Thursday, April 16, 2009

Chapter 12: This Jane-of-all-Trades Marches to the Beat of Her Own Drummer (Part 1)

For as long as I can remember I have had the desire to experience everything life offers. My right and left brain battle for control, leaving me, in turns, both logical and emotional. I enjoy science and art, the symbols of math and the words of poetry, the big picture and the tiny details. It means that my interests are varied and that I have a passion for learning. I don’t know if this balance (or is it an imbalance?) was hard-wired in me, or if I should credit my parents.

My dad is an engineer who designs elevator button panels. My mom has held various jobs throughout my life, including in publishing and as a custom drapery fabricator.

Dad would take me to his wood shop in the garage to help me make a car for the sisters’ race at my brother’s Boy Scout Pinewood Derby. Mom on the other hand would sit with me at the kitchen table as we made jewelry for me to sell at the grade school craft fair.

I played with dolls, but I also built with Legos and played G.I. Joe with my brother. I was constantly reading, but I also enjoyed the logic puzzles in crossword puzzle books (who knew both would later prove to be helpful when taking the GRE!). Even though athletics were conspicuously absent, I led a balanced, curious childhood. And if I’d had my way (and if my parents had the money), I would have been an aspiring ballerina or gymnast, too!

My interests continued expanding as extracurricular activities became available through school. In junior high, high school and college I was definitely a joiner. At various points I was in student council, newspaper, yearbook, ski club, bike club, environmental club, Girl Scouts, tennis, track and theater. Every year I loved counting up how many times my photo appeared in the yearbook. I think this mattered more to me than how many people signed the darn thing!

Mom used to chastise me, asking why I thought I was the center of the universe, which I never understood. To me the center of the universe was the center of attention; outspoken, arrogant and flashy. In my head I was shy and awkward, just trying to keep my head down. Mom usually used these words to scold me while I was loitering in the kitchen, listening to my parents talk about their day. I don’t think I even cared if they paid attention to me; I just wanted to know what was going on. So maybe she was right. I did want to be the center of my universe in that I wanted to be in tune with everything going on in and around it, so I got involved everywhere I could.

Joining so many activities was probably a defense against loneliness. You didn’t have to be pretty or outgoing to meet the people in a club, you just had to join. Something I quickly discovered in junior high was how much more socially challenging it was than I remembered grade school being. I went in naïve, but what I saw there worked to quickly change that. Oversexed thirteen-year-olds in body suits and Cross Color jeans talked openly in class about what parts of their body they shaved; tough Mexican girls with bangs sprayed to stick six inches in the air threatened me with violence in the locker room; my partner in Home Economics patted my leg suggestively under the table; and the overweight, greasy-haired, pimple-faced girl next to me on the bus mockingly asked me if I thought I was popular.

“I am popular amongst my friends,” I answered. Truthfully, that was all that mattered to me. We had our inside jokes, cultivated while sitting at “our” lunch table. We hung out on the weekends or after school, and did many school activities together.

In high school I was still a complete nerd. I accept that fact now with nerd pride, but because of it, I never felt like I fit in at my high school. My grandparents provided me the opportunity to go to a private school on the north shore of Chicago. The school was a K-12 private, non-denominational school whose wealthy students were in sharp contrast to those at the public school from whence I came. Many students in my freshman class had known each other since grade school. Each grade consisted of only about 25 students, so by the time they reached high school; it was a pretty tight-knit bunch.

Orientation week at my new high school was very eventful, in some ways shaping the future of my whole high school career. In that one week my braces were removed, I was fitted for a slightly less hideous pair of eyeglasses, got my period for the first time and joined the tennis team. I was excited and optimistic to start at this shiny new school. If my life were a movie, my make-over would have landed me Freddie Prinze Jr. and a homecoming crown. The reality was, by joining the tennis team I had pretty much insured my exclusion from the group that ruled the school.

Before the school year started, my grandmother had taken me to meet two of my classmates whose parents were friends of hers. Both girls played field hockey, a sport I had never even heard of. One girl showed me her field hockey stick, and it looked nothing like the sticks my brother and I used to play roller hockey in the street. Intimidated, I decided tennis would be a much safer bet. Ostensibly to encourage physical fitness but in reality to ensure enough bodies to populate a team, every student was required to play a fall sport their first two years. Maybe I had never picked up a racquet in my life, but at least I’d seen the sport on television and had some clue how it was played. Plus it was more or less an individual sport, so if I messed up too much on the court, I was only letting myself down.

The girls on the tennis team were great, but we were a bit of a rag-tag bunch of misfits - The Bad News Bears of Cook County tennis. In contrast, the girls on the field hockey team were a unified force to be reckoned with. I am not sure if outgoing individuals naturally seek out team sports or if teams bring out a latent extrovert, but those girls had a confidence and bravado I envied.

The movie Mean Girls is set at the fictional “North Shore High School,” a name pretty darn close to that of my school. While it was actually modeled after the large private high school down the street, our two schools drew from the same populations. I am not saying the field hockey girls were ever the antagonistic “Plastics,” because they were never mean like that, just that they clearly comprised the power clique in our small school. And I was an outsider.

So instead I threw myself into extracurricular activities outside of sports, and made friends with others like me. The tennis girls or the guys whom the field hockey girls had deemed unworthy of their company became my circle of friends. My friends were also the lonely musicians, theater geeks, poets and nerds who could never be confused as constituting any sort of “clique.” I must admit, it was never quite as black-and-white as I’ve painted it. It was a small school, so there was some inevitable overlap between these groups, but what I described is generally what I felt.

In addition to filling my schedule with activities, I made it through high school by throwing myself into my studies. Whether required or elective, I enjoyed most of my classes. Subjects as varied as US History, Photography, Calculus, English, Computer Science and Theater all held my attention and an equal place in my heart. I strove to do well and genuinely enjoyed learning.

This was something even the people I considered to be my friends ended up (literally) throwing back in my face. I recall one night I was at a slumber party with a bunch of girls. We were settling into our sleeping bags for the night when someone came in and threw something at me, food if I recall. Upset and confused, I asked why she would do something like that. Her response boiled down to the fact that she didn’t like how I bragged about my grades.

I was in shock. I didn’t think I was a braggart. I couldn’t remember ever asking how someone else did, and if asked I don’t recall rubbing my success in anybody’s face. If someone asked how I performed, and I happened to do well, did she expect me to lie? I will never understand how she took that impression of me because the contrast between her words and my self-perception could not have been greater. How could I be arrogant and hate myself at the same time?

My rampant high school insecurities were rooted in my perpetual feeling of being out of place. For four years I knew I didn’t belong to the “popular” clique. I felt overweight, unattractive and – apparently – so unbearable I was worthy of having a bologna sandwich thrown at my head. While I never wanted for anything, my family did not have the kind of money most of my classmates enjoyed. And I liked school; whereas I felt many of these privileged kids laughed it off, viewing it little more than a stop-over to daddy’s money or their next bong hit.

I had the distinct impression that few people actually liked me, not even the people who were supposed to be my friends. It had to be an act, and there was a period of time when I set out to test this. I would intentionally hide when I knew I would be needed backstage in the theater to see how long it was before someone came looking for me. I would sit in conspicuous but strange places (the railings on the landing of the arts building was one favorite spot) and see how many people would walk by without even acknowledging me.

With every minute that passed in hiding and with every person who passed noiselessly, I grew increasingly morose to the point that any positive reinforcement in my experiment was rendered moot. I gained no esteem from these exercises which served only to bolster my feelings of isolation and invisibility. I turned to writing volumes of angst-ridden teen poetry and listening to Nirvana Unplugged on repeat while burning a séance-worth of candles in my bedroom.

High school is only four years and I tried to pack those years with interests and activities. Because I was exposed to so many new and different things, I developed into a sort of Jane-of-all-trades but a master of none. When senior year rolled around and the prospect of college loomed near, I was at a bit of a loss. I wasn't sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. Architecture crossed my mind, but engineering, even though I couldn't actually tell you what that was, seemed to be where the good jobs were. My parents had attended a local community college and had little advice to share and no expectations. They wanted the best for me however, and opened up the door for me to pursue an degree anywhere I wanted. The combination of my own ignorance about higher education, a complete uncertainty about my future professional hopes, the lack of strong guidance at home, suggestions from my college counselor and several school visits, resulted in my application to eleven schools. I didn't know what would be a reach and what would be a safety for me, so I selected a wide range of schools:

  1. Case Western Reserve University
  2. Dartmouth College
  3. Duke University
  4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  5. Northwestern University
  6. Rice University
  7. Rose Hulman Institute of Technology
  8. University of Illinois
  9. University of Virginia
  10. Washington University St. Louis
  11. Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Few of my applications overlapped with my classmates, who applied mostly to small Midwestern or East Coast liberal arts schools. Nonetheless, we attended a small school, and nobody was sure where various colleges set their quotas. I knew nobody else in my class was applying to anything with “tech” in the name. In fact, I held a bit of a grudge against the two people from my school who, in recent years, had headed to MIT. These two guys were the nerds of their years, both classic computer geeks. When one was a senior and the other a junior, my school’s Calculus teacher taught them the advanced portion of the AP Calculus class.

Then when I was a senior, I approached that same teacher to set up my own AP Calculus BC class. Imagine my shock when she looked at me as if surprised I was interested and said she would not be teaching it to me. She suggested that I take art instead. So, I took that art class, which only added to my left brain-right brain confusion. I wish I could say that was the only outright sexism I felt in my four years there.

Each year my school arranged for a week off of classes during which students could explore topics of interest outside the classroom. I did a theater production at a shelter one year and shadowed my uncle, a television news reporter, another. When my senior year rolled around, I had saved up enough baby-sitting money to take one of the exciting trips some of the teachers sponsored.

The one that caught my eye was a hike down and out of the Grand Canyon. I had always wanted to see that marvel of nature, so I signed up with a girlfriend. At the last minute she had to bail on the trip, which left me as the trip’s only female. The sponsor, our male gym teacher, pulled me aside one day. He asked if I minded going on the other trip to the Southwest being offered, a van tour of Native American ruins and geological highlights, a trip that did not include a stop at the Grand Canyon. As “the only girl on the trip and it might make the guys uncomfortable if you have any ‘girl issues,’” he explained. I was disappointed then, and now realizing that my lack of external genitalia was his reason for excluding me, I am embittered. And I have yet to see the Grand Canyon. Yet sexism wasn’t the only thing about my high school that made me doubt my ability to pursue everything I wanted in life.

Aside from what I read in US News and World Report, I had no idea how my college applications stacked up against my classmates, or the rest of the students in the country, for the matter. The leaders of my school (who were primarily Quakers) boasted a philosophy of “non-competition.” As a result we were not assigned GPAs until senior year, we were never ranked, we had no prom kings and queens and we had no class valedictorian (our graduation speaker was chosen by a vote).

The “non-competition” philosophy in the classroom never truly bothered me, but I never understood why, then, it did not extend to the playing field. Participation in athletics was not only encouraged but mandatory, annual awards went to the top-performing athletes of each sport, and their games were announced in morning assemblies. Not only did the school encourage sports, the most fundamental form of competition, but they were also pushing the athletes to compete internally for top individual honors and recognition.

It was acceptable for the captain of the football team to celebrate a victory over University High, yet touting academic success was recipe for ridicule. Does this go back to the notion of teams versus individuals? Is it that the difference is getting an “A” on a paper was only my own arrogant success whereas the volleyball team making it to state is a shared victory? In my rebellious teenage mind, I wondered why I would have to conform to such a group mentality to fit in. The theater department with which I was involved did give recognition at a private year-end banquet for the theater folks and their families, so that was some solace.

Yet I remained baffled at my school’s seeming distaste for academic accomplishment (or was it just distaste for me?) At the end of each year a ceremony was held in which the school awarded a handful of academic “book awards” to juniors. After three years of hard work, I finally received one award (The “Wellesley College Book Award,” which proved to be ironic on several levels). Yet any pleasure I might otherwise have found in my award was, over the years, overshadowed by another incident. Or should I say lack of an incident.

I took AP US History senior year, and throughout the year the teacher would comment on how many years it had been since one of his students had earned the highest mark (5) on the test, and how he hoped this was the year. I never needed his encouragement; I just wanted to pass out of some basic core college class and get on to the fun electives. So I took the test, and I earned that 5 he had pushed for. For whatever reason, he never once acknowledged it. That 5 did help me down the road when I wanted to squeeze in a double major, but I sure would have liked some recognition then. Maybe everyone in the class got a 5 so I was nothing special, and he only made a big deal about it all year to ensure our successes. I would never know, because by this time I’d learned my lesson about sharing grades with my peers.

It took me years to fully recognize the hypocrisy of my school, and how easily I accepted being made to feel like a lesser person. Eleanor Roosevelt famously declared that “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Maybe if I had heard that quote back then I would not have let them.

It is with all of these high school experiences under my belt that I faced the decision of which college to attend. I had applied to eleven schools, and was excited and surprised to be accepted to eleven schools, but this did not make the decision any easier. I think being overwhelmed by too many options is one of the reasons I enjoy being a vegetarian. When looking at a menu at a restaurant, there are generally only a handful of vegetarian options. But when I go to a vegetarian restaurant, it takes me a very long time to decide what I want to order! I like to weigh all my options and want to make an informed decision.

By the deadline to accept offers, I was able to narrow my choices down to three: Rice, Northwestern, and MIT. I had visited all three and was really torn. I had decided I wanted to study Chemical Engineering since I liked chemistry and the money would be good after graduation. All three schools had good engineering programs. Northwestern was a close to home, but I thought maybe a little too close. At Rice I would spend much of the year sweating, but it had a beautiful campus. When I visited MIT I had so much fun with my hosts, but it was a city school which scared me a little.

The day the replies were due, I filled out the paperwork and dropped them in the mail, telling nobody that I’d made my decision. Later that night, I revealed to my parents that I had selected MIT. When I told my grandfather, who was helping to foot the bill for my college education, he replied “You made the right choice.” So I scooted off to college knowing that while joining the tennis team in high school may have secured a certain fate for those four years, choosing to go to MIT ensured the next four would be entirely different.

1 comment:

emmablue said...

I love this! It is raw, relaxed and funny!

So many good parts...

p.s. no i dont think hearing eleanor's quote would have helped you protect your heart, silly!