The life I used to have

Last week, I was asked to fill out a survey for a PhD student at the University of Central Arkansas. She’s looking at barriers to education for women in our state.

I don’t remember any substantial barriers for me regarding school, except a low-level worry about money. I knew I had to get a scholarship, so I did. I can’t name a time when I didn’t know exactly what was expected of me: to go to college (also to be thin, but that’s different post).

I can’t count the number of times my grandfather said to me, “Get your education. That’s something no one can ever take away from you.” He was a child of the Depression. He knew about having things taken from him, so I trusted his wisdom on the subject. My parents’ admonitions were no different.

I had the decided advantage of being in the same class as a sizable group of girls who were driven and competitive. The push to be better, to try harder, to do more was instilled in me early and often.

Somewhere there is a photo of me in hot rollers and a drill team uniform doing Algebra homework. You can see the clock. It reads 5:30 a.m. I was in the eighth grade. My mom made a practice of taking photos of everyday sort of things, so that we would remember our lives as more than a series of special events. This was the kind of thing that happened all the time in junior high.

I know for certain there are women who were afraid to raise their hands growing up. Doing well in school was socially unacceptable for them. I know that still happens. Girls are still too often asked to play small so someone else can feel bigger. In a lot of areas, that was true for my life. Education just didn’t happen to be one of them.

I don’t know if I would have pursued education with the same single-minded determination had I not been brought up the way I was. It’s impossible to know if I had the kind of gumption that would have overcome hurdles if I had any notion that there was a different alternative. I’d like to think so, but I can’t honestly say.

It’s a notion that’s been rolling around in my head quite a bit lately. It was even in the sermon Sunday: What if I had been that and not this?

Saturday night, we had some friends over to watch a miserable football game. One of the guests is a Canadian transplant. Her son recently went to his first homecoming in the South. She was mystified by the whole production. It all seemed perfectly normal to me, but I grew up in it.

I asked her if corsages were still a thing for homecoming. She had no idea what I was talking about. I pulled out an old yearbook to show her the mums for homecoming court. She was shocked, but thrilled all at the same time. I find that’s a common reaction to Southern traditions.

While I was flipping through the yearbook pages looking for photos, I saw pics of my former step-sisters. My dad was married to their mom when I was in junior high and high school. It’s surreal to me that I have basically no contact with people with whom I once shared a bathroom and Christmas.

We all became friends on Facebook, but we’ve never exchanged messages or had any kind of direct communication. From time to time, I look at their photos to see how lovely their children are. I assume they do the same with me. They seem reasonably happy. I’m glad about that.

I was a total monster when we lived together. I had 14-year-old hormones and rage about my life and everyone in it. Because I was so angry, I did my best to make everyone around me miserable. I’m not proud of it, but that’s how I behaved.

I wonder how I would have been different if they’d never been in my life or if they still were around. Would I be better, worse, roughly the same? I wonder if their lives are better or worse because of me. Did I create permanent damage by blaming them for circumstances they had as little control over as I did? We would all be different; there’s no way around that, but would it be a substantial difference?

I can’t know. I had that life then. I have this one now. It’s that simple, and yet so much more complicated because everything related to family is always more complicated than a recitation of facts.

The one thing I do know is that I don’t want to be that person who was so heinous ever again. I want people who come into contact with me to feel as if I’ve made their life better in some way, rather than be someone they had to endure. Even if I can’t know all the variables of life, in the end, I want to have at least been kind.

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4 thoughts on “The life I used to have

  1. My husband feels raising our niece to be kind is one of the best teaching objectives there is. It good to be reminded of the word and it’s possibilities on a regular basis. For ourselves.

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