A couple posts ago, I mentioned my theory about humans being wired for anniversaries. I still haven’t taken the time to consult with Professor Google to see if there is any science bearing out that theory—for tonight’s sake, I’ve decided that whether or not I’m right about humans in general being wired this way, I know from my own lived experience that I sure as shit am wired that way.
I think it started with all the moving around we did when I was growing up. A lot of my memories of growing up are organized on the internal string of beads I keep in my head tracking what town and house we lived in for what years, what school I was at, and what my classroom looked like at different ages.
The internal recollection of where I was when such-and-such a memory took place is one of my most vivid ways of being able to place when something happened and how that memory exists in the sequence of events that have made up my life.
So I expect I’ll be spending the next month or so being a little bit haunted by the recollection of “where I was a year ago.”
I chose not to give a valedictory address when I graduated high school.
This was less of a break with tradition than it might initially seem: unlike most high schools, my school didn’t automatically tap the class valedictorian to give a commencement address. Instead, individuals wanting to give a speech at this event were asked to submit an application in hopes of being selected for the honor.
Obviously, there were many years where the speaking line-up demonstrated how the sort of go-getter likely to become class valedictorian was also the same sort of go-getter likely to want to make a graduation speech.
But not every year. And not my graduation year.
When I tell the story now, I jokingly say that by the time I got to high school graduation, the only message I would have wanted to share with my classmates was something pithy like Fuck off, all of you. And, as I have rehearsed the explanation nowadays, however brassy and outspoken my parents were, I thought that level of candor might have gone beyond their comfort level and thus decided that silence would be the better part of courtesy.
It’s not as if that narrative is too far off the truth.
I recall my high school years as miserable ones. My teachers were good, and I’m not going to be so hyper-dramatic as to claim I was entirely friendless or outcast. But the prevailing tone I recall from those years is the unceasing, oppressive cultural message from my peers that I was too smart for a girl, too ambitious for a girl, and definitely too outspoken for a girl. And despite all my “inappropriate” displays of intelligence throughout my high school career, I think a good number of my peers were shocked to have a girl come out with the #1 class rank, simply on account of my gender.
So yeah, by the time graduation rolled around, I was in no mood to say a fond good-bye to my high school class. Instead, I was ready to close that door and get on to the next stage of my life, in hopes that my intelligence wouldn’t be so scorned and devalued in my college career.*
And yet I know that underneath all the teenage bluster, all the self-protective layers of scorn and judgement I held for my BMW-driving, Reagan-loving classmates, was also a part of me that didn’t want to risk making a speech from a place of fear and exhaustion. Fear of becoming a target again, of being snickered and whispered at. The exhaustion of feeling as if I was swimming against the tide during so many minutes and hours of my existence. Yeah, I was ready to close the door and move on, but I still can’t tell you how much of that feeling was rooted in a sense of victory and how much in defeat.
My recollections are prompted by a post today on Everyday Feminism titled 5 Ways Girls are Taught to Avoid ‘Smart.’ The author, Kelsey Lueptow, begins by stating “I started censoring myself in the seventh grade.” She then goes on to outline the cultural mores and messages that help encourage her, and me, and however-many bright, ambitious girls besides, into the habits of self-betrayal and self-suppression.
The list hits some of the highlights you might anticipate: the cultural value placed on female attractiveness, the primacy of the marriage plot as a goal for women’s lives, and the social enforcement of passivity — both through the positive reinforcement of “ladylike” behavior, but also through the negative responses to female displays of intelligence (everything from the infamous “bossy” label to more overt verbal/physical aggression).
It all reminds me of this recent PSA by Verizon that got some airplay a couple months ago:
This ad gets a couple of things right. The first thing is that the ad focuses on the parents and not the girls themselves. So much of our efforts in trying to encourage girls end up treating them like they’re the ones who are screwing up, either with too much “body talk” or being lame for playing with certain toys. This ad shifts the focus, arguing that girls are born fine and it’s the rest of us who screw them up.
Just as importantly, despite the punch line of lipstick over science, most of the ad is not reductively focused on body issues and beauty. It’s all too easy to fall back on the notion that the focus on looks alone is what’s holding girls back, in no small part because it allows liberals to hand-wring about the “beauty myth” while simultaneously allowing conservatives to scold about the evils of female vanity and sexuality. But this video tackles a much more insidious force holding girls back: the general pressure on them to be, for lack of a better term, more ladylike. It points out how we not only value beauty, but also prioritize neatness, quiet, and safety in girls while encouraging risk-taking and confidence in boys.
I don’t regret skipping out on the notion of giving a valedictory address. We all make the best choices we can at any given moment in life, and I don’t have the kind of time and energy it would take to start second-guessing this decision and all the other human, possibly-flawed things I have done in my 45 years on this earth.
But I do find myself wondering about the level of self-silencing that existed within that choice, and wondering, as well, how these cultural messages against female intelligence cause me still, even today, to silence myself.
* A hope that, fortunately enough, came to pass. Yay for women’s colleges.
(Part three of my exploration of the 25 songs in 25 slightly-more days blogging challenge — a way to bank and pre-schedule a few posts for JALC while I’m off a-travelling.)
Day Song 3: A song that reminds you of one or both of your parents
Obviously, both of my parents were part of the story back for Song #1 when I was discussing ABBA. But let’s be real: even though ABBA was on the list of music we all could tolerate, between my two parents, my mom was much more of an ABBA fan than my dad was.
Dad was a Neil Diamond fan. And his favorite of all of Neil’s songs was Forever in Blue Jeans:
But it don’t sing and dance
And it don’t walk
And long as I can have you
Here with me, I’d much rather be
Forever in blue jeans
But it ain’t nothin’ next to baby’s treat
And if you pardon me
I’d like to say
We’ll do okay
Forever in blue jeans
There’s lots of ways Dad was the example of that old Horatio Alger ideal. He grew up in a Pennsylvania steel town; both his parents died before he was out of high school, so he went into the Air Force and then used his GI Bill benefits to get the college degree that helped him start the business career that would (pretty quickly) allow Mom, my sister and me to live in the comfort and middle-class privilege that I remember from my childhood.
There was one time when I was a little girl that he first shared a compliment with me — with all of us? I can’t quite recall. A co-worker or a boss had said something to him about how he “was as comfortable with a Big Mac as a filet mignon.” That praise meant a lot to Dad. I think it told him he’d managed to “better himself”* without becoming a snob.
And even though I’ve taking things in a much more intellectual and politicized direction, I wonder about the ways that my desire for social justice, and my ongoing practice in unpacking and understanding my privilege is a different flavor of that ideal. From a spiritual perspective, I wonder about the links between Dad’s (admittedly imperfect) egalitarianism and my desire to find compassion within myself for people and my (hugely imperfect) practice towards the sort of acceptance that would allow me to open-heartedly “meet folks where they are.”
Maybe those are stretched connections. Maybe not.
What I know for sure: I still smile and think of Dad whenever I hear a Neil Diamond song.** And since this summer trip is an itinerary he wanted to bring the family on — we just didn’t have the chance to do it before he died — I might just be thinking of Dad a lot during this stretch of days.
Maybe I’ll load a Neil Diamond playlist on the iPod before I go.
* I know, I know: that’s an incredibly loaded and problematic way to put it. But I do think it kinda captured his perspective on the distinction between his childhood experiences and the middle-class life he was able to build for us.
** Except when I’m tearing up. Even five years later, grief can be a tricky tricky thing.
(Part two of my exploration of the 25 songs in 25 slightly-more days blogging challenge — a way to bank and pre-schedule a few posts for JALC while I’m off a-travelling.)
Day Song 2: A song that reminds you of your most recent ex
Okay, here’s where I think that I am perhaps not really in the planned demographic for this challenge? Mr. Mezzo and I coming up on our fourth wedding anniversary, and we’ve been together for more than a decade. And then, to make things even more interesting hopelessly banal, I might as well cop to the fact that I’d taken myself “off the market” for about 4-5 years prior to meeting my Mr. (Long story not worth the telling: basically I realized around the age of 30 that I really needed to get right with myself before trying the relationship thing again. So, you see? Sometimes that old saying is true: love does come along when you least expect it!)
Anyhow, whichever way you slice it, it’s kind of been a long time since I had any sort of ex, so memorializing some fairly-insignificant romance with a song here just feels kind of — odd.
Instead, a brief recollection. When I was in grad school at UPenn, there were two main geographic areas where I and all my social circle lived. There were those of us who had chosen to use the Schuylkill River as symbolic boundary between work life and home and lived in a vaguely Center City/Rittenhouse Square(ish) locale. And then there was everyone living out west of campus and past 44th street.
So, one evening, some few years after I’d left school and started my non-profit career, I was driving up Pine Street, en route to hang out with a friend of mine at her apartment. And this song came on the radio:
Green Day, Boulevard of Broken Dreams. It hit me like a thunderbolt. I was at that precise moment driving along a two-block stretch that had housed the apartments of not one, not two, but three grad school ex-boyfriends. I’d lost touch with all of them by that point, so had no way of knowing if any or all of them had moved on to different addresses (towns? countries?). Didn’t really matter. The energetic signature of that song, playing at that moment, at that specific location, was just richer than rich.
I walk a lonely road
The only one that I have ever known
Don’t know where it goes
But it’s home to me and I walk alone
I walk this empty street
On the Boulevard of broken dreams
Where the city sleeps
And I’m the only one and I walk alone