt like I was there on campus myself, lost in my own solitude.

You raise an interesting question about the purpose of elite schools. Do they exist solely to churn out leaders of industry as you say, or do they serve a higher purpose? If you emerge from your studies as a well rounded, intellectually curious, compassionate person, then your time spent there can hardly be considered a waste.

George Bush at Harvard and Yale. Now that was a waste.

Great post, as always.

1:14 AM, September 29, 2007  
Blogger Jo said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:12 AM, September 29, 2007  
Blogger Jo said...

Sorry, I misworded that comment.

This was wonderful and spoke to many aspects of my life (also a SAHM who no longer challenges the patriachy -- I did a Masters in Women Studies, and though I have always believed in the right of women to embrace their role as creator and stay at home, I do miss using my brain.) It is also beautifully written, you have a wonderfully fluid style and I am always transported.

4:17 AM, September 29, 2007  
Anonymous Frida said...

I really don't have a pithy comment. I found this post very thought provoking. I do agree, however, with Herb about the "purpose" of higher education, and that the most important product of a good school are citizens who think critically, who are intellectually curious and compassionate.

Your posts tell me that you are all those things.

4:39 AM, September 29, 2007  
Anonymous gautami tripathy said...

i don't necessarily agree that educated people are enlightened. I have seen a lot many bigots who have had strings of degrees.

Your writing is as always very riveting!

6:56 AM, September 29, 2007  
Blogger Becca said...

You raise some very provoking and powerful thoughts, written in such an engaging way.

Although I didn't go to an "elite" college, I was the first (and only) one in my family to get a college education. And no, I guess I've never "used it" in the sense that a lawyer or doctor or teacher makes practical application in their work of the knowledge they gained during their schooling. But I think that education confers power on the learner, by teaching the process of learning, by opening the mind, sparking curiosity. I don't think those abilites are ever wasted in one's life or in the world at large.

You are a gifted storyteller and have so much to say to the world. Wonderful post, as always!

11:26 AM, September 29, 2007  
Blogger paris parfait said...

You write so well about your experiences. You're still young and I think you're going very far, (with or without your education), with your heart, your intellect and your strong writing skills. You're the real deal; the complete package that those Daisy Buchanans could only hope to emulate. xo

3:29 PM, September 29, 2007  
Anonymous KG said...

I love that your writing leaves me with more questions than answers --- THAT is powerful. And with your characters, you always make me wonder if they are real or not; they are always so full of life.

Motherhood is giving me the education I never thought possible. I went to the kind of school you describe, and now that I'm raising a son, I've thrown all that I learned about "gender neutrality" out the window. Ah, but that is a story for another time... ;)

7:52 PM, September 29, 2007  
Blogger Hope said...

You describe the class differences so well. College doesn't have to be Ivy covered to elicit those same insecurities. I once told a bright, determined, scared young woman "when you come from dirt, you have to work twice as hard as they do just so they know you belong, and it still won't be enough for you!" We bring much of it with us when we move into that world.

8:08 PM, September 29, 2007  
Blogger Amber said...

Hmmmm, I think this could open great discussion. As always, it is beautifully written, but more than that. It speaks to the ways that women are divided inside. It speaks to how many woman feel like they are "not living up" to some kind of self-imposed/society imposed ideal, when we become mothers. I do it too. I have only lately-- like in the last few months-- stopped making myself feel bad for not being out there, changing the world! Right now I am a mom at home, and the truth is...I really like it. I don't know if I will always do this this way, but it is where I am right NOW. I embrace NOW.

Your education is serving your child. Because you are educated, their life is more full, you are a better mom, you are a great example. A POWERFUL example. And if you decide to do something else later, well, you CAN. Your education gives you choice. Also one of the best lessons you could show yoru child.


9:53 PM, September 29, 2007  
Blogger Lisa said...

What a great piece and and it speaks so powerfully to those insecurities all women have about going to the right school, going to any school at all, studying the right things, making the right choices. It doesn't ever really end, I don't think but for some reason -- ironically, age brings with it a lessening of that sense of urgency. Beautiful prose here -- you'll have us meditating on this all week.

11:28 PM, September 29, 2007  
Blogger bubandpie said...

Here's my favourite line:

(I did not know to call them women yet)

That brought back so vividly the awkwardness of no longer being a "girl" but still not comfortable being called "woman."

12:22 PM, September 30, 2007  
Blogger Rach said...

I think sometimes, that the best educated people can display less intelligence than others.Great thought provoking post

12:22 PM, September 30, 2007  
Blogger tumblewords said...

Your power shows strongly in this post - you write very well, expose people to new or deeper thought, and have the opportunity to be a sahm which is a power in itself. Nicely done!

12:52 PM, September 30, 2007  
Blogger kate said...

Your education and your interest and your passion and your talent not only serve your child, but they serve you and they serve me and all of us who read your words. I love this post and these are such important ideas and feelings to have "out in the world." You're doing this work, Mardougrrl. This is important.

3:01 PM, September 30, 2007  
Blogger raymond pert said...

I have scores of students who deal with the doubt and feeling out of place that you describe here, and I teach at a community college. I give much of my reading life and attention
in my work to what you describe having felt and experienced in this eloquent post.

If you'd like to read what you've written worked out in a book, please read Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano

8:36 PM, September 30, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, everyone. This was a tough one to write and I felt myself stumbling over the words.

Herb: That's what I like to tell myself and yikes at the Dubya comparison LOL.

Jo: I SO know what you mean about using your brain. I do like being a SAHM and I think its the right thing for our family, but it doesn't use the parts of me I like best. :)

Frida: Coming from you, that means a lot. Thank you.

Gautami: True, and that is something I have had to learn.

Becca: Yes, when it comes to widenlng my education helped with that. My bookshelves will attest to that.

Tara: I'm gonna need to read your comment at least once a day. :)

kg: Oh, I can't agree more about the education that motherhood provides. It's really changed me.

Hope: Oh, yes...I was definitely extra sensitive in preparation for being judged. We DO bring it with us.

Amber: You are one of the mothers I look up to when I think about the way that I can integrate being a SAHM with being a powerful woman.

Lisa: I am still waiting for that sense of urgency to pass...but not before I accomplish something, first! I owe it to myself and my daughter.

bubandpie: Yes, and it didn't matter whether we were barely 17 when we started school...we were all, suddenly, women.

rach: a lesson I am learning again and does not necessarily equal intelligence, or potential.

tumblewords: I do have to remind myself that being an SAHM *is* a privilege too...thanks for that.

kate: Like I said, this was a tough one to put out there. And I DEFINITELY want to do the work of getting this out of me while Madam is still young.

Raymond: Thank you for the book recommendation...I just requested it from the sounds right up my alley. Class issues are SO tricky to admit and deal with, so I am always fascinated to find out how others deal with them.

12:42 AM, October 01, 2007  
Blogger Melba said...

This is beautiful.
I love your writing.
I am sure you are writing a brilliant novel
it is fiction?
because this is beautiful. This is you. It speaks to me in so many ways. and not because I see myself in what you say ~I am not a student, I struggled through school.
I wish I had that experience...or more so now I was thinking of how proud I would be as a parent if my child wrote these words. I picture Maggie being that excited about school and learning and my heart flutters. But of course she will be what she will be.
You make make heart flutter, the girl you were and the woman you are now.

4:37 PM, October 01, 2007  
Blogger Earnest and Game: Heather said...

It's so strange that we were both on campus at the same time--but didn't know each other *and* we had radically different experiences. Coming from a homogenous middle-class community in Michigan (but having my own special mix and match story), I was seeing color everywhere in the student body (not so much on the kitchen staff, lots of Greeks, pale Caucasians, 1 Asian guy)-and loving it--and also spending time with people who had had far less comforts/exposure to the world--which makes sense for a student body of which over 50% are on financial aid. I wish we had known each other then and had spent time in English classes together! I think the value of a liberal arts education is that it equips you to have an interesting life-no guarantee of money or "happiness" (however one defines that), and on that front, "a richly interesting life," I think you can feel pretty cool about things. Thanks for sharing. It's that time, isn't it? Crisp leaves underfoot, bright skies, cool air, and a sense that adventures await..... sending hugs and hugs, Heather

5:48 PM, October 02, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Melba: *sniff* your comment brought tears to my eyes. Thank you! (and by the way, you might not have gotten the school experience in the same way, but that's because you've always been an artist)

Heather: I IS funny...and we never met in NYC or Austin either! We would have been the corrective to the other's experience. And wow...I don't remember seeing anyone but Latinos on the kitchen staff...maybe it was a per-dining hall thing. LOL!

6:00 PM, October 02, 2007  
Blogger Earnest and Game: Heather said...

Thank goodness we had Chicago, at last, to meet greet and finally become friends. We *did* meet briefly in NYC--you were having brunch at Anglers and Writers--a spot in the West Village (Hudson/St. Luke's) that I had introduced to Sherry to. You looked very fierce, very serious (of course beautiful as always). I think you were wearing all black. But we just passed like ships in the night.... till Chicago! At school I ate mostly in the quad (Munger, Beebe, Caz--but also a fair amount at Claflin and sometimes Tower). Yes, you're so right, we would have been the corrective to each other's experience--each person is a window on a new world, right? Same school, NYC, both at Random House (I even worked for J. Karp and K. Medina!), Chicago and Austin--we have those places, those people, in common, and yet we both had radically diff't experiences. Wow and wow again. Sending hugs to you and la petite madame and TEG. XOoxox, Heather

12:37 PM, October 03, 2007  
Blogger deirdre said...

Even though my experiences were different the sense of "otherness" rings true in this, that feeling of never being good enough or fitting in well enough. I agree with Tara - life is long and will take you places you may not expect, but have prepared for already.

10:28 PM, October 10, 2007  

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