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.