What We're Reading
- Student Narratives from the "Eat, Write, Talk" Workshop 2010
- Student Narratives from the "Get a Life" Workshop 2009
- Student Narratives from the "Get a Life" Workshop 2008
- Student Narratives from the "Inventing a Life: The First Year of College and Beyond" Workshop 2008
- Student Narratives from the "Get a Life" Workshop 2007
Student Narratives from The "Eat, Write, Talk" Workshop 2010
"Eat, Write, Talk" is a non-graded, three-and-a-half day January term course that is offered to Smith juniors and seniors. Through writing and discussion, participants begin to develop a habit of reflection about their own values and goals, and to unpack cultural and family messages about success. Students consider themes inherent in making life decisions, including perfectionism, risk-taking and tolerating failure, and draft their own “narratives of success” with the understanding that these will evolve.
An Ada Comstock Scholar (senior)
I regret to inform you that we could never meet in person except for the black ink of my specificity; words, objective, job experience, education, awards, GPA etc... You will think that you know me by vague descriptions; hard worker, independent, team player, but do you really? And you, I could only know the whiteness of your technicality; blank slate. You will never have the chance to see the vibrant colors of my soul and heart-red, pink, blue, yellow, black, brown, orange… the colors of the entire Crayola crayon box. You will never observe me cry, laugh, furrow, pout or even see my quirky movements of my body when I am nervous, excited, confused. You will never feel what I feel in the same way because I am unique, one of a kind. The intense sadness I feel when I see and hear the cries of pain, hunger, despair, hope and death from disease and inequalities that afflict the poor. The joyfulness and warmth I feel when I am able to help others, make people laugh, share, and love. Resume, you will never feel my contentness when I am in the presence of loved ones, talking, embracing, dancing, eating and singing…. You will never know the love I have for animals, how I love their innocence, the touch of soft fur under my hands and the wetness of their nose. You will never hear my thoughts, laugh, cry, yell, sing, and love. You will never know of the intense fire that burns within my inner self wanting to discover, create, touch, and heal. You will never feel the intensity of this fire within me that wants to be enticed, to find cures, heal people’s ailments and fight for the equality of the poor. Why you will never know this is because I come from this reality and sadness. To listen to my mother's despair and share her sadness because my grandfather cannot afford to be hospitalized or medicated for his heart condition. To know that my family here and in Nicaragua struggle but that they have hope and I have hope in the future, my capabilities and my dedication to resolving many of these issues that affect poor people in Nicaragua and the World. Resume you will never know of the struggles I have overcome; weight gain, rejection of myself, failure, unhappiness, anger, self doubt, expectations. I am a strong, bright and valiant Latina and White woman and resume you will never know me!
14 years old: I’m sitting on the ridge about my home. I hike here often. I’m resting on my favorite tree, an old cypress whose branches I’ve memorized. I eat blueberries and write poetry. I strip down to my underwear and soak up the sun. Soon, the leaves will change colors in the valley. Soon, more roads will be paved. Soon, there will be a fire on this ridge, started by a teenage boy. How dare he. I’ll have to realize that I share this mountain and that landscapes, like people, change.
15 years old: It’s winter. It’s cold, but I’m bundled up in flannel and down. Sprawled across hay bales in an open barn, I read Mary Oliver and watch the snowfall. Every once in a while, a gust blows in a few snowflakes. My cheeks are cold and moist. My eyes are wet with tears. I can’t tell if I’m happy or sad. I’ll remember this hay barn forever.
18 years old:I am anything but a morning person, but today I awoke before dawn to take a walk before school. I am a big, bad senior. I’ve been accepted to Smith College. Now, I have more fun, drink a beer once in a while, attend a school dance. I’m the president of three or four clubs. I’m cool. I have a girlfriend. Soon, we’ll get our hair done and attend senior prom looking like stars. Today, I meditate. Why am I happy? Is this ok? I bring a wool blanket and lay it out beside a stone wall. I study the wall, convinced that where these trees now stand, sheep once grazed. I recite “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost. I write an old friend a letter: I’m so happy! Can you believe it?
20 years old: Racing across the country on a train, I sped out of Harford, past my high school, past my college, and out to Chicago. Soon, I’ll arrive in Reno. I’ll go backpacking in Yosemite, climbing Half Done and Clouds Rest. Then, I’ll get a ride to San Francisco, where for one summer I’ll sample life as an adult. Now, on the train, I’m alone. I’ve covered up my stickers, taken off my pins. I’ll speak to prison janitors from Wisconsin, “church ladies” with bumblebee earrings, Mormon boys who ask if I have marijuana, and “trainlovers” headed to an exposition in Utah. I experience my best exercise yet in crossing borders, hearing stories and learning narratives I’ve never imagined. Meanwhile, I watch a sunset as I race across the Mississippi river. Meanwhile, I witness elk beside the tracks, a snowstorm in the Rockies, and flat plains that seem to stretch forever.
20 years old: I’m nervous, she told me. I’ve never met a woman who could start a fire, she says. My fire takes several attempts before it burns just hot enough to boil the Arabic coffee with cardamom my friend has brought, but I assure her that women can do these things just as well as men. We’re having a picnic. It’s December. We’ve walked across the road towards the Jordanian border. I want to see your home, I say. We settle halfway between the sand dunes and the date palms. Under the full moon, we can see the Adom Mountains, which are purple in the daytime. We drink coffee, stargaze, share our dreams, and roll in the sand. Bliss.
I always found myself sitting in church and feeling like the sermon was made for me because it addressed exactly what I was thinking about that week. The sermon that I remember the most was the one about a tree.
The pastor began by saying, “Think of yourself as a trunk of a tree with roots beginning at your feet and branches at your head. And on those branches they are hundreds of leaves. The Network of the people around you consists of a few roots, many branches, and even more leaves.
Trees have so many leaves that if one falls it will not destroy the tree. In fact, leaves falling off the tree were an indication of the changes of the season. The old ones fall to allow new ones to grow and make the tree look beautiful. Think of leaves as the many people you will meet in your lifetime. These people are from the Haymarket, your Get Fit Smith class, your classmates, and whomever else graces your path. They come and go and add external beauty to your life but quickly fade away and allow more to come in.
These branches come in many sizes. Some are strong and some are week. And through the tree’s lifespan it will go through many storms which will cause branches to fall. The light branches of course will fall with a small gust of wind. However, in a big storm some of the heavier branches will put up a good fight, but eventually break off and fall.
The branches are the mentor, teachers, professors, ministers, high school friends, and college friends. They are your childhood friend that moved away when you were in middle school or your favorite high school teacher. These people add great value to your life and like the heavy branches has had a heavy influence in your life. The branches that are still there after a storm, influences the leaves that grow next season.
But the most important part of the tree is its roots. Through the roots of a tree, the branches and leaves gain nutrients. If one of the roots of the tree is damaged, so is the tree all together. At the beginning of the tree’s life its roots is dug deep into the ground to give the tree a stable and firm place to grow. The root gives the trunk nurture and care so the tree can aim high in the sky when it grows. If a storm passes, the tree knows not to worry because its roots are planted firmly. And in the mist of storms, if the roots of the tree are not strong enough it will fall over.
My roots are my family, my faith, my significant other and my best friends. They are the people who make me who I am today. They are the ones who nurtured me to be a tall tree and to support me to continue to reach for the sky. The roots does not give the trunk beauty on the outside. You cannot truly see the beauty of a trunk of a tree until you look inside. The stronger your roots the more likely you will weather all storms. I learned to keep my roots healthy and strong and accept the branches and leaves that fall during a storm. I will leave you with this: Think about the roots in your life and how they add to the beauty inside you.
I never raised you to be ordinary, she said, when I came home from school excited about my future as a small-town doctor. Just a doctor? she said. She wondered why I wanted to cure people, instead of populations. Just a librarian? she said. She told me that when I got a Pulitzer she'd create a book signing, for me and my favorite author Tracy Kidder, who follows extraordinary people around and records their stories.
I come from a line of strong women, tough women, women who for generations transcended traditions and ascribed positions, but still dusted the baseboards on Saturdays and cooked steak with butter. Women who left home and family to do new things, like not having children, like having children. I come from women who are proud that I go to a women's-college-not-a-girl's-school and wish from their graves that they could join me for commencement luncheon before stealing all the bacon slices and pineapple.
My great-grandmother's name was Katherine MacPhail Johnston, and she is my name sake. Grandma Katie used to put my feet in her mouth when I was an infant and loved to see babies giggle. We call her a flipper-flapper, because when she immigrated from a tiny farm in Cape Breton to New York City in the 1920s, she took a job flipping pancakes in a stall on Times Square by day and danced her bound-bosom off at night in speak-easies.
I guess that my mother wants my life to be more than a sound-byte. I should need paragraphs in the annual Christmas card, clauses and complex sentences. I can be a librarian, but should be leading conferences about innovations in computer literacy as well. I can be unemployed, as long as I help out at church suppers for the impoverished in my copious spare time. My gravestone should be a billboard full of words in size 10 font.
I find the same urge for complexity. A perfect life for me might involve messy relationships with inappropriate people and living in the back of my car and crying and lying and nine careers, all at the same time. I have never said with much conviction, “I'm going to be a doctor or architect or astronaut or President of Smith College,” and used just the noun. I will be a doctor who stars in local plays. I will be an architect who foments a social revolution through green building practices. I will be a President of Smith not only to encourage women of promise to lead lives of distinction and ask alumnae for cash, but also to learn how to make the muffins they serve at Hubbard on Mondays.
When my mother says “ordinary” in her derisive tone that makes me think of deflated jellyfish above the tide line, what I think she means is “simple.” Life is never simple, she and her mother and mothers and mothers say in a line down to me, and when it is, you've messed up. There is always something else you can be doing, new passions and hobbies, a career or a relationship where one does not exist. Our women, strong women, complex women, are not cardboard cutouts and we take up space in the world and on the page.
I like feeling my parents’ different hugs. Both so intense yet different, distinct. Remembering, reliving the feelings of their four arms around me is so odd because it’s so real and so secure.
I come from my mom who spreads friendliness, smiles, and compassion. She puts time into caring and into the details of caring like leaving a new CD I’ve been mentioning on my pillow or playing one on the way home from Smith. She wants me to utilize all of my skills, especially my creativity. She listens a lot and helps deeply. Our casual phone chats leave me smiling and our deeper conversations which can feel more important fill me up and help me feel explained. I like her version of my life.
I come from my dad who takes time to reflect, doesn’t care what anybody else thinks, and will talk to me as long as I need to whenever I want to. 5am, 2am in the midst of a chaotic work day. He lets me know I’m important and special to him in that way and verbally. He doesn’t want money to rule my life but passion yet hopes for stability and security. I like that he thinks love can help to make me happy.
From these people, the home they helped to create for me, I flew away with a nest to return to.
Is success the result of a journey or the steps in which you take to get there?
I am from a small family. A united family. A family who enjoys watching home improvement shows, eating microwave popcorn, and playing with our puppies. Looking to my parents for advice has always been a constant. They are my role models. I am just as much proud of them, as I hope they are of me.
We are the type of family that lets one another know if we think a decision that is being made is the wrong one. We are the type of family that worries about what another person in the unit will say. The worries and guidance does not always change the result; however, it happens. Sometimes you just need to forget about what the rest of your world says. You have to go with your heart and not with your head. You have to say no.
After years of school, for once, there is a break. An opportunity for the gap year no one ever told me was a possibility. Now at this turning point, I must remember to find work that fulfills my passion. I don't want just a job. I want a place of employment that for at least a period of time each day I can feel fulfilled. That I can feel influential and significant. That I can feel like a Smithie, like a woman, like a scientist, and mostly like a human being.
For as long as I can remember, I have had a passion to help people. The amount of money is not important, but a paycheck is a necessity. Healthcare would be an added bonus. Yet, these two specifications cannot be the bullet points of why an employer wants to hire me and not the other fifty candidates that he/she has available.
In finding a place of employment for the approaching and encroaching years of my life, I am not sure how much I am willing to sacrifice. I know I am not willing to sacrifice my integrity. I am not willing to regret.
"Visiting the Cemetery"
The seat lets out a hiss as I sink onto the hot, hot vinyl. I carefully buckle myself in. Unable to see over the dashboard, I peer into the nooks- where the radio should be, the circles made for cups, and on the car door where most people keep maps or windshield scrapers: all filled with twigs, bark, and cobalt blue sea glass spilling into the car; forest debris crunches under my light-up sneakers. This is just one of Meme’s collections, one of the more socially acceptable manifestations of her mental illness.
With the air conditioning on high the car reeks of the ranch dressing she accidentally spilled into the air vents one time. I am already exhausted anticipating the litany of complaints she will have today. She doesn’t waste any time, saying “Sar, you’re just going to have to be patient today- I was barely able to get out of bed this morning- there’s a cold front coming through and it’s wreaking havoc on my arthritis.”
There is always a cold front coming through.
I tilt away from her just a little bit, not enough for her to notice. Seeing her tight, gnarled hands struggling to grip the steering wheel, I open and close my small fists to make sure I’m still ok- as if mental illness, age, or arthritis were catching.
I thwap my heel against the side of the car- thwap thwap thwap and the red lights flash to the rhythm of my clenching fists as she drives. The pace of thwaping increases as I realize the way- Friendly’s is a loaded restaurant. Our standby is McDonalds, sometimes Beals for a 97 cent cone (I get to keep the spare six cents for my snap change purse). Friendly’s, home to the liquid peanutbutter that makes smacking noises in the absence of chatter, is where we go after visits to the gravesite. Friendly’s is a graveyard of cherry stems and crumpled paper straw covers.
In alarm I finally turn to her- “Are we going to visit the cemetery?” Joe would have been my uncle. Emily was (is? I talk to her sometimes, but I haven’t reconciled our conversations with the imagined box of ash six feet below) my sister. In a year or two, I will have retired my light up sneakers to their final resting place in the back of my closet. I will be barefoot when I sit down in our living room and page through family photo albums. On the bottom shelf, slipped between albums, I will find a book: Dealing with the Loss of a Child, and I will realize that Emily was my mother’s daughter, meme’s granddaughter, that Joe was meme’s son. I will prop my body against her hip and hug her waist at the gravesite after that. But in my light up sneakers Emily and Joe are my loss and mine alone.
“No, we’re not visiting the cemetery. We’re going to Friendly’s.”
I finish my three-scoop hunka-chunka-peanut-butter-fudge icecream doused in hot fudge and peanut butter sauce in record time. I focus on counting the seams sewn into the red booths to keep my breathing even while Meme pays the bill- trying not to upset the precarious balance as peanut butter stomach acid threatens to make a reappearance. Where are we going next? What graveyard or cemetery or fenced in place of granite, ash, worms, and premature death are we visiting?
Meme steers her tan, ranch scented Honda into the driveway of my house.
Bosnia’s staples are meat, cigarettes, and coffee.
Before my first visit, Emina told me I had to try ćevapi.
While I was there, Jasmin offered me ćevapi.
I declined, “Ja sam vegetarijanka.”
To which he responded, “Ti si bolesna.”
To him, being vegetarian is an illness.
In Bosnia, my hair smelled like an ashtray.
Dunja told me that she can be completely alone,
Yet if she holds a cigarette between her thin fingers,
She is with a friend.
The Turkish coffee is strong and bitter.
It’s served after every meal
And accompanies each meeting of friends.
The average drinking time per cup of coffee is two hours.
I don’t eat meat.
I don’t smoke cigarettes.
I don’t drink coffee.
I don’t fit in, in Bosnia.
And yet there is no expectation
That I would or should fit in.
I don’t come from Bosnia.
My family doesn’t come from Bosnia.
My closest friend doesn’t come from Bosnia.
I spent my elementary school years
I never felt completely at home
In any of those places.
I needed different accessories
And different activities.
Even when I made new friends
I still felt the absence of nearby family.
Although I don’t fit in, in Bosnia,
I belong there.
I wrote my college entrance essay about my grandparents’ funerals.
But it wasn’t really about my grandparents.
It was really about hearing my father cry.
But it wasn’t really about that either.
Because those things don’t get in you into college.
And when I got my acceptance letter, handwritten at the bottom,
Smith is perfect for you.
When I think of what I’ve done over the past four years.
I get a little sad that I still struggle to define my faith. My place in eternity.
In the wake of tragedy.
In spite of my mother.
That it’s still what I write about.
I’m still weary of people wearing crosses.
Scared of holy trinities and wooden crucifixes.
Part of me thinks that I became an Art History major so I could finally tell my mother that it was all bullshit.
That Michelangelo didn’t believe in God
And was just a big homo trying to make a living.
I can point to the framed pictures in this Conference Center’s lobby;
Tell you that their patron, the Duke de Berry was a big womanizer
Who liked to look at peasant’s genitals.
See, right there, you can see that man warming his penis by the fire.
For Christmas my mom bought me Dan Brown’s latest book.
Which was real shitty, but I liked the part about the power of the mind:
Collective consciousness as having impact and weight and power.
Apparently somewhere, someone is measuring the physical weight of the soul.
But, I guess it all comes back to my mother.
Because I’m a woman and apparently I’ll never get over being my mother.
And not wanting to be my mother.
My mother’s children.
The pressure to have my mother’s children.
Here mom, meet this woman
I’m sleeping with.
Closure must exist, Dean Mahoney says. People talk about it like it’s real.
Like you can put it in a box. Wrap it up and deliver it to your ex-lover’s house.
Flaming and smelling of shit.
Closure must exist after you see your loved ones die.
Because I was there. For every part of it.
And wrote about it in my college essay and will graduate in May.
But there is never really closure because nothing ever really stops.
Or starts. Or ends.
Except lives. And relationships.
Novels end. So do songs.
But I can keep retelling. Revisiting.
Unwrapping the boxes.
Using your deoderant.
Wearing her necklace.
Thinking of all the ways I could tell my mother how important she is to me.
These poems are based on “She Just Wants,” a poem by Beverly Rollwagen.
"She Just Wants"
When she was a baby, she just wanted to be held.
She cried and cried,
and only her mother’s soft embrace
When she was a toddler, she just wanted to freeze
time as it was – as the only child;
she learned jealousy when her sister was born,
for this new infant threatened to deplete her source of love that she relied on.
When it was time to start school, she just wanted to stay at home;
she “needed” – according to her family (and, really, society) –
to go to school – to make that
first independent step.
When she was in first grade, she just wanted to be best friends with Nora –
and she was –
but in third grade that friendship ended,
when Sarah moved to town.
She just wanted to be normal –
to be liked –
to fit in.
When she was in high school, she just wanted to get perfect grades,
because she just wanted to go to a “good” college,
because she just wanted to get a “good” job,
and have a “good” life.
When she applied to college, she just wanted to finish the applications,
but when she was done with the applications,
she just wanted to find out where she was accepted.
and when she found out her top choice rejected her, she just wanted to make a decision.
So she chose Smith.
And it was an excellent choice.
Now, she just wants to figure out what’s next –
She wants someone to direct her where to go,
but what she doesn’t realize is that she is her
own conductor; she has the answers, because
she knows that
she just wants to know how to love herself when she feels unloved, and that
she just wants to know how to find relaxation when she begins to fall slave to the power of stress, and that
she just wants to surround herself with people who understand, support, and accept
who she is.
She just wants to grow
To grow like a pearl,
Layer by layer by layer
Making mistakes along the way
Then covering them up with the next layer
She just wants to grow like a pearl
She just wants to remember
To feel what she feels now,
later in her life.
Sometimes she thinks if things aren’t written down, photographed, documented they will be forgotten.
Her grandmother had Alzheimers.
She just wants to remember all the layers.
Do pearls remember their under-layers?
She just wants to remember.
She just wants to be able to quit.
To stop for a while,
to feel feelings, be destroyed or destructed for a few moments before returning
to the real world,
Sometimes you just have to quit.
She just wants to live in a community
Do pearls live in communities?
No, they are stuck in side the shell with no friends.
She just wants to NOT feel stuck like a pearl.
She just wants to live in a community of pearls outside their shells.
The pearls could watch one another grow,
taking notice of the new layers on the pearls around them.
She just wants to live in a community.
She just wants to be a pearl.
People love pearls.
She just wants to be loved.
Student Narratives from The "Get a Life" Workshop 2009
I cheated. I didn’t spend enough time writing my narrative. I just felt like I didn’t have much to say. I look at my life and I feel like I haven’t had any huge challenges or bad experiences that I could grow from. My parents are as perfect as they get. My sisters are wonderful. My extended family, even the republicans living in Ohio and Kentucky, make it clear that they love me and like being around me. The group of families that I grew up with in California are as supportive as you can get. Everyone in my life told me how great I was and I believed them. I excelled. How can you not excel when everyone around you tells you that you will achieve greatness and if you fail or fall short they are there to pick you up dust you off and help you succeed?
I did have a few barriers in my life. I have a learning disability that stunted my reading ability. I would try and try but I just couldn’t learn how to read. It wasn’t until fifth grade that I really learned to read. Standardized tests? I would guess. I loved Math because the numbers made sense to me. I hated words. That experience has made me a hard worker because learning didn’t come easy to me at first. It made me humble.
I also was a complete social outcast from kindergarten to about fifth grade, I wonder if this had to do with my lack of reading ability. When I lived in Australia in third grade I met The Mean Girls. No joke. I met those girls from that movie in Australia. They scared me. They were mean.
But whatever – I still had my family.
So what happens to a girl who is told the world is hers and is taught she can do anything? One of my family friend’s dad always tells me when I leave him, “Do great things.” I hope I do great things.
Before my grandmother got placed in a lifeless, dreary nursing home, and before she passed away, my family would go to Flushing, Queens every Saturday to visit her. The apartment she lived in was well-maintained, albeit outdated— you learned quickly to check the expiration date of any edible good before popping it into your mouth.
No matter the month, my grandmother would send me off with stale candy in my hand from last year’s Chinese New Year party. So in December, I would walk away with a stack of 11-month ripened, chocolate, gold coins. “Take this home with you,” my grandmother said in a language I didn’t understand—she spoke Cantonese, I spoke Mandarin—presenting the moldy candy like treasured jewels. In the background, my mother would make a coerced, polite face.
We would all breathe a collective sigh of release after leaving my grandmother’s in the early afternoon. Then, we—my mother, father, and I and sometimes my brother–would cram into the car to make the half hour or so drive from Flushing to Manhattan’s Chinatown.
Once there, I would delicately squish my nose in disapproval. A pre-teen, I disassociated myself from the sights and sounds I now love and have grown to appreciate: A gray fish, fighting for its last breath, wiggling helplessly on the floor; hordes of amused and entitled tourists bargaining for “cashmere” scarves on the congested street –“How about five dollars for two?” bargains the visiting European in decadent clothes; dark, windy alleyways leading to fake Prada bags; street vendors dolling out generous portions of noodles and boiled soy eggs at a killer bargain; ripe and delicious fruits, a third of the price of those being sold in fancy, air conditioned supermarkets a train stop away, a world away.
There was a delicate science involved in our Chinatown excursion. We usually went dim summing first, if our timing was right. Dim summing for us was a straight-up, no frills, authentic, Hong Kong dining experience. Anthony Bourdain would be jealous. Shouting was involved, a necessity. The fight for the freshest, tastiest, morsels of food was not for the weak. The tea (always Chrysanthemum) whetted our appetites for the soon-to-come battle of ordering. From the moment the cart wheeled close enough to my dad’s discerning eye line, everything became a blur: Fish balls, beef balls, congee with salted egg, pork spareribs (always with too much fat on them), stuffed crab claws, oily spring rolls, sticky rice with mushrooms, steamed buns, deep fried taro dumpling, mango pudding with decorative umbrellas attached, almond cookies, egg custard—not a surface of the table remains in sight. We always ordered the same food. The first time in a long day, we stopped bickering; our mouths were too full to talk.
After we were completely perfumed by the smell of fried dumplings and filled beyond comfort, we would stop by the grocery store. While my mom carefully picked from the selection of pickled cabbage and pig’s feet, her favorite—curious visitors would sometimes ask her what it was—she would let me select something from the grocery store.
This was the highlight of the trip. I would cruise up and down the aisles, accidentally knocking down old Asian ladies. Should I get something sweet? Or something salty? The jarred prunes sang to me, the salty shrimp chips cajoled me. I usually ended up getting Lychee candy.
On the ride back (to the unfortunate suburbs of New Jersey), I looked forward to falling asleep before crossing the Holland tunnel. Before the invention of the i-pod, there was the strip of never-ending, black highway to soothe my thoughts. Eventually I would unwrap, out of unchecked temptation, a stale candy—quickly followed by the more pleasant Lychee candy. And I would always fall asleep, before finishing it completely.
While I’ve only participated in homeless ministry twice, it has already changed my life. I had originally heard about City Reaching, a faith-based homeless outreach group, for weeks from my peers at Christian Fellowship. However, I have always put my schoolwork first, not allowing much flexibility or opportunity to give to others, even though that was the thing I so much desired. But somehow, one of my friends needed an additional certified driver, and so while I initially hesitated, I decided to go out to West Springfield that Monday night in November. I had no idea what I was getting into or what to expect, figuring everything would work itself okay.
During that crisp Monday night, about 50 or 60 volunteers huddled in a circle in the parking lot of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Most of these volunteers were college students, while others were just community members. I also noticed the majority of the volunteers were men, and it was refreshing to see caring, loving men who wanted to change the world, just like myself.
Pastor Greg epitomized the meaning of a leader. He was a black man with a short stature, donned the same long wool coat, and wore a knitcap to keep his bald head warm. From hearing him speak and seeing him interact with the volunteers and homeless, I could see he was a man convicted of God’s truth and lived a purposeful life of love and care. I remember my first night when we were all huddled in a circle and Pastor Greg began recounting the previous week’s stories and updates of the various homeless people each team had met on the street. PG (our nickname for Pastor Greg) remembered each and every homeless person’s name and expressed love, care, and concern for each homeless person as if each of them were his best friend. He told us about the previous week, when he was out on the street until 3 AM because he was insistent on getting a homeless man off the cold, wet streets and into some place warm like a shelter, but the homeless man refused. PG decided to call the police on the homeless man so he would have no choice but to seek a warm shelter. PG didn’t even know this homeless man and this man was yelling all sorts of obscenities to PG, but PG still loved him and was determined to get this man to someplace warm, even if it meant he would be staying out all night in the cold and put himself in a potentially dangerous/violent situation.
PG also told us about his trip to Cambridge where he collaborated with a faith based homeless ministry group. That past weekend, he had traveled to Cambridge with some other people in our Springfield group to join the Cambridge group in cooking and baking food all day to feed the homeless, all the while fasting. It was amazing to hear the stories of love and human connection experienced while toasting a sliver of bread with a homeless person and the lessons learned about building relationships of trust and respect.
I’ve been very privileged and protected for all my life. My parents grew up in an environment where they didn’t have the opportunity to go to school or have enough to eat. When my dad immigrated to America in his early twenties, he went to school during the day and worked at night in a restaurant run by a distant relative who was especially mean spirited. I actually know very little about my parent’s past because they’ve told me so little. It was only when I traveled half-way across the world to visit my great grandfather in China that I began to see pieces of my dad’s life and what his life was like before I was born. Their life was filled with political instability and poverty. During the Cultural Revolution, children were taken away from schools and had to work in the rural countryside for years. My mother was only able to finish high school. When she immigrated to the United States, she had to work to support her family, so pursuing higher education was not an option. As a result, she worked as a housekeeper in a hotel and has had the same job ever since, more than twenty years later.
My dad was and is incredibly hardworking and ambitious. His youth is long gone, with so many unfulfilled dreams, like my mother. So while I was growing up, they gave me everything that they wanted but never had. Piano lessons, violin lessons, art lessons, ballet lessons, after-school academic enrichment programs, and Chinese classes. In the midst of all this privilege, I didn’t realize how lucky I was, but felt all these extra classes were a burden. I felt like my schedule was always packed, and I never learned to have fun.
During my first year at Smith, I voluntarily signed up to work in the kitchen because I felt I needed a job to earn some extra money and relate to my peers who had no choice but to work. I remember asking my dad to send some paperwork for payroll information because I told him I was working in the kitchen. He was so upset and confused to why I would take on such a job, to spend my time earning minimum wage when I could spend that time studying. He didn’t understand that I was sick and tired of being so pampered and spoon-fed, that I craved financial independence and the pride that comes from making one’s own money.
Being involved in homeless ministry has been so meaningful to me, but something that I didn’t readily share with my parents. Going out into the streets of West Springfield to talk and feed homeless people, a segment of the population my parents would consider lazy, drug addicts, failures, and dangerous to be around, represented me developing my own beliefs and values rather than just obediently adopting my parent’s view. Their desire to protect me out of love stunted me from growing into my own entity.
More than anything, homeless ministry replenished my soul and opened my eyes to poverty and the power of compassion to fill empty hearts. I’ve met Bruce, a man whose cold blank face showed that he had given up all hope in life, that there was no one who could rescue him. He felt safer to be on the cold streets than in the shelter where his belongings might get stolen. I met Wayne, a man who had earned an MBA degree and had a successful career earning over $100,000, but he fell into drinking and using cocaine that he lost his job and became homeless. That first night when I met Bruce and Wayne, our team was able to convince them to check out the church’s shelter and give it a try, even though initially they were both reluctant to enter a shelter due to bad experiences and shame. The next week when I returned to City Reaching, PG told us that Wayne felt very comfortable at the shelter and consistently returned to the shelter, and in week, the church member helped him find a part time job. It was truly amazing to see the transformation that happened in a single week. Wayne had been homeless, living all alone in a cold parking garage, and now with love and support, he was able to make a fresh start. In just the two times I participated in City Reaching, I felt so renewed and imbued with so much hope and faith that love and compassion can bring about real, long lasting change. Seeing the leadership and love in PG and his conviction in his mission as a Christian deepened my faith and understanding of who God is and what Christianity stands for.
“England! Ireland! Wales! Inside, outside ON THE ROPES!” I won! Those words held the same meaning as goo gaa and poo. In our eyes they were made up sounds for the purpose of playing a game with a skipping rope. Peering from the gate of our house stood my watchful national guard, an army of women standing by the door, one hand held a cup of chai while the other lay firmly on the cheek of a misbehaving child. As the sun came down, there wasn’t an inch of the ground that wasn’t covered with a sleeping body. I never understood why we didn’t we get to live in the big house next door. They only had four people in the whole house! I resented any one with an ounce of comfort. Life wasn’t fair.
Time passed, and our fate started to climb uphill. We moved to a more comfortable living situation. My new fancy school had taught me the meaning of England, Ireland and Wales, so that game wasn’t fun any more. We were slowly becoming the people in the unnecessarily big house now. I was confused again. If like everyone was saying, I was the one with the comfortable life then why did I have to wear the uncomfortable overly starched frock with tight black buckled shoes when the masi’s daughter got to wear my old soft comfy clothes? Though confused, I felt secure in the level of power that I had in situation. I felt in control and at level with most people that I met.
That all changed when I moved to Indonesia.
My superiority complex was built up just to be shattered by the first day of school. I looked around and started to cry so hard that I couldn’t breathe! I just wanted to go to the bathroom! But these ladies were so mean! I kept asking them where the bathroom was and they kept making sounds at me! They are so big that I couldn’t see the sky, and they are all dressed like some one had died! Maybe I had died, they did look like ghosts. I started to cry louder.
Still sniffling at the end of the day, I saw my Mama. She looked out of place. I knew she wasn’t dead because unlike all the other ladies, she wasn’t pale as a ghost and dressed like she was at a funeral. Her bangles and anklets chimed in unison with the click clack of her heels. A train of flowing cloth followed her as she walks towards me. I thought she looked like a movie star! She was here to save me from this scary place!
“Stop crying all the time! I like this place! They’ll take us to back if you keep crying!” my sister yelled after witnessing my parents arguing about my first day at school.
“But Appa, I had to sit with dead ladies today and they wouldn’t take me to the bathroom.” Her laughter comforted me just as much as it confused me.
“Those ladies aren’t dead! They are born like that! And they probably told you where the bathroom was in English. They don’t speak Urdu!” Confused I asked why on earth someone wouldn’t speak Urdu. “Don’t you know? The rich and cool people never speak in Urdu, only in English like this!” She started to teach me phrases she had learnt. “Fasten your seatbelt please…No smoking allowed…Exit to the right.” Though neither one of us knew what they meant, we were now rich and cool now that we were prancing around our rooms speaking in English.
Days went by, and I learnt to speak real English. I became more and more aware of the people who waited on me. I felt like I was the queen. I forgot that this was an acquired power; to me it was my birthright. I lived among only those who were like me, the royalties of the world. I was special – that’s why I was who I was. Those who served me were obviously lacking and unworthy.
Our car windows were tinted, the seats were made of pure leather, the AC was refreshingly cooling while the bulletproof exterior kept out the poverty. Driving through the riots I saw a child screaming in the middle of chaos of angry people mobbing. I saw mothers scrambling to get their children to safer areas. I saw how injustice had forced the humanity out of decent human beings.
Yet all I felt was anger and annoyance. Who were these people to disrupt my life? Illiterate, good for nothing rats being ungrateful and not knowing their place. That was my last thought as I got onto my private helicopter to fly to wait the rioting out in a five star suite.
In Turkey, I was the elite of the elite, and I knew it. But I started to feel the thorns on this rose of wealth. I was exposed to the world of flashing lights and smoke that masked the smell of underage drinking and drug dealing. As twelve-year-old children we lived the lives of twenty year olds in every possible way. Sex was another game. Drugs were candy. The world gave us no rules and we didn’t make any for ourselves.
We didn’t have morals. All that mattered was maintaining our privileges. God forbid the day should come when we couldn’t freely do as our heart desired. Mental games couple with sexual abuse went by silently to this day in order to protect our precious world. The true cause of the death of a friend was buried by the silence of the five pre teens standing around her grave. Her eyes that were shut, had been rolling back in a terrifying manner as alcohol poisoning started to become evident. We had sat and watched, knowing the number to dial for help, but not having the courage to do so. We found comfort in the only place we knew had unconditional happiness: the shiny world of nightclubs, the same world that had just taken one of us down.
All my life, I haven’t given myself the opportunity to think of other possible career options besides becoming a practicing medical doctor. Interestingly, during my childhood I never played doctor although I played cook, caterer, driver, dress maker and business woman. This is why I believe that in certain ways, my desire to become a medical doctor was shaped by other people –mainly my family – rather than myself.
I write about my career plans because it’s the most predominant aspect of my life. The past twenty one years of my life have all been moving towards that one goal, a goal that I have made my own and that has become the center of attention.
I’m the last in a family of three. I have two beautiful successful women as my sisters, who have set a very high standard for me. The shoes that I have to fill are very big and at times, I feel my own steps become lost in them. I’m quick and eager to report my successes to my family. I do it because I know my family has invested a lot in me, and I want them to be proud of me. I’m quick to tell of my successes, but alone I struggle with the failures.
One of the toughest times in my life was the beginning of college. I reached my worst in terms of insecurity and identity. I was conscious of my speech, my color, my looks, my clothing, my walk, my voice. I was timid, the little confidence that I had disappeared, and I felt awkward in a gathering because I said little to nothing. Gradually, I stopped hanging out with people altogether. I went from my room, to my library.
I missed home and family. This was all me, for the first time in my life. Each time I spoke to my family, I assured them I was fine with a bold confidence, the confidence missing when I was with my peers. I returned to a bare room – literally empty, with little decor. I was miserable and unhappy. I survived the semester painfully.
I joined a few student organizations and made a few friends but I still felt different; I imagined people talked about my awkwardness when I walked by. My insecurities worsened. It went from the emotional to physical. My weight became an issue. My eating habits were a mess during this period. I consciously lost a significant amount of weight but it didn’t make me happy, and I gained it right back. I was changing, I was struggling, I was going through one of the toughest times in my life, and I was alone. I realized that the family that I had always reveled in impressing was not close by and I had to look within me to find motivation to push myself. The person I had become was not who I really was. I was unhappy, dissatisfied and lonely.
I started spending more time in the library rather than my room. I never fully grew out of this phase. I made friends through classes that I took. But my self-consciousness never left me. Self doubt was with me constantly. I thought-through my comments in class so much that by the time I decided to contribute, the class had moved on. My sentences began with apologies for my ignorance, or incompetence, or incapability. While it could be interpreted as modesty, I knew it was lack of confidence. It was my form or protection. I wasn’t ambitious; I settled for less when I knew I could achieve better. I was so afraid of facing others and speaking. I felt I wasn’t taking an advantage of the Smith education like I should.
The turnabout came when I encountered one of the Smith women who helped me both academically and socially. My academic performance improved drastically, and I developed more confidence. I didn’t make a hundred friends overnight, and I still didn’t talk unless it was necessary, but it was a big improvement. I challenged myself to do things I never would have dreamed. The importance of peers became clearer to me than ever before. Someone who was so similar to me motivated me. I believed it was possible. I developed a new form of excellence and importance. I feel the relationship with my family even became stronger because there was a genuine excitement as I described the past week. I still kept the tough moments to myself. I began to grow and find things out for myself. It was a turnabout in my life. I relaxed, and became myself. I still had my reservations but I was overcoming it gradually.
In retrospect, I don’t think I was at any given time a failure. The fact that I was in a new environment and chose to stay within my comfort zone didn’t make me a failure. What I went through was a phase. I wish I could have been able to tell my family more. But I didn’t want to be a source of worry. I’m very content with the outcome. I currently occupy leadership positions at Smith and work with several departments at Smith as teaching assistants. For me, that’s a big leap. This experience has made me realize that my family may well be the most important element in my life; however, I should not have allowed that to get in the way of my own personal growth. I feel I would have dealt with the transition better if I had communicated with them. But I battled with myself. Thinking I was too much of a failure to share that kind of news with them. I still do not communicate my challenges too well with my family. I still enjoy telling more of my successes than my failures.
I guess I strive for A’s so that I know that I have mastered this new place. I have conformed and assimilated into the society. Perhaps this way, I can get acceptance and my difference will not be the first thing that is pointed out.
There is a technique to getting an A: Answer the question and present it in a well organized and predetermined structure. Sometimes expand from the prompt, and take it to that next level. Figuring out this technique proves that I am worthy of gaining the recognition I seek, in the manner that I intend. This recognition of course is to be based on my own understanding of the world, one that has not been forced down my throat by the million dollar advertisements and propaganda.
Once the A has given me my opening I will no longer feel the need to have to fake it anymore. I will no longer have to present my answers with the intention of pleasing my professors expressed biases. I can adjust the status quo to fit MY disposition—bend the universe to my will.
I strive for A’s because I recognize that the only way to override the system is by working within it, until I no longer have to as much. I cannot transcend society any other way or at all for that matter.
I’ve once heard it said that alcohol is a truth serum; revealing who and what we are when the masks are off.
My mother, a woman who rarely relaxes, will drink at cocktail parties. Suddenly engaging and flirty, I see the ASB president – the confident and social woman - that she once was and that she once used to be. In this atmosphere, she thrives. She’s always quick to tell me that, unlike me, she likes people. She finds people fascinating. After all, that’s why she was a sociology major.
My father is also another person when he drinks. He drinks more often. Regularly. A drink, maybe two, as soon as he walks through the front door. Drinking, drunk, he laughs. After a vodka or a scotch on the rocks, he doesn’t care as much about things as I want him to – things like cross country meets or algebra two or me.
When I was in college, I was given the chance to drink. I don’t like the smell. I still don’t like the taste. But one day, curious, I made the decision to try the truth serum.
As the room spiraled and things fell in and out of focus, I was scared. I sat, frozen, and tried to regain control. I tried again and again to will the room into focus and continued sipping as the gum in my mouth masked the taste of cheap-boxed wine. I drank until I was finally able to let go.
I don’t remember much about that night. Later I learned that I had told my best friend in a voice filled with wonder that everything is double and that it was so cool. That she had to remind me about it tomorrow.
These poems are based on “She Just Wants,” a poem by Beverly Rollwagen.
She just wants to sit and talk, to linger at the table after the coffee’s gone cold and everyone else has graciously gone home—after washing a dish or two, of course. She just wants to sit and run her hands over a warm, smooth tabletop, gentle with the wood, her fingers, your smile. Leaning back in her chair, not looking for a clock.
She wants a full, expectant silence, a silence that’s waiting, but not worried.
She wants it to be the best talk she’s ever had. She wants it to be engaging, vivacious, terrifying, funny, loving and real. Then she wants to do it again.
You might not know this, but she is a very skilled hostess. Once, she made a list of the things she was very best at—smiling, inviting, welcoming, sharing, cooking, tasting, adoring, raving, listening, perceiving, easing, diffusing, defusing. Too bad, she thought, I haven’t seen any listings online for “Empress”.
But at the end of the night, everyone wrapped in coats and scarves, sent on their way with leftovers and a recommendation for a babysitter or dentist, she just wants to fall into conversation like into an old, sinking couch. She wants a few quiet hours and a good listener, the chance to be honest and scared and whatever else, and the sense that these hours were well spent.
She just wants to forget
She just wants to remember
She just wants to smile
And to laugh
Van Morrison dancing
Monopoly Jr. and slippery tights
Thunder and lightning
And willow trees
A senior Ada Comstock Scholar
She just wants to know why we ask questions
She just wants to know why there are never
She just needs to fall in love
She just has to
fall in love
She wants to not lose herself.
To be confident.
To know where she wants to go.
And to be able to balance her life while not letting anyone down.
She does not want to be a disappointment.
To loose sight of her goals and ambitions.
Or to feel trapped in a life that “just happened”.
She just wants to create a home.
To feel loved.
And to laugh, to sit, to sleep.
She does not want to be too serious.
To loose her sense of humor.
Or to be overly cynical.
She just wants to make a life she loves.
To work hard, and play harder.
To enjoy the time she has.
And to take advantage of her opportunities.
She does not want to sell out.
To be afraid, anxious or ashamed.
Or to always have to be on time.
She just wants to be dependable.
To grow every day.
To make a difference.
And to be happy.
She does not want to owe her success to anyone else.
To be entirely dependant.
Or to lose herself.
A first-year Ada Comstock Scholar
She just wants to be left alone sometimes,
Silent, peaceful, wonderful rest from the noise of the world outside.
Time to allow her head to clear and her heart to decompress.
Yet she is aware that most of the time she is alone.
Alone with her thoughts, joys, fears, dreams, worries, aspirations, procrastination and pondering of the past, present and future.
Student Narratives from The "Get a Life" Workshop 2008
When I was five years old, I learned the right way to pirouette—to lift from my “core” even though the relevé was in my toes, and to follow one spot with my gaze, twisting my neck as far as I could and whipping my head around as fast as possible, so that the instant not focused on that one spot was almost inexistent. This is how dancers stay in balance when they turn—their bodies spin at dizzying speeds, but their minds are concentrated effortlessly on one point in the distance.
I think back to this time in my childhood and am relieved that I’ve had dance. It must have been strange for Vittoria, who had been my ballet instructor for 2 years by then, to teach me these foundations of her life’s art, because I didn’t like to talk to anyone. If I didn’t want to communicate through language, at least I had a mode of expression through movement.
My grandma Jean has four children. Two of them married Caucasian Americans, and the other two, my mom and my older aunt, both married men from Beijing. I recently learned that she highly disapproved of all of these spouses—she wanted her kids to marry Chinese Americans, just like them. I don’t think it’s because she particularly disliked Americans, Caucasians, or Chinese people, but because she wanted her children to fit into the strange realm of American culture, but still preserve their roots of heritage.
Apparently her feelings against these mixed marriages had been strongly asserted. My aunt says that she had a white boyfriend who knocked on the door to pick her up once, and my grandma chased him out with a toy gun, threatening that if he ever came back he’d really get it. Thinking of my grandmother, it’s difficult to imagine her acting this way. She’s one of the nicest and calmest people I know. Most of us grandchildren call her “Lao Lao”—maternal grandmother in Cantonese. My cousins D and J do also, even though their maternal ancestors “came over on the Mayflower.”
I was born in Manhattan on December 5, 1986 and lived with my parents on Pineapple Ave in Brooklyn Heights. They decided to move from Brooklyn to Beijing two years later, and for a few months we could visit my dad’s parents and siblings daily. My mom was pregnant with my brother at this time. One day I started punching her in the stomach speed bag style, and when she asked me what I was doing, I said that if I had a brother, I knew my parents wouldn’t love me anymore.
Eventually he was born, though, and we became a special family at this time, since my mom is American, and was the only woman that anyone knew who wasn’t constrained by China’s One Child Policy.
In the spring of 1989 the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred. Beijing had been overwhelmed with rioters and the government was issuing orders to halt public transportation and close off the country’s borders to prevent anyone from entering or leaving it. Panicked, my mom gathered a few of our things in a bag, and prepared to flee the country. No one had cars in Beijing at this time, but somehow we knew a man who was a cab driver, and he picked my mom, baby brother, and me up from our apartment to take us to the airport. My father had to stay behind, because he is a Chinese citizen, and therefore banned from leaving the country.
My mom says that I sat in silence during the whole car ride, but that my brother was screeching and crying. She was worried that the officials wouldn’t allow her to take my brother to the States because he was born in China and she hadn’t yet filed for his U.S. citizenship. She continued through the motions of customs and security at the airport, however, and when asked for our passports, she asked the man ahead of us in line—who happen to also be Chinese American—to hold my brother so she could free her hands. She took my and her American passports out of her purse, and before she could think of an excuse as to why my brother didn’t have one, the official let us go, presumably thinking that the Chinese American man holding my five month old brother was our father, and that my brother was American too.
I am a daughter of the rough, injured, and proud mountains and I am in love with wind, with its freedom, its motion. I don’t know how to bring together my desire to be rooted like a mountain and my longing to be free as wind.
I want to be stable and wise as the mountains of my homeland, but I also desire to be free and traveling like the wind. I want to belong to the land, feel it under my feet, make my weight and my influence known, sleep on the land, sit on the land for eating, chatting like people at home. I also have a dream to fly away, to be free of bounds and belongings, to consider the world my home.
I want to be reserved and mature, but I also love to express myself, to be childish, to dance and sing and paint and see everywhere.
Mountains and the wind, conflicting metaphors, have come up in many decisions in my life and will continue to affect my life. Mountains represent stability; wind represents freedom to move. Mountains represent quiet and loneliness; wind represents the ability to join the crowd. Mountains represent a desire to be influential and noticed; wind represents invincibility, flexibility.
Coming to Smith was a windy decision; planning to go back and stay rooted in my country is the mountainous part of me. The strong longing for wisdom and maturity comes from my love to mountains and what I have learned from them; the fresh and alive yearning for being childish, being carefree, being a traveler draws me to the wind.
I want to build a home, have children, be stable, have a job, enter politics, start a movement, always reach high, reach the sky. I want to work for the best, be the mountain, be noticed like it, be grounded like it, be a source of pride for my people, be seen by the world. I want to be strong and rough and unbreakable and resistant like mountains.
I want to fight for change, make sacrifices, forget about personal pleasures, be a source of hope and confidence for the lonely, for the oppressed, for the fighters of freedom. (In my country, people take their sorrows to the mountain; they use it as a shelter, as a starting point for resistance.) I want to be with people but for them, not only of them. I love mountains: their height, calm, beauty, wildness, strength, wisdom, agedness and strong presence.
But there is another part of me that wants different things. It is strong too. That part of me is scared of being trapped -- trapped in a career, in a house, in a family, in a political game, in a duty. It wants to live free and almost invisibly. It is more like me. It is soft and childish. It enjoys little things, and more than anything, it enjoys the feeling of displacement, of leaving, traveling, seeing things, discovering things, living simply, living free. This part of me is less confident and more scared. It is scared of loving only one person, one country, one place, because it has seen loss of places, homes and people many times. It doesn’t fit in one place anywhere, it fits in everywhere.
This part of me loves adventure, the unknown, the unseen. It is like a wind, it doesn’t want to carry one single message, fight for one idea. It is afraid of being wrong. It isn’t bound to anything, it doesn’t belong to anything, it pushes me to travel, it keeps the yearning for discovery alive in me. It wants to be mixed with people and be flexible. It wants to travel from village to village and be unknown but to know about people. It wants light, it wants laughter, and the songs. It wants to play with wind, with water, with life.
It is playful, free and adventurous. It doesn’t want to be there for other people to rely on; it wants to carry only its own weight. It wants to run away from war, from hardship, to gardens full of flowers. It is immature, it is irresponsible, but it is also part of me. I feel it.
If you had asked me what I would write my narrative about at the beginning of this week, I probably would have said something like the year I spent living in Mexico. Or maybe I would have written about the faith journey I’ve had throughout my time at Smith. But I never would have said that I would write about my family. This workshop is supposed to be about figuring out my future and my family isn’t my future; they’re my past.
But if my family is just my past, why have I found myself writing about them again and again in this workshop about life after graduation? I’ve been writing about my family taking in foster kids throughout my childhood, often extending our family to eight people. I’ve been writing about adopting my little brother. I’ve been writing about my dad’s struggle with bi-polar disorder. I’ve been writing about our big cross-country move when we piled everything we owned, including two cats and three guinea pigs, into a budget rental truck and an ’82 Toyota van and drove from Vista, California to East Hartford, Connecticut the summer before I started high school. These are all events that have had a profound impact on who I am, but they are stories that I don’t often tell, because they’re complicated.
When I left home for Smith, the stories became even easier to not tell. No one knew anything about me or my family, so I was free to be whoever I wanted. People would believe I was whoever I said I was. I never lied outright, but I kept quiet about a lot of my past, or told simplified versions of things.
After years of selectively sharing my past, it has been startling to me that it has come up so much this week, a week I intended to spend figuring out what the next step in my life is. What does any of this have to do with my future? Why am I thinking about it so much right now?
The truth is, I don’t know. I am an avid journaler and pride myself in self-analysis, but even I can’t seem to puzzle this one out. I want to neatly tie it all together. I want my narrative to be a few paragraphs about my past, a few paragraphs about the identity I have created at Smith, and then a conclusion about how they fit together and what it means for my future. But the connection between my past and my future just isn’t so black and white.
Maybe the connection is guilt. I feel bad because after all my parents have sacrificed for me, my worst nightmare is moving back in with them after graduation.
I felt so happy living in Mexico and I want to go away again to experience something new. I feel hungry for travel and the excitement that comes with navigating a new place. But at the same time, my brother is eleven and I can see the disappointment in his face every time I head back to school after one of my short trips home. I miss going to his band concerts and hearing his stories about what he did at school And guilt isn’t quite the right word, either. It’s that I love my family and I just wonder what I could be missing out on by moving somewhere far away.
But then again, I don’t think it’s just a little twinge of guilt that is making me think so much about my family at this point in my life. I think it is something deeper than that. I think it is part of a bigger question about what it means to be an individual. I never thought that that was something that I struggled with. My parents aren’t overbearing or controlling, so I’ve never felt a lot of pressure from them to make a decision one way or another. They’ve always come around to support me in whatever I do. I’ve believed myself to be a completely separate entity from my family. I thought the unique identity I had formed for myself at Smith was further proof of my individualism. But now, as I reflect, I’m not so sure that I am as free from the question of where my family ends and where I begin as I thought I was. Does my past make me who I am, or is it the choices I’ve made and experiences I’ve had, or some combination of them both?
So those are my half formed musings about my family. While writing the narrative about to this point, I’ve felt a little resentful because my family was taking up so much of my brain when all I’ve really want to write about is my dreams for the future. But I’ve decided that I don’t need to feel torn and agonize about whether I should write about what I really need to write about (my family) and what I want to write about (me as an individual), I can have my cake and eat it too. If I don’t know how to make my past narrative fit with my future narrative, that’s ok. I don’t have to choose one or the other, I can write them both. So here goes part two.
In my intro to anthropology class as a first year, we watched documentaries and read ethnographies about cultures all over the world that were struggling with war, poverty and discrimination. It was pretty intense and every day after class my friend and I would have to decompress by walking home together and mulling over the atrocities we had discussed in class. We often wondered if we could ever make a difference. We concluded that we would have to have careers that worked for social justice, because there were so many things wrong with the world that the only way to make any kind of dent would be to devote ourselves completely. Studying in Mexico for a year fueled my desire to do something productive, something that would have a positive impact on people’s lives. It also instilled a strong desire to travel and live in new places. This sort of dreaming was so easy to do while I was in Mexico; something about living in a new and exciting place allowed me to imagine equally exciting post-graduation possibilities.
But coming back to Smith senior year brought back the old doubts about whether I could or should embark on new adventure after graduation. I had played around with the idea of doing a service program like the Peace Corps or the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, but coming back to Smith made we wonder if I choose something a bit more “career oriented.” Everyone around me seemed to be doing something practical. It feels like everyone I know already has an investment banking job lined up, or at least a couple of interviews. Those that don’t at least have a list of all the possible publishers and advertising agencies where they’d like to submit their resumes. When I mentioned to members of my family that I was interested in doing a year or two of service after graduation, the raised their eyebrows and asked if I ever planned on getting a job in the real world. This has all got me thinking that maybe I should drop my women’s studies class and take statistics instead, or that I should be looking for a job where I can start putting away for retirement now, not barely squeaking by on a stipend from a service program. This would be success.
I’ve been thinking that my ideas about traveling and doing something good are too idealistic. But when did “idealistic” become such a dirty word? I am idealistic and that’s what gets me excited about life after Smith. It’s not something I need to apologize about. When I tell people I want to do a service program next year, I hear myself justifying it by saying that it will be good way to use my Spanish again and that it would give me good work experience. Both of these are true, but they’re not the main reason. The reason is that, after twenty-two years of taking, I want to give. I want to make a difference and I don’t have to preface that statement by saying, “I know it’s really idealistic but…” I’m tired of feeling shy about what brings me joy. If I start settling for less that what makes happy now, what kind of future will I have? I don’t know my ultimate career goal right now, so I don’t know what the best path is to follow, but I know what I want to do next year, so I’m taking the risk, accepting the consequences and seeing where I go from there. Being true to who I am and living without regrets is what I consider success.
I was a high-risk pregnancy, and a particularly inconvenient one. Mom was thirty-nine when I was conceived, and she had miscarried three times. She was ready to re-enter the workforce in the late eighties, but then I came along. The decision of whether to carry the pregnancy to term must have been difficult, but by autumn 1987, she had decided to keep me. She told my sisters, but ordered them to keep it to themselves—for a schoolchild, to announce an impending sibling is exciting, but to announce a miscarriage is impossible. Until Mom was visibly pregnant, no one knew.
And until I was born, my extended family didn’t know. “You have a new granddaughter.” “You have a new niece.” I have trouble imagining these phone conversations, especially the ones to my father’s family—the big, rowdy, Irish-Catholic brood where couples without children are the subject of speculation, and everyone’s looking for Grampy’s blue eyes or Nana’s Cupid’s-bow mouth.
On Mom’s side, I’m not all that surprised. My maternal uncle had lost a son before I was born: a child of whom I know nothing except his name, written in the family Bible, and the fact that my grandmother thought he probably died shortly after he was born. We never spoke of it—maybe it seemed like tempting fate. In my family, pregnancies were fraught experiences, highly susceptible to bad luck and not to be taken for granted.
But I was born, red-faced and black-haired and defiantly healthy as a child, except for appendicitis and the occasional ear infection. I made it my mission to impress my teachers and parents—good grades weren’t unusual among my sisters, but it was one way to compete for positive attention, and that was the only kind I wanted. Early on, I absorbed lessons, more often in the form of questions than commands. Did you finish your dinner? Did you do your homework? Did you clean your room? Mom expected the answer to be yes, and the expectation was more effective than any command or threat, something that has been true for me ever since. There were also times when she expected me to share her opinions. Sometimes I did. (“You’ll like kindergarten!”) Sometimes I didn’t. (“Potato skin tastes just like chips!”)
I think of Mom as the enforcer and Dad as the entertainer, but in reality both were, and are, pretty hands-off. As long as we were happy in a prudent way—not happily screwing ourselves over—Mom was happy. And as long as we weren’t having trouble, Dad was happy. It was Mom’s attention that I wanted in an academic sense; we have more interests in common. But Dad and I share a similar outlook: we like talking, we like people, and we have odd enthusiasms, although we don’t share any.
My parents’ ever-present expectations created a tendency in me to reinforce people’s opinions of me, for better or for worse. If someone thinks I’m talented, I aim to please. If someone thinks I’m contrary, I fight harder. This can make for some amusing situations, but it can also be heartbreaking. My twin traits of resilience and optimism mean I hate, hate, hate to cry, and go to absurd lengths not to do it in front of my parents. How many times I have said “I’m fine” while openly weeping, I can’t count . . . . If I say it’s not true, it can’t be true.
In some way, I wonder if I’m trying to justify my very existence. My birth was a sacrifice for my family, especially for my mother. She undertook ten more years of financial dependence—a situation she couldn’t abide—so she could raise me without putting me at a disadvantage relative to my sisters. Putting me through college means she’ll never be able to afford to retire. When I’m unhappy, I feel ungrateful. When I fail at something, I wonder if I never should have begun it. I’m sure my mother thinks that the sacrifice of having me was well worth the outcome, but I live in a state of fear that I’ll make her regret the choice.
You choose.” That is the meanest thing anyone can ever say to me. While agonizing over what to write this narrative about -- should I do something about strength, conformity, possibly a metaphor about rosaries in my basketball sneakers, etc. -- it finally hit me. I needed to confront the predator that has plagued my very existence since birth: indecisiveness. Maybe then this demon would finally go away and leave me to effortlessly make clear, concise decisions and plans. First, of course, I had to decide if this was indeed what I wanted to write about. I mean, a “narrative of success” with a negative connotation? I carefully weighed the pros and cons while simultaneously napping, and after two hours (not all spent napping), finally decided to gain the courage to…ask Dean Walters’ opinion. Case-in-point.
See, this is another issue, the evil cohort of indecisiveness: self-doubt. Great. Perfect. TWO negatives. Is that all I can say for myself after living twenty-two years on this earth? After Dean Walters’ approval and encouragement of my idea, I decided, actually decided to go with it.
Decision-making started getting difficult for me in the womb. Plagued by the possibility of severe health complications, my mother had to decide whether or not to keep me. I consider myself a part of her at that time and thus a part of the decision-making process. It was a very stressful time for me, making the first decision of my life and all. However, I’m here and I think I made the right choice.
But once I was born, I was immediately labeled the “golden child” and treated that way. I tried to please everyone without disappointing, so as to not debunk my golden child status. It has been all downhill from there.
As a child, I would always have a difficult time deciding whether or not to go to sleepovers. I didn’t want my parents to feel alone without me, but I really wanted to spend time with my friends. The responsibility I felt and still feel to others plays a major role in my decision-making process, and usually takes precedence over what I want. Guilt, or if you went to Catholic School for nine years and would like to call it “Catholic guilt,” is a major setback for me.
When I was able to read, indecisiveness crept even more into my life. This was because I could now read the menu at restaurants and would have to make my own meal choices. It was as if I was being punished for honing this new skill. It seems as though when I progress in life, decisions become more and more difficult to make. First grilled cheese vs. a hot dog -- now what to do after I graduate from college? So unfair! I’m sick of progressing and being punished for it! To this day I am taunted for being the only one at the table not ready to order. Stressed and overwhelmed, I usually shout out something random at the last second, but not before asking the waitress’s opinion.
When it was time for me to go to college, it became apparent that I had a serious problem. Ultimately choosing between Smith and the Coast Guard Academy, I was basically choosing a lifestyle. I agonized day and night, asked everyone I knew what they thought I should do. When they responded, I quickly decided on the alternative. At the end of it all, I realized, why in the hell had I even considered the Coast Guard Academy? An alum had encouraged me to apply, so instead of saying no, I had obliged and mysteriously been accepted. But did I really want to be there? Absolutely not. I had applied to appease others.
My indecisiveness stems from this weak sense of self. I am never sure what the correct decision for me is in society’s eyes, so I let other people persuade me one way or the other. That way, I don’t have to make a decision for myself. It is probably partly so that I will be accepted, partly because I don’t want to disappoint, and partly so that I don’t have to take full responsibility for the repercussions of my decision if it turns out to be the wrong one.
I have never felt more indecisive than during my time at Smith. I’m not sure if it is the competitive environment, or the importance of the decisions I am making. Probably a combination of both. I am always the last one of my friends to set my schedule at the beginning of the semester, waiting the full two weeks before being forced by the college to make a decision already. In the meantime, the poor souls I call my friends must listen to every pro and con of each class and professor I am considering. I bore them with such ridiculousness because I can’t make a decision, but a little part of me always wonders if I unconsciously feel my problems are more important than theirs. It’s as if my life takes precedence over their lives; they should focus on me until whatever I am struggling with is resolved. Am I constantly bugging them, and do they just tune-me-out after a while? Maybe it’s my “golden child” persona creeping in whenever I need people.
This year has been no different. Actually it has been different -- more difficult. I have made and am making some of the hardest decisions of my life. Trying to prioritize the different compartments of my life into what is important and what is not is a trying task because everything is important! Do I take that leadership position that would be a great experience and help me develop important skills, or do I turn it down to spend more time with my friends? This is our senior year and our time together is precious.
Not all things in my life are about my indecisiveness. I am not curled up in the fetal position rocking back and forth all day deciding what to have for dinner. I know I am independent, strong, and capable. I like to think that some of my indecision comes from me trying to be a good person. For example, not wanting anyone to feel upset, or just trying to get the most out of my life. I often ask, why can’t I do both? And sometimes, I can.
In my little world of yo-yo thought, I know I can make one solid decision. I know what I ultimately want. I yearn for it, dream about how it would feel, and what kind of person I would become if I had it. This one goal trumps all other goals. “She just wants --” to be sure.
I got tired of lying about who I am. Yes, I’m grateful to philanthropists who have supported my academic career since high school. Through their support my mother did not have to worry about the already low tuition at my public high school, nor about the more expensive book fees. Through their support I discovered the world, having lived the first seventeen years of my life holding onto my mother’s apron as they say. I had never gone to boarding school before that. The first few months living at my aunt’s house during the summer were some of the most challenging moments of my childhood. And still at that moment when I was offered a chance to leave, none of this came to mind. I was very, very excited.
But in another way, I didn’t have a choice. The year I left, there were four scholarships for Norway, India, Canada and the U.S. The final candidates were chosen from a pool of more than a thousand students who sat for the end-of-high-school exam that year. How could I or my family turn down such an opportunity? The decision wasn’t just about us.
When I was in New Mexico, the growing pains continued. True enough, all of the two-hundred students in the international school had traveled from afar, and we were able to empathize with one another. But there was a lot of personal grieving as well for our mothers, sisters, brothers, cousins, food, that red soil that you just wanted to kneel down and kiss but couldn’t.
I sat on a shrink’s couch for the first time. I cried aloud, and with more force, than I’m yet to see again into my roommate Anna’s arms. Poor soul, I know now that she had no idea what to do with me for me and was terrified!
The school I went to, the United World College, has the grandest ideals: to have international understanding, to be committed to international understanding at that, to build bridges and resolve conflict (and I mean on the scale of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). We basically understood that we were to become the leaders of our own countries and the leaders of the world. Somewhere in the fabric of this beautifully embroidered world view, I – and maybe others, too – ignored the necessity for healing. You can’t just bring Palestinians and Israelis to the table and expect them to shake hands. People have tried that for three decades. Both sides have lost so much, people are still hurting and living in fear. Their psyches have been affected and even skewed, and mine has, too.
I don’t even know the full spectrum of what I have to heal from in order to build bridges as I move forward. I have lost – part of a beautiful country. Their frontier was leaving us jammed in the (beautiful) mountains - they are beautiful, I’ll give you that – with only eleven percent arable land. Over the years, we have seen so much erosion, and climate change tells the unending story of droughts and famine.
I have lost, we have lost, a culture that was vilified out of existence. Our society was so beautiful and always contained what the West brought in as “new ideas:” sex education, giving birth, faith, healthy living and exercise, social and political organization. But just because our system didn’t look like their own, ours was less worthy and now we have neither system. We are caught somewhere in between, and in order to move forward, everyone needs to get their bearings: figure out where we started, the change that happened and how to take the next step.
When I left home, I was given an incredible opportunity for growth. Separated from my mother and left to make mistakes out of ignorance, thereby gaining a great sense of accomplishment when I figured it out. But now I have to stop. I have to stop taking things just because they are offered. In these twenty-three years, an individual has formed, with her own opinions, her own desires, her own ideas about how things should be done. And yet it seems that someone is always there, threatening to put me on a leash. That voice, those voices, say, “American medical schools are great. You have great medical schools, too, BUT there’s a lot of violence in South Africa. With an American M.D., you can practice anywhere in the world, blah, blah, blah.” Well, what they don’t say is that American schools are long and expensive. What they don’t consider is that I will be navigating the system. Wherever I choose to be, I will be living and breathing that life every day, and maybe I don’t want to. Regardless of powerful people’s intentions, this is not some chess game where they are the mastermind and I am the pawn. Growing pains - I will be the one suffering from the growing pains, and I want to choose where I will be and how I will do what I want to do.
It took me until college to realize that the quintessential American town I came from was such a unique experience. Bayside is a suburb inseparable from its neighbors, and the city it echoes is too far away to actually know. I grew up in a world where right and wrong were more or less clearly defined, or so I thought. The expectations were high, and I set my own expectations, both for myself and my community, even higher. My town was filled with yellow school buses, successful sports teams, manicured lawns, homecoming queens, and school orchestras that traveled to the Czech Republic. The views of the mountains, ocean, and ferry boats are absolutely spectacular. Opportunities were readily available: to participate in extracurricular activities, to be academically challenged in the public school system, even as a “gifted and talented” student. Anyone could be happy, successful, and rich if they just applied themselves…and wore the right clothes, lived in the right neighborhood, and cracked the right jokes. Anything was possible.
Fortunately, my family was a good Bayside family, and we worked together to maintain beautiful flower and vegetable gardens, and even my dad took piano lessons and my mom participated in book clubs. They, too, carried strong values for a good education, and life seemed to run seamlessly, with family ski trips and quips about tidying one’s room.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I came to realize my family’s façade, much like my town’s. My parents never discussed emotion or examined personal struggles in depth. The stories were of the strength of independence and of success and possibility. I came to internalize their valuing of emotionally and financially supporting oneself. If I quit anything, I felt like a failure; when I was actively involved, I felt like a success.
During the years I was in elementary school, my family went on a “big family vacation” each year. We traveled to Scotland and Costa Rica, Turkey and Greece, and learned about American History, driving between Maine and Georgia. Some people argue that it’s a waste to travel with kids because they’ll never remember the great places that they have seen, but they were some of my most influential childhood experiences. First of all, my parents could find amazing beaches to swim at, even if I had to put on sunscreen a million times and wear a t-shirt while swimming. Second of all, they seemed to meet all of our needs for food and shelter as well as finding things for us to do with only snip-its of the languages we’d learned from cassette tapes during dinner in the weeks preceding our trips. But most importantly, they showed me a larger world, where people ate different things and toilets didn’t work in the same way, but where people would welcome us into their shops for tea and backgammon and the kids liked to color and play, just like me.
By the time I was in high school, I partook in sports, music, and community service, like many of my peers. I earned good grades, but not even the best when I tried. I struggled between the conflicting goals of differentiating myself and trying to fit in. I felt like I was distinguished from my peers in both positive and a negative light, for both my leadership positions and awards as well as my lack of a boyfriend and my “disinterest” in attending the monthly school dances. I relied on my friends to share laughter and secrets.
I spent a lot of time in these community service groups-planning projects and reaching out to parts of the community with which I had never previously crossed paths. I think it joined me together with peers with similar values and helped me feel needed and important. One of my friends and I got so into it that we planned and presented a workshop for middle school students about the importance and the benefits of actively partaking in service learning.
I sent out applications to escape the idealistic high school that was not turning out to be ideal for me, and to explore the world. I landed in Switzerland for my junior year. A kind person on the airplane taught me to count to ten in German, the language I would work to command over the coming eleven months, and I joined a new family, a new school, and a new community, whose values and expectations would take the whole year to try and understand. Though I did study abroad again in college, I think that it was really this experience as a sixteen-year old struggling to define herself that really awoke me to the possibilities and the differences of expectations that people could have for me. Every time someone questions my values and beliefs, I have to decide whether that person’s case is convincing enough for me to change my opinions, or if my original idea is reinforced and solidified. It was also really my first “chance” at financial and emotional independence, as I had left my friends and family behind in the United States.
Coming home for my senior year was a bit like walking into an American movie. It was still a “wonderland” – I continued to excel at sports and music, and was challenged by my AP classes. But I also felt worlds apart from it. Seeing as if I had new eyes, I found my high school friends stratified into a caste system of stereotypes. In the course of our twenty-minute lunch period, groups of friends would squish around a single table, pulling seats away from other tables until only one person remained, sitting alone in a busy cafeteria.
Now, as I’m thinking about careers and what I want to do with my life, some of those high school values are still salient. Despite my personal struggles of identity in high school, I still feel a strong need to give back to the community and world which has given me so many opportunities. My community expects me to excel at what I do. I had the privilege of growing up in Bayside as well as going to Smith, and I still expect myself to give back.
Once upon a time there lived a woman who we will refer to from now on as All Powerful Being. Before attending the Prestigious Progressive Idealistic Institution of Higher Learning, she never thought she would marry and was hopelessly devoted to perfection in academics. Her teachers considered her the “golden child.” After a brief encounter with a boy who shall not be named, who dominated her life and prevented her from making friends, she found outlets for her independence in running, bird watching and chorus. After graduation her magic powers consisted of being a literate reader-editor extraordinaire, which she put to good use conversing articulately with the unsuspecting youth of her kingdom about the power of words, and covering their pitiful attempts at literary analysis with red pen marks, single-handedly upholding the integrity of the English language.
On Mother’s Day, a very special day, the All Powerful Being gave birth to a beautiful baby girl with golden curls and bright blue eyes. The girl was a bubbly, smiling, bundle of energy and joy. Her name was Juliana. On paper the girl appeared to have a charmed life in many ways. She was white, heterosexual, able bodied, from a two highly educated parent upper middle class family in a wealthy, safe town with a good school system. She came from privilege. There were so many things going for her. How could she do anything but succeed?
Any woman who gives birth on Mother’s Day is granted the first wish that comes into her mind. All Powerful Being was so enamored of her beautiful baby girl that her first thought was that she wanted this girl to remain a child forever. All Powerful Being got her wish with the consequences for better and for worse. All Powerful Being was an incredible mother who taught her children many things and cherished taking advantage of teachable moments and reading to her children. Her daughter, Juliana, turned out to be a responsible and happy young adult. All Powerful Being regretted that she had to give up her magic powers as literate reader editor extraordinaire and transform them into magical powers as “Household CEO.”
After the daughter reached the height of 4’10,” the spell started to take its toll. The girl never grew taller and never developed a “real women have curves” body. The girl yearned to appear wispy and sophisticated and to be a part of the adult world. She spent time talking with teachers at recess, and with older relatives at holiday meals, instead of talking with cousins. The girl carried herself with dignity and did not make a big deal about her height. She felt no need to compensate for her youthful appearance by wearing high heels or dressing up in fancy clothes to make her appear older. This attitude enabled her to go through school without being picked on.
The All Powerful Being, who herself had gained self confidence and a feeling of power from running, had seen her daughter’s stamina and recognized the potential to give her daughter the same sense of independence and assurance. She encouraged her daughter to try running. Juliana, influenced by her internalized expectation that absolutely everything was worth trying at least once for a little bit, agreed to start running. She fell in love with the sport and was soon so addicted to running that she became antsy if she did not get a chance to get out and run.
As Ms. Juliana ran alone on the levee along the Connecticut River one morning, the sun was just rising to her right. Because of the angle of the sun her shadow cast long across the water, making her look tall. Something special about the way the light hit the water caused a rainbow bubble to form around her on the grass by the river. Her arms pumping, her stride long and powerful, she was moving under her own power. She felt like she was on top of the world.
Juliana felt very privileged to come from the background she had and to have the opportunities she was given. She wanted to give back to the community by teaching the next generation whatever she could. Being faced with the image of a body that looked like that of a preadolescent every time she looked in the mirror did not help her feel competent. Her students stood next to her, measured across with their hand to compare heights and then pointed out “I’m almost as tall as you.” Juliana felt frustrated and no longer wanted to be a child forever. But maybe she did. Juliana liked to act goofy, was easily entertained by small activities, and had a short attention span just like the preschoolers and early elementary school students she wanted to teach. Perhaps being a teacher would help her tap into her inner child, but still require her to be the adult. Young children respect authority and anyone who is older and would love her unconditionally. Juliana felt comfortable in the classroom on the floor or in furniture made for children which she fit into better than the large furniture in the classrooms at the Make Change the World Institution of Higher Learning.
Juliana had a pretty strong female role model in the All Powerful Being, but she grew into her own person at the Make Change in the World Institution. Being at a women’s college let Juliana make close friendships without the constant obsession over boys. Juliana did not feel like a wispy sophisticated woman whom men would be interested in. She looked like a child, for goodness sake. Finding a life partner was not on the top her priorities, yet although she loved romantic comedies and romances in stories. The All Powerful Being had found her match without really trying at the end of college, and Juliana felt confident that she would find the right one without the drama of dating. For the moment she was content to focus on developing her body through running and her mind through academics.
The Make Change in the World institution got Juliana to think critically about education as a means for community building and social constructivism. Education and learning for its own sake were valued at the Make Change in the World institution. Teachers could make a positive, valuable difference in the world. Education was not just seen as a profession to fall back on if something more prestigious didn’t come along.
The forming of words put together to produce a life. A life filled with pain, struggle and depression. A way to live a life: by being positive and appreciating all that you have. Then there is another way, one that views life as negative and not worth living. This way was all I have ever known. My writing expresses and represents my life: poems, memoirs and journal entries. These are pieces of me, of my soul, and they have saved me. They are my life-savers, my tools for survival.
Now, at this point in my life, I want to change. I don’t want to be negative, sad or bitter concerning life. I don’t want to dwell on what I’ve lost or what could have been. I don’t want to be selfish. I want to look at what I have and appreciate it. I want to be strong and confident. I want to be what my mother has hoped for me. I want her to be proud of me. Being happy is my goal, and what I most desire. With this new self, I will have the ability to achieve happiness.
With this aim and plan in mind, I find myself at a crossroads, in a contradiction. By being happy and positive, will I betray the self that I have come to know and accept? Changing my attitude would mean looking at my writing as the representation of a bad self. But my writing helped me to survive and to continue living when I left helpless. How could I look at it with disdain? To me, the most beautiful poems are about sadness. How could I write about happiness? I would lose my creativity—and how could I live without that?
I guess no matter how you change for the better, you still lose something of yourself in the process. In order to change my life for the better, I had to let go of my father. I still mourn his absence. Knowing that someone whom I adore, who has a face similar to mine, is aging and getting closer to death without me, is hard. But I had to make that sacrifice to create a better life for myself. I’ve come to terms with the loss of a parent, but I don’t think I can let go of my writing.
What is a life without struggles or mistakes to learn from? Now I feel that I am embracing my pain and depression. With my poems and memoirs I have honored these emotions and damaging experiences. I have learned so much as a result. The life I have lived so far contradicts with the changes that I want to make; I am confused when I try to understand who I am.
I guess the point of life is not knowing. No one knows what the future is going to bring. Life would not be worth living if it were otherwise. I am still struggling within myself to find the answers to the endless questions of my life, but I guess its okay. Or maybe it isn’t. I don’t have the answer to that question either.
A junior exchange student
Now, I am in America. It has been already four months since I came here. Living in America and meeting new people from all over the world had been my one of my biggest wishes since I was in elementary school student. Whenever I watched American movies, especially about schools, they were so fascinating. Students looked like they had so much freedom in school; they did not need to wear ugly and uncomfortable school uniforms, and they could have any hairstyle they wanted. “Oh my god,” I would think, “there is even a couple kissing in the school hallway!” That was unimaginable in my country. I liked watching shows in which girls talked about their prom dates, and got dressed-up. Everything looked so fun – and they didn’t look like they were suffering from examination hell.
Some of my friends went to high school in America, but I could not. My parents said, “You are too young to be apart from us.” So it was my dream to go abroad during college, to study in America. Finally, I became a college student at Ewha Womans University, which is in South Korea. There was an exchange program, which meant our college would give students opportunities to study at American colleges. It looked fascinating to everyone; we could even go to private colleges while paying our regular tuition -- which was a lot cheaper than the tuition at Smith. It was pretty competitive to become a visiting student at Smith, so I tried really hard to get high grades.
For the first few months here – actually, still – it was pretty hard to understand what American people were talking about. Some people speak really fast. It’s different in other ways, too. Students are willing to say their opinions and they feel free to talk to professors. There is a real couple kissing on the street.
Now that I am looking at those real people -- not at movies – it’s pretty interesting. The most interesting thing is that all students live on campus. They can hang out and talk whenever they want, which is really nice. I sometimes miss my friends and parents in Korea so much, but many people I’ve met at Smith have been so nice to me. I am lucky to have the chance to meet people from all different backgrounds, and to have made one of my biggest dreams come true: Being a visiting student and living in America.
An Ada Comstock Scholar
She spent so much time giving and nurturing, intuitively knowing others’ feelings and needs. She attended without thinking, without prompting, without needing to be asked. Giving was receiving. It was a gift, a talent she possessed. It was who she was.
She began having small twinges of inner pain, an emptiness that hurt. What is this? What does it mean? What is necessary to care for and nurture this discomfort? She shrugged her shoulders and carried on with what was set out in front of her. Unknowingly, she gave more, got less, and all the while she thought she was filling and nurturing this discomfort deep within herself.
The twinges began to grow larger, the emptiness deeper, it opened up to a great dark abyss. It hurt more and becoming increasingly difficult to shrug off and march on. An inner voice said, “You need to take care of yourself.” But instead, she gave more and more, without being selective, depleting her energies. She was unconscious and unaware, doing only what she knew so well. She had no plan, no direction for herself. “Go where you are needed, huddle them all in close, and make sure everyone is feeling good, well cared for.” Some of them demanded from her, others expected, and some were just there. She continued to nourish others, dispensing her last drop. The good feelings she had felt through this endless nurturing did not last as long, they were not as fulfilling. She became tired, a tiredness that was bone deep. A tiredness that sleep could not quench. She did not understand, she was dancing as fast as she could. Why was this not working as well as it had been?
She had inner conflict, mixed feelings, messages and thoughts. Some said, give to your parents, give to your friends, and take care of those you love. If you see a need, take care of it. But she was empty. She did not know who she was. Worst of all, she did not know where others ended and she began. Others said, “Take care of yourself, be good to yourself, and ask for what you need.” She had no idea what that meant. Take care of yourself; she did this by taking care of others. Be good to yourself; how selfish. Ask for what you need; never, if others do not give to you freely it is not authentic, they do not want to, and you are not worthy.
But a day came when she heard the voice of inner wisdom: “Take care of yourself like you take care of others. Tell yourself you are an important, worthwhile person who deserves to be cared for and nurtured. Be as kind and loving to yourself as you are to others. Nurture the nurturer.” This would be her only way out of the lonely and destructive place where she was quietly dying from the outside-in.
An Adad Comstock Scholar
I’ve taken risks all of my life, even after the childhood accident that left me no longer able to run or practice ballet steps or to roller skate – which was my life. The passion I had for dance and skating would be internalized and redirected. Cerebral risk-taking was now for me.
High school introduces me to the Debate Club: I apply and am accepted. I enjoy it and excel at it. Then one day, I see a television show called Private Secretary. “Susie McNamara,” the character who plays a hotel manager’s secretary, is much smarter than he, more organized, and does her job and most of his job - in spite of her boss. That’s what I want to be when I graduate, a secretary – personal, private, or confidential – it doesn’t matter. Of course, this is during a time in U.S. history when businessmen (yes, men) were not hiring women like me (a woman of color), and if they did, it was as office cleaning women. No matter. A secretarial job is what I want and that is what I’ll get several times in my lifetime, with different titles. I will work in a Fortune 25 corporation (correspondence supervisor, then promoted to stock transfer agent ), toil in a highly prestigious international academic foundation (Fulbright scholars), languish and resign from the only women’s foundation at the time (personality differences between me and the woman director – she was a tyrant and I wasn’t subservient enough), and mentally stretch in a world famous copyright law firm (as legal administrator).
Way to go! But, what is the next risk you will take? Why not tutor English to college students from different parts of the world? They need help with increasing their English skills, and you have the time to offer help. Viola! You are named the 2005 Volunteer of the Year for your community college, and are entering your sixteenth year as a volunteer English tutor.
And yet, the adventure of traveling was missing. Through the Elderhostel Program I will find a service program that needs and wants me. Hooray! I have chosen to go to the Navajo Reservation in Cameron, Arizona, fifty miles north of Flagstaff, to tutor elementary age students. But, I hate children. They are a blight on the planet. Yes, but these children have never met any people who did not live on the reservation. This is a dream come true: I will be on an airplane going over 600 miles per hour, I will see a real Indian reservation, and they need my English skills and anything else I can offer the children.
Please God, don’t let any teacher ask me what “present-perfect-continuous” means, because I have not been formally trained as an English teacher, and I do not know the answer.
Not to worry. The kids are adorable, funny, and smart and they love all of us, even me with my very obvious limp. They want to know what states we come from, how far we’ve traveled, if we have children “like” them, meaning the same ages, and last, if we will stay with them and not leave.
Maria is one of the most beautiful little girls I have ever seen. Her hair is black with navy blue highlights; her skin color is darker than mine, like the darkest walnut, and she has the biggest and most lustrous brown eyes God ever created. All of the tutors – perhaps twenty – are asked to sit with the children in the cafeteria during their lunch period. Maria sits next to me, and at the end of lunch she grabs me around the waist and holds on for dear life. She looks up at me and says something in Navajo. I am told that she is saying that I am her black mother. How can that be?! I hate children. How can she feel that way about me?! She doesn’t know that I am thinking, “I wish I could take her home with me.” It doesn’t matter. I hug her back and she holds me tighter.
Almost before we know it, the two weeks have gone and we have to return home. I arrange to stay an extra day to return to the school, visit all of the teachers, help the children in each classroom ... and see Maria for the last time. The day ends; the children file out of the classroom and pile into the bus.
Where is Maria?! I am frantic. I must say goodbye. I find her in the third bus and she runs to me. We hold each other for a few minutes. The bus driver clears his throat and I get off the bus. Maria and I wave to each other, but my tears blur my eyes. Maria is gone. Someday very soon, I must return to the Cameron School and, if possible, find out if Maria is all right.
Do I want to write about Devon? I don’t think I have the strength, but here goes. We were told before we reached the reservation, that Navajo children are not touched, kissed, or spoiled the way America children are. To this day I do not know if that is true. I do know that a boy at the school was very hyper and may have had some sort of attention deficit disorder. In the beginning, I spent a great deal of time calling Devon’s name over and over again to get his attention. Naptime for him and the other children was a nightmare. He couldn’t seem to sit or lay still enough to fall asleep. I decided to lay down with him. As he lay flat on the floor, I stroked his back then his stomach. Amazingly, he fell asleep for the full half hour naptime. The teachers, children and other volunteers got a chance to relax because Devon was asleep and not racing around the room being disruptive. At other times, I simply held Devon and rocked him until he fell asleep. After the first time, other children wanted their backs and stomachs rubbed or they wanted to be held until they, too, fell sleep. Oh, to be an Octopus.
What new risks shall I take now? Almost as an afterthought, during the course of this exercise I wrote down that I would like to return to the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and tutor English in Cameron again, or go to Australia. Working with the Aborigines – good lord, what have the English or the English language ever done for them? After seeing a show on the indigenous people in Maori, New Zealand, I thought about going there, too. Perhaps after I am certified as a Teacher of English as a Foreign Language, I will apply to all three places. With determination and perseverance, I can network with Smith alumnae who live around the world and may know of such opportunities. I would definitely commit to such tutoring/teaching projects for two years. But what about opening my English Language Tutoring Business?
What am I afraid of? What are the personal risks of living in a foreign country so far away from my family and friends? And do I really want to run another business? I love work, but not the administration of a business – buying paper clips and sending out invoices was not for me.
The excitement of seeing students’ happy and confident faces when they’ve done a good job at pronouncing a word correctly or writing a complete sentence gives me the same excitement and rush that I feel when a jet plane is racing down the runway before taking off – before soaring into the sky. I love to soar!
An Ada Comstock Scholar
As a 58-year old senior at Smith College, I have been immersed in questions about the future. However, recently, I took a brief look at what I have learned from the past. I realized that sometimes people have conveyed great wisdom to me, and they have often done so without verbalizing it. They have instead conveyed it simply by the manner in which they have lived their lives. And there have also been times when a crisis or ordinary circumstance holds a nugget of wisdom unappreciated until years later. The following examples are recorded at random here in hopes that others might appreciate some of the wisdom which has blessed my life.
Barb, the First Boss:It is ok to say “No”. Strong women often say no and they often do not.
It is good to serve your own well being—it allows you to give more freely to others.
Vera, the Fourth Boss: Try to solve problems before seeking help. You will feel more empowered and the solution may be more creative. On the other hand, avoid a life of crisis management; seek help in a timely manner.
A sense of humor is more fun than perfection or a clean desk.
One can choose to die, and it will be magnificent.
Debbie the Dirt Eater (after eating dirt when we were six): Plants have a close relationship to dirt, but what works for one being doesn’t necessarily work for another.
David the Bully (first grade): If you are going to say something unkind about someone, say it to their face or not at all.
Grandma: Good sex is good.
People on airplanes: If a person hurts you, are they to blame if they are incapable of being any different?
Your mother has hurt you. Your mother is never going to change because she can’t change. You are not your mother.
Mac the Mentor: Disappointments and unrealized goals are often the soils that make you bloom.
Part of being intelligent is recognizing an opportunity when you see the sun glint off something among the stones. Run back and look at those sparkles which catch your inner eye—there could be a jewel there.
It is ok to make money. Greed, not wealth, is the culprit. In terms of money, one always has the choice of taking the high road or the low road. There is a belief that good people should not desire to make money. On the contrary, it is the idealistic, generous people who should make money because they will share it and be wise guardians of its power.
If you believe that all your decisions are in stone then they will become the prison walls around you. Decisions and their results often depend on circumstances, not your efforts. One type of decision making doesn’t fit all problems.
If you have been severely hurt, mistreated, or tortured by the forces of evil and madness, you can still triumph—choose to live a meaningful life.
Bad Bill: Love does not grow in toxic soil. Toxic relationships become sludge in your life and create all the associated effects of sludge.
Fred the Irishman: Sometimes laughing at inappropriate times is important.
Don’t forget to sing and dance, and ask others to share such with you.
Periodically run wild in the woods and be out of control.
What a joy it ‘tis to take off that business suit and jump buck naked into the Bay.
A good joke can disarm your opponent and often builds bridges.
Howard at Lunch: Expect change to be good. Change à challenge à creativity.
Emma the Mentor: Synergy exists, accessible through consciousness. Synergistic events are like sign posts. Watch for them along the journey.
Use all your tools for making decisions: intuition, rationality, research, and consultation.
Intuition is a subtle melody at first, barely discernable in the background, but with practice it becomes a symphony.
Consciousness is knowing the reasons for the changes you make and the relationships you accumulate in your life. It is also the source of eliminating clutter and toxic people from your life.
Barbara the Mentor: Getting things done in good times or crisis requires focus, flexibility, planning, and perseverance.
Being strong doesn’t mean you never ask for help.
Always surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.
You can do absolutely anything you deeply desire to do.
Jo Ann the Mentor: Maybe the dividing line between work, play, and education shouldn’t be there at all.
If you have to accept a job you dislike, there is no reason why you can’t alter that job in some way to make it better—think of it in terms of improving poor soil.
While you are worrying about time passing by, it does.
If you want something, speak about it with clarity. Otherwise, you’ll get what somebody else wanted.
Rumi: It makes absolutely no difference what another person thinks about you.
Thoreau: If you want to know the Truth about your life, spend a lot of time alone in the woods or by the river examining the laws and the relationships of Nature.
Waiting room of a hospital, mystical experience: The existence of Spirit shows up at unexpected times and in unexpected ways in your life. Try to call it in when needed.
Jack the Client: There is rarely any decision which cannot be deferred for 24 hours.
Don the Yoga Teacher: We don’t change without consistent introspection and delving deeper. It is our responsibility to pay attention and cultivate our own awareness. The right answer for one is often the wrong answer for another.
Observe your own fear and develop a relationship with it. This will subdue reactivity.
Responding with moments of silence can sometimes empower you more than speaking your response.
If you want to understand who a person really is, watch them struggle with their self-expectations.
Milton the Scholar: Beauty and education often intersect and take you on a glorious journey.
Mike the Course Leader: If you have a dream and someone says “no”, be persistent. Stand in the question of “what if”.
Quit stepping over things which don’t work in your life.
Anne the Writing Teacher: Pay attention. Tell the Truth.
Me, the Organizer: Once a year make a list of what is working and not working in your life. Know that you don’t necessarily have to take action immediately; this will defer any anxiety which might minimize your ability to think and plan effectively.
Title of painting on gallery wall at Cape Cod Community College: Judging yourself on experience outside of your own.
Yoga Scholar George’s 14-year old son when asked how to explain spiritual matters: Gee, Dad, isn’t it all about whether you learn to love or you don’t?
Students wrote these poems after listening to selections from Beverly Rollwagen's book, She Just Wants (Nodin Press, 2004)
She just wants to meet Virginia Woolf
To ask her if Nicole Kidman hit the nail on the head with her portrayal in “The Hours”
Or whether Ms. Woolf considered herself to be a bit more regal, or fair?...
She just wants to know how Virginia Woolf prefers to be addressed
As Virginia, Mrs. Woolf, VW, Lady of the House, Virgie
And could she be playful sometimes?...
She just wants to ask Virginia Woolf how it feels
To be so widely read and admired around the world,
And did she know, and did it matter,
As she slipped those huge rocks into the pockets of her housedress?...
She just wants to touch Virginia Woolf
To know if her tears taste salty too,
And are her hands soft or rough?
And did she like to touch? And did she like to be touched?
She just wants to chat with Virginia Woolf,
Cup of tea in hand;
To ask whether she liked Marlene Dietrich,
And did she feel that America was too self-righteous,
And what did she think about when she went for those long, winding walks?...
She just wants to see Virginia Woolf
And to know,
Did she wonder? And did she smile?
And did she hear the whistle of the wind,
Lying awake in her canopy bed at night?
She just wants to feel complete, not always, but sometimes. She knows it is impossible to feel whole and complete all of the time.
She just wants to be stronger and braver and more mature. She wants to be noticed, respected and trusted. She wants to be loved and admired for her wisdom by wise people.
She just wants to be free. Free from conflicting desires and free to do things. She wants to run and dance in the rain and sing loud. She wants to have the freedom not to pay attention to what others think about her.
She just wants peace and a home near her parents in her own country. She wants many books, a small garden, a bike and a job that makes her happy. She wants to enjoy the summer evenings when the weather is heavy with smell of Jasmine. She wants a good poetry book and a cup of tea. She wants a good companion whom she can trust in.
She just wants her country to be peaceful and she will do everything she can to bring peace. She wants her family united and together and her friends happy.
She just wants to be in a world with less bad news, less poverty, no wars and many happy children.
She wants to be able to run away whenever she is tired. She wants a place where she can hide occasionally and she wants to travel.
She just wants to be confident.
Speaking loudly in a large group,
commanding respect. So sure of
herself that she doesn’t waste time
wondering what everyone else is thinking about her.
She wants to take risks without lying awake at night
calculating every possible outcome of her choices,
flicking on the light and
reaching for a pen to
write endless lists of pros and cons.
She wants to
She wants to make a choice and stand by it,
She wants to know.
She just wants to be confident.
She just wants to be respected
Not given a children’s menu at restaurants
Not carded at PG-13 movies
Not mistaken for a child in a class of children she is teaching
She just wants to be recognized for who she really is
Not patronized or told how young she looks
Not looked at in surprise when she reveals her true age
Not patted on the head and told she is cute
She just wants to be seen as a competent adult
not be judged based on her appearance
not shy about asking for help reaching something on high shelf
not seen with her feet dangling inches from the floor while sitting in class
If you knew her then you would know
Know that she can bound up hills and probably run faster and farther than you can
and admire her for her endurance
know that she loves working with children and has potential to change their lives
and admire her for her dedication and compassion
know that she is a proud daughter of a mother who is an All Powerful Being and a father who is Just Plain Dad
and admire her for her strong roots in a stable loving family
know that she went to a “women’s college without boys not a girls school without men”
and admire her for self assurance and semi-feminist ideology
know that she does not lie, drink, or swear
and respect the choices and decisions that she has made
know that she chronically arrives early and wonders where everyone is
and admire her for her punctuality
She just wants to be respected without needing to put up a façade of a tall, glamourous, risk taking woman to get what she wants
An Ada Comstock Scholar
She just wants to be content
pleased with her status and position
feeling no more the need to prove herself
She just wants to be comfortable
her home decorated the way she wants
the sun spattered patio deck with early morning visitors
entertainment provided by the diners at the bird feeder
She just wants to wear that red dress
because it feels so damn good
She just wants to live
without restraint and without rules
She just wants to soar
the wind in her hair
her destination where ever her gaze falls
These "I Am From" poems were sparked by an exercise taken from Can We Talk About Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation by Beverly Daniel Tatum Ph.D. (Beacon Press, 2007)
I am from the mountains. My childhood traveled from the city to the countryside, from the crowded streets to a garden full of birds, rain and trees and a little stream where I put my feet in to feel the cold fresh water.
We traveled. I left the dolls behind and all the toys I had. There was war in my hometown. We couldn’t stay. There were gunshots every night and mother was worried.
When we went to another city and we stayed in the house with the big garden, things changed. I was afraid of airplanes because they were loud and they would bomb and probably we would have to travel again.
I am from a war torn country, but it has beautiful mountains. The garden was big. We didn’t have electricity, so mom burned wood to cook. It smelled good, although the smoke bothered my eyes.
I was a bad child. I wouldn’t listen to mom, not like my sister, and mom shouted at me. Father didn’t; he thought I was smart and he asked me to read poetry to him, loud. I would read to his friends, too. They would be impressed and they clapped for me.
I didn’t like my grandmother. She didn’t tell us stories as much as other grandmothers did, and she always blamed mom for not having sons.
Mother always worked. She was in the kitchen and she cooked and prepared and took care of my father when he was sick. Grandmother always complained.
I would escape to garden sometimes. I sat by the pond and looked at the reflection of sun in the pond. I would follow the direction of leaves with my eyes.
We immigrated to another country. We had to flee for a safer, better life. My English teacher was tall and handsome. He liked me because he didn’t have a sister and because I always did my homework and got good grades.
I am from the mountains; they are high, proud and silent. I am from the garden; it sings and dresses in a thousand colors. I am from the northern part of my country; people are polite and hospitable there. I am also from the capital; it is loud and crazy and exciting.
Mom wants us to be proud and reserved.
Father likes us strong and hopeful.
I am from places I don’t remember
Manhattan/Pineapple Street in Brooklyn Heights/Beijing/301 Buckmister Drive in Norwood, Massachusetts
I am from homes with kitchens that have cutting boards and rectangle knives and stoves that cook
Eggs in many forms.
I am from places that snow in winter, where the crunch of fresh steps is not unfamiliar.
I am from smells of lilies, mothballs, sun-block, ballet shoes, running shoes, heat, crispiness,
sunshine, brownies, and tears.
Shy, bossy, pretty, poor, sweet, creative, mean, secretive, lazy, scared, selfish, rich, reasonable, disobedient, happy, cold, scared, distant, free, restless, independent, stubborn, calm.
I am from a house where I hid for hours in a basement closet or slept in the bathtub when I was
ad at my parents.
An Ada Comstock Scholar
I am from a world that doesn't fit
two halves, neither complete
I long for the smells
and hate the words
love the music and the silence
there can be no communication
I am from
two different people
that didn't know each other
I am from a space and time
the one shining moment of
a disregarded love
They loved each other
They hated each other
and so it continues
I love them and yet I've hated them
I am from confusion made clear
I am from words never spoken
I am from all the remains of my father
I am from all the hopes of my mother
I am from:
A place where snow falls and mountains are tall.
Where food is hot and flavorful.
I am from:
A loving family
With incredible friends, and undeniable loyalty.
I am from
A world of peers
Where no hierarchy of maturity exists.
Where expectations started high and have only gotten higher.
I am from
Beautiful and eclectic music
And more activities than necessary
From a home, not a house.
I am from
food and motion
Events and everyday
I am from the land of "timing and audience"
Where everything has an appropriate place
I am from
Respecting and admiring the past
Where building upon, is valued above starting over.
I am from tree hugging and big city enrapture
Only because I know my support system is always beside me.
I am from
Star gazing and embracing science, math and books.
A hungry for knowledge place, that is never satisfied.
Where their expectations are nothing compared to my own.
An Ada Comstock Scholar
I am from thunderstorms in the night, and bird sounds in the morning.
I am from “no you can’t” and “you should”.
I am from a prison of lies and ignorance,
Freed by the beauty of nature and the kindness of others,
By the sounds of cicadas, by the smells of ragweed and cows.
Blue-sky country roads and wheels spinning in the yellow sun.
Red tractors, cornfields, fried chicken, and banjos—that’s where I’m from.
Pudgy, little girl, black-long curls bobbing, pink cheeks of shame.
I am from mymother’s polyester personality, from her prison of pain,
her smoke-filled brain.
I am from my father’s coveralls tending the strawberry patch,
And his rose garden of pastel love;
I am from then. I from now.
I am from nothing and everything.
Student Narratives from the "Inventing a Life: The First Year of College and Beyond" Workshop 2008
A first-year student
I grew up living in a dream that I don't think I could have thought-up if I had tried. I was a tomboy in New Hampshire, the "Live Free or Die" state. I wanted nothing but knowledge, famliy and friends, because I had everything materialistic that I could have wanted. I took things for granted. I did not realize, until I later saw how hard it was for my single mother to provide for three kids, how important money can be. Without it, we have to count on other people, and that can be a very hard line to walk.
Recently, I realized that I have spent money on school and things I need for it, like this computer, without thought. I thought I had realized, after the divorce, to be money-conscious -- but something had blinded me to the amounts I was spending.
I want to be even better-off than my parents were when I was growing up, but I do not know how to do that in this day and age. Now, I might need to get a part-time job off-campus to fund my weekend trips to see my boyfriend. And I might have to take him up on his offers to pay for things when we go out. I always felt like I could do it alone, but I am realizing that I might not be able to.
Thinking ahead is something I do well; I mean, most college students do not have investments, especially for retirement. But knowing that that money is there and not here (helping me feel more comfortable) is tough.
I want to be able to pay off my loans when I am out of college, so getting an education that would provide that high-paying job means staying here. I know that I can succeed, and am not afraid to admit to being ambitious.
Ambition can be for money or status, but I like to think to think of it differently. I want to travel and learn all that I can, meeting people along the way. I want to use my abilities towards something bigger than myself, maybe some scientific finding that can be attributed to me. And I'd like to help someone else find the right path for him or her; maybe this will be through having a child, or leading a group of some kind. These are the things I would like to see behind me before I die. I want to appreciate each day that I live, and learn to be the best "me" that I can be.
A first-year student
I want it all. I want a job that I really like, a career that will give me enough money to not only fulfill some of my dreams, but also that will provide me with economic security. I also want a job where I can advance and get some kind of recognition for my work. It does not mean I want to become the next Donald Trump, but I want to be able to feel good about what I have done. I want a job that will enable me to see different parts of the world and give me new ideas -- like when you travel to a new country and see something so great that you try to bring it home with you. I want a job which I can feel proud of, and which will make my mum proud, too. Not that I will anything to please her, but becoming a teacher, for example, I know would break her heart. I want to be so successful that if I see my father, I can say "pip you, you can't hurt us anymore."
The only thing that I don't quite know is what shape my career will take, or what it is that I will be doing. As a child, I wanted to become a Ford car dealer after we had just bought a new, red Ford. Then my dreams about work sort of faded, until a day in fourth grade when I was very into water and underwater animal life, and I realized that I wanted to be a marine biologist. That dream disappeared, however, the day I realized that they mostly live on state grants. Even though I was bad at math, I realized that state grants would never pay for a dark green Jaguar. From then on, I only looked at professions which actually might bring me an income and which I could also like, or at least stand. Respectable jobs within law or finance, or professions like being a commercial pilot.
Secretly, however, I have always wondered (and still do) if I could step foot into interior design. It is one of my major interests, and something that I can focus on for hours, even weeks.The first thing I look at when I come into a new place is the layout of the furniture, what kinds of materials are used, and the colors. I then automatically start thinking about how it might be improved, or what I would have done if it was my room/office. The only think about it, though, is that it's perhaps one of the most competetive industries and I'm one of those people who likes being secure and having a stable environment. Putting it all out there, with almost invisible odds of succeeding, is not worth it. It might become a side-occupation, though, or something that I might deal with indirectly. I can very well see myself working for some kind of company that deals with design, and being located in their financial office.
I could also work with something completely unrelated to design, but since I don't quite know what other professions entail, it is hard to know if they're desirable or not. And I am not one of those individuals who try different things until I'm forty-five, and then decide that maybe I want to become a doctor. I'd prefer to stick to something that I perhaps don't like as much, but that pays well. Many people say that money isn't everything, and I completely agree. But ignoring the fact that money gives more freedom and choices is just dumb and naive. As I said, I want it all.
Student Narratives from The "Get a Life" Workshop 2007
I used to think that knowing yourself meant never crying. And surely knowing yourself meant always being calm, confident, and content, and never changing your mind. No weepy calls home would ever be made. No friendships would ever dissolve. No big unanswered questions would ever linger like oil on Interstate-5 after a summer rain. I thought such weaknesses would (should?) be absent from the life of someone who knew herself. I still think this way sometimes. I wonder how I can have moments of insight— life is a journey, don’t sweat the small stuff— one day and totally forget them the next day. Recently, however, I have started to accept that that the practice of knowing myself can be based on a foundation other than self-criticism.
A few weeks ago someone told me that they didn’t understand my relationship with my mom, my twin, and my home. It was a crucial moment for me, and although, as is often the case, the insight I gained was accompanied by some hurt, I am grateful to this person. My family unit is indeed a little hard to understand. My mom is a true and interesting friend and reservoir of support, but I feel a loyalty and duty to her that is not uncomplicated. My brother makes me feel so happy and whole that sometimes I feel all my other relationships are doomed to be unfulfilling in comparison. Being close with my mom and my brother is critically important to me. It is going to be a part of my future and I am thankful that this is the case. What I realized is that I feel no need to apologize for my attachments or be modest about the love I get from my family. Yet my ongoing exploration of self and my dreams for the future are complicated by the reality that my most fundamental feeling of self is intertwined with these two other people. And to have someone call that out triggered complicated reactions in me.
It made me think about how I fundamentally approach choices and challenges in my life. Before I think in timelines, five years, ten years, fifty years or landmarks, love, career, children, I want to let thrive the elements of my personality that get brow-beat by my tendency to let anxious thoughts and pressures (real or imaginary) paralyze me. At this point in life, as I play with thoughts of my future I am absorbed by trying to practice a new way of knowing myself. My path to success will be easier if I can be myself without feeling the pressure of what other people need me to be, or think I should be. This does mean I want to cut myself from how I affect other people, it just means I want to change my perspective.
I have a friend from home who recently told me that to this day she still says to herself, in times of crisis, "what would Kate do?" This compliment embodies both a dimension of my vision of success for myself and an example of how I need to change the way I process thoughts about myself. I’m not particularly close with this friend anymore, but I am extremely proud that I had a positive and lasting impact on her. I want to continue to live my life in a way that my love for myself, my values, and my outlook, benefit not only me and my personal goals but those around me. I want to be someone that people rely on, confide in, and remember. But I want to be able to hear compliments and celebrate good things about myself without giving in to the accompanying pressures. The feeling that I’m eventually going to let someone down. The fear that someone is going to find out I’m not as smart and charming as I seem. Those are thoughts that I’d like to weed out. When someone gives me a compliment, or says they don’t understand something about me, I want to remember that the most important thing is how I feel about myself. It seems fundamental, simple, but it is much harder than it seems. I want to navigate success by just shifting the way I think about choices and events in my life.
I always wanted to be perfect, because my life wasn’t. Then, like now, I desired to be a ton of different things and do them well. I learned to cut scraps and sew clothes for Barbie with aspirations of being a fashion designer. I drew with dreams of being an artist. I entered poetry contest with hopes of being a poet. I did gymnastics to win a gold medal. I wanted to be good at it and I wanted to love it. I never had the concrete doctor, lawyer, and astronaut ambitions. Just wanted to do what I wanted and everyone to shut up about it.
Most third graders don’t know what life is. They aren’t making life decisions. They don’t drive a car, pay the bills, or do the grocery shopping. Most third graders aren’t recognizing a power within themselves. At eight years old, life’s purpose matters very little in the scheme of recess, naps, and getting your way. Twelve years later, if you include me in a sentence categorizing me as “most” I’m afraid I must correct you. The third grade was when I realized that I was most definitely not most. As growing and thinking people, we must understand that realizations don’t have to mean acceptance, and most never mean understanding, at least not initially.
In the third grade, I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to be surrounded by children as smart as I was. I wanted variety, not the same badass kids in my class. I wanted to be heard. I wanted adults to recognize that I could thing for myself. Acknowledge that I had an opinion and I knew what I liked and didn’t like (green peas and mandarin oranges). I wanted to go into the library and pick up a book that I couldn’t finish in ten minutes. And if I did, not be interrupted by some little boy kissing me on the cheek, therefore causing me to put down my book and go across his face with my tiny third grade hand. I wanted to wear biker shorts under the skirts that I didn’t want to wear. I didn’t want to be the smallest person in my class. And I definitely didn’t want to be in ballet anymore.
The change I see in myself as I’ve gotten older is that everything happens when it’s supposed to. At eight, you only know how to ask for things. You don’t understand why you can’t get what you want. You don’t like it. At twenty, things come as they come. They also leave as they please. For the things you cannot change, you deal. For those you can change, you change. Or shut up about it.
An Ada Comstock Scholar
At one point I lived my life according to my own rules, following my own path. No, not a path; a stream, of water or of air; turbulent, in motion, following no standard formula of progress, but just going. And somewhere along the way I fell from that stream and stepped onto an established, well-worn path, paved with the desires and expectations of countless other women. This path, call it achievement or perfection, grounded and comforted me, as it gave me clearly defined boundaries and rules at a time in my life when I was too exhausted to formulate them for myself.
The expectations I held myself to were not purely goal-oriented or achievement-based. At some point I internalized the personal characteristics that I felt I needed in order to be "good" or "functional" or "equal." Not knowing what to say to a friend who called with a problem left me feeling useless and unsupportive; crying at work (or ever) became a mark of weakness. My creative, expressive, emotional self that had been "me" for 20+ years was no longer visible, but I didn’t notice its absence. I saw myself as progressing, maturing, oblivious to the fact that I was actually restricting and deluding. As my professional and academic achievements grew, as I racked up promotions and 4.0s and praise from others, the personal expectations I held myself to tightened, squeezing up and out, forming blinders that limited my vision further. Life became narrower, and I could no longer breathe. I was having a crisis of faith in myself.
Where did my new expectations of myself come from? Was it in trying to understand my father, who lived his entire life comfortably confined within the structures of the military, the church, the family patriarchy? Or was it frombeing exposed to too many televised superwomen: vampire slayers and CIA double agents and teenage super sleuths, women who seamlessly blended strength and power and finesse, kicking life’s ass with their fashionable Blahniks?
Coming to Smith was like holding a magnifying glass to the situation. Living at school, I witnessed first hand the students whose expectations of themselves created mile-high blinders limiting their vision only to their idealized path of success, and I started to realize how much life they weren’t aware of, weren’t open to, and how precious those experiences had been in my own life. Looking at what was around me allowed me to look inward, allowed me to see that I had been holding myself to just as many unrealistic and unhealthy expectations.
I’m still working on keeping this perspective in check, and not allowing myself to feel controlled by grades or in competition with friends who are "doing it all." I try to remember that the only expectation I want to have of myself is to keep myself grounded in my own definitions of success, and I can make these definitions wearing flip flops if I want.
I’m 22 years old, a senior in college, on the verge of being let loose in the "real" world to become a "real" person, and I’m not certain I want that freedom...When do I definitely start being an adult? The structure that the education system provided me is gone and I’m not sure what is supposed to happen and when for the rest of my life.
On the one hand, I really can’t wait until I’m financially independent and debt free, but on the other, I’m not 6 years old anymore and owning my own house doesn’t come with a definite time frame. I can’t count down the days like I did when I got my driver’s license or when I graduated from high school. Even with a payment plan for my loans I know there will be setbacks and complications that will alter the course of my indebtedness. It’s not inconceivable that it could take me 20 years to pay off all the money! Twenty years?! That is essentially doubling my lifetime and a time frame that I find hard to grasp. For some reason I can reasonably comprehend the millions of years it took mammals to evolve, but being 40 years old is a concept much more overwhelming.
So what do I have to look forward to now? How am I supposed to measure time and achievement? I’ve always met the required goals and benchmarks, but from here on out, there is no universal reference point for time and no grand authority to let me know if I’m doing alright. My problem with this is that for my whole life I’ve been waiting for someone to give me that certificate stating to the world that I’m a real person capable of making important, life-altering decisions, specifically of the risky or ballsy nature. I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to do what I truly think I want to do without penalty of guilt or shame. You know, that event that happens and signifies that I am a passionate, intentional, reasonable person to be reckoned with; the time when life stops being a process and starts fulfilling the Big Plan.
But in reality, there is no one opportunity or event, there is no Big Plan, there are no decisions that are not potentially life-altering. There is no universal point of reference, and no grand authority that will give me a gold star when I make a good choice. Plus, when you really break it down, every success and failure is relative. Who’s to say that 1,000 little successes over a lifetime don’t equal one big one? An achievement for one person will not mean the same thing to another. At the end of the day, I don’t want to let Smith College or my parents or my friends have the final word on whether or not I can be happy with myself and get a good night’s sleep (which is probably number one on the list of things I value highly). Everyone is always going to have an opinion about what I could and should be doing with my life whether I want to hear it or not, and I know myself well enough to know that these weighty suggestions affect me a lot and tend to throw things out of perspective. Do I really agree with my coworker’s father who thinks I should go into business because it is the new hot field for psychology majors? No, yet I still spend several days and way too much energy ruling out this possibility. Some may call it being thorough, but I can’t help but worry that this behavior is an indicator that a good deal of aimless wandering through careers is ahead of me.
What I have to come to terms with is the fact that while I don’t exactly know what I want to be, I definitely know some things that I don’t want to be and those can be pretty powerful in forging a path. I have some vague ideas about what it is I’m ultimately striving to do, and I think I just have to have faith that my experiences in the following years will illuminate some interesting opportunities as I go.
My parents don't know that I have a girlfriend. It's not for a lack of trying. I tried to tell them over dinner in May. My father appeared to choke while my mother thought it was a prank I was pulling on my father. I had tried to tell them before in January when Brokeback Mountain came out, and once in late July. Both times my parents revealed prejudices that I wasn't aware they held, and wish I could hide myself from again. Sometimes I wonder how much they are hiding my girlfriend from themselves. After all, I lived with her for an entire summer, in the same room, in the same bed.
It's not like I can come out and say "I'm gay" as some sort of preface, or a permanent announcement. I don't identify with that term, or any other term that I've come across to identify sexuality. They don't seem to fit. I also don't want to hear my parents call it some sort of phase. So I invented my own term for a while. I am a "Christine-osexual."
It's so hard for me to tell them because I feel like it's the first time I've actually failed them. They were eventually okay with the hair, the major, the school, the possible career. I've never gotten a grade below a B-. I joined crew in an attempt to do something they said I couldn't, but now I feel like if I'm not in the varsity boat during the spring semester I will have disappointed them more than myself. They know I'm injured, but that doesn't stop my mother, the nurse, from discussing how I will be in the "A boat." They used to do something similar when I focused more on music, but it's faded as I've stopped auditioning for things.
I'm not sure I can truly be successful until I stop feeling guilty every time I do something I'm not sure they'll approve of. I've always had to be the good girl, because "my behavior reflected my parents and their parenting skills." I'm sure my parents made this comment because my brother and I fought constantly when we were younger, but it haunts me to this day. Not to mention that I've always been compared to two of my cousins, Lydia (four months older) and Gretchen (one month older). When Lydia went through her rebellious teen years, I was upheld as the "good" kid. With Gretchen, it was trickier. We lived closer together, and we participated in many of the same activities (graduating top ten in our class, played instruments, currently play Div. III sports and attend women's colleges). I was constantly hearing our parents discuss how "wonderful" their daughters were, when really they were trying to say which one was better. All this competition has led me to believe that I somehow have to uphold my family's honor: I'm so close to being even with Gretchen, but every failure leads me closer to Lydia, which means being a "bad" girl and letting my family down.
I wish I could escape from these expectations and ideas but I'm not sure I really can. I'm not even sure these expectations are even really what my parents are thinking. They could be something I've made up based on years of accumulated offhand comments and actions. I just wish they weren't stifling me so much.
There was a girl…let’s name her Cornelia. Cornelia had a ‘difficult’ childhood. But she was really smart. Or so everyone told her. Cornelia was always juggling. She had some many things that went on from day to day that she never knew which way was up. So one day Cornelia figures out how she can make the craziness stop. Cornelia creates a compass. This compass tells her where she needs to go all the time. It’s a pretty simple compass (because Cornelia put magnets underneath) that only ever pointed in two directions. When ever Cornelia needed to make a decision she pulled out her compass and it told her where to go. Cornelia decorated her compass with gold and gems. She protected it, carrying it around in a small pouch at her side so that it could never be lost. She never showed anyone her compass. It was her special secret.
After a long time the compass and the pouch disappeared into Cornelia’s body. It traveled up her stomach into her lungs and snuggled into the crook of her heart. Cornelia loved her compass so much it became a part of her heart. And she was happy to have it close to her. Years passed. When Cornelia stopped seeing her compass, she forgot about it. And she walked around all day not even realizing when it helped her make her decisions. Sometimes she turned left when she was thinking of going right. Sometime she turned right when she was thinking of going left. After several years Cornelia started to get worried, because lately she was always turning right and she couldn’t seem to make herself stop. So Cornelia went to the doctor to find out what was wrong. The doctor leaned down to listen to her heart and jumped back in surprise.
“What is that?” She exclaimed.
Cornelia giggled, “Oh, that’s just my compass.”
“Well that’s your problem,” said the doctor. “You’ve got a compass where your heart should be. You can’t follow your heart and it’s making you confused.”
Cornelia was very surprised to hear this. Her compass had helped her for so long and she had treasured it. How could it be a bad thing? She asked the doctor what could she do and the doctor said they would have to take out the compass. But Cornelia was afraid. If the compass was her heart then how would she live once the doctors removed it? She left the doctors office and didn’t return for months and months. She went right a lot when she wanted to go left, but she pretended not to notice. One day she saw a little girl. The girl was like Cornelia when she was young, except totally different in every way. And by the girl’s side Cornelia saw a mysterious little pouch.
She walked up to the girl and asked, “What is in your pouch?”
The girl nervously replied, “Nothing.”
Cornelia smiled. She wouldn’t have told a grown up about her compass either. “Are you sure it’s not a compass? A super special compass”
The girl shyly nodded her head.
“I have a compass too.”
The girl looked Cornelia up and down. “I don’t see your pouch.”
Cornelia sighed. “That’s the problem. I used it too much and it disappeared inside my stomach.”
The girl stared at Cornelia’s stomach curiously. Cornelia continued, “It’s not there anymore though. It moved up and became my heart.”
The girl smiled now. “You’re lucky, that’s a lot easier then pulling the compass out of your pouch all the time. How did you do it?”
Cornelia paused. She had left the doctor all those months ago knowing that her heart-compass was not good for. But she had been to afraid to do anything about it. What should she tell this little girl?
“Its not that great,” Cornelia told the girl. “When my compass was in a pouch I could choose when to look at it. Now I have to do whatever it tells me.”
“Like with parents?” The girl asked.
Cornelia laughed. “Yeah like with parents.”
The girl hugged Cornelia. “I’m sorry. That doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.”
“That’s why you have to careful with your compass. You don’t want to end up like me!”
“No ma’am, I don’t!” The girl blushed. “I mean—“
Cornelia laughed. “No you’re right.”
Then the girl checked her watch. “Oh no, I’m going to get home late and my mom will be mad at me.”
The girl left then, running towards her home. As she turned the corner Cornelia saw the girl slip the pouch from her side and put it in her backpack.
And for the first time in years Cornelia smiled. And not because her compass told her to.