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Fears and Realizations: A letter to no one and everyone

lissiem's picture


December 9, 2011


Dear Reader, 

I used to want to be a pompous asshole.  Really.  I wanted to walk around New York City in a pair of six-inch stilettos wearing classy suits knowing that I was the boss of everyone and had a beautiful lofty apartment to go home to.  And in the back of my mind, I wonder if maybe that’s why I chose Bryn Mawr, because it was the fastest way to get to “superior” status. 

And then I came to Bryn Mawr and realized that I didn’t actually want to be a corporate, façade of a woman.  But that’s part of what Bryn Mawr does; it creates empowered women.  I’m fearful that Bryn Mawr will rub off on me, and empower me too much.  I don’t want Bryn Mawr to shape me into a woman who feels like she can only change the world by being in a position of power.  I don’t want to be a lawyer or a doctor or a politician if I’m only doing it because that’s the career path Bryn Mawr women choose. I am afraid of becoming so empowered by a notion of a Bryn Mawr education that I lose the raw emotion of compassion and love, the real qualities that empower a person. 

All I know is that I don’t want to graduate an elitist.  What if I walk down the streets of New York City in my too-tall-for-my-own-health shoes and don’t even notice the homeless curled on a sidewalk, or the mother with three babies on each hip?  And even worse, what if I end up in a classroom in the inner city, wanting to teach underprivileged kids, (just like Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers) and I stand in front of the board not knowing how to relate to my students so I just end up shoving meaningless information down their throats for a lack of a better thing to do?

I am already a member of the upper class.  A college degree, at any institution is basically a way to move up in class rank.  In today’s world, a college degree can only make you more money.  But Bryn Mawr especially is a college of class-climbers.  That’s its foundation.  It was created as a rich, white girls school to make the girls richer (and if it was possible, whiter too).  The buildings themselves are upper class.  The towering, magnetic structures are a class privilege.  They were built with the notion of being a “laboratory of men”, something that symbolized a high-class society. 

Basically, I want to make sure that my Bryn Mawr education doesn’t alienate me from the rest of the world.  I don’t want to become so classed that I cannot relate to people who haven’t traveled the same path that I have.  Because I want to break out of my class boundaries and be able to connect with people, not be tied down by the reinforcement of class.  

But already I feel myself being restricted down by class relations.  I was going to write a paper about language and intelligence, about academic writing and the use of Standard English and Ebonics.  And then I realized I couldn’t properly, being a white, Standard English speaker.  There was something about Ebonics that I couldn’t understand and so I decided to talk one of my friends who is black.  Yet, as I went to text him, I froze.  I didn’t know what to say.  I had never even heard him speak Ebonics before; he always spoke perfect Standard English.  I felt that even asking him was racist, purely since I was asking him for something that pertained specifically to his race. But, with my heart beating a little faster, I asked him if he happened to speak Ebonics.  His response was simply a question mark.  The moment I read his response I felt class implications pressing me.  My words were classist; I was using terms and labeling things linguistically.  Here I was, asking him to help me understand a culture I didn’t belong to, and I had used terminology that he didn’t associate with.  Finally I just responded, “basically, like black slang”.  My answer caught me between class and culture.  Purely the use of the word Ebonics put me in a position of class, where I understood and addressed concepts academically.  Because of the research I had done, I understood the language technically, and felt that I was being derogatory by calling it slang. However, those were the words he understood, (whether he was offended by them or not) and he said he’d help me.

While I was trying to be politically correct, I had almost alienated myself more.  I was trying to address an issue about crossing class boundaries, about speech and race, but since I was so outside of it, I couldn’t do it correctly.  Ben Rampton, a professor of socio-linguistics at Kings College London said, “We also need to become aware of the tensions that might arise when our students’ use of each other’s language(s) is seen as appropriation- and, thus, as adversarial- rather than as crossing and connecting.”  I had created tension in my attempt to alleviate it.      

Originally, I wasn’t going to write this letter at all.  I thought my emotions were too raw and biased to project into the public.  But I realized that’s exactly what I needed to do, to explain my fear of separation that class projects onto me by definition.  I need to push my limits and to make sure that by living in buildings that were built for girls with maids, I are able to picture myself not only as that past Bryn Mawr woman, but also as the maid.   I need to affirm that by graduating with a Bryn Mawr degree, I haven’t traveled too far off the path so that I don’t have anything in common with people of other classes.  That I don’t become like Richard Rodriguez, who after getting a degree from Stanford, realized he no longer had the ability to talk with his uneducated parents. 

I have invested to educate myself and learn respect and culture so that I will not be alienated from a world I’ve never experienced first hand anyway.  I’m scared that Bryn Mawr will teach me the fancy words like Ebonics, and be able to give me the resources to respect it at a surface level.  But I need more of an education than that, I need to be able to talk about it and relate without coming off as elitist by trying too hard to be politically correct to my own friends.

I’ve realized that I need to take Bryn Mawr head on, and use the amazing opportunities I’m provided with to break free of my class boundaries.  I don’t have to create tension by allowing restrictions to create alienation.  Rather than blame Bryn Mawr for its history and the easy ability to follow in those footsteps, I need to defy them. I refuse to be so estranged that if and when I stand up in front of the blackboard, I can teach my students things that will matter to them, since it matters to me and because they respect me because I understand and respect them. 

I want Bryn Mawr to empower me.  I want to be a Bryn Mawr woman.  For my degree to symbolize not a superior education, but an education that allows me to challenge, and discover myself not only as a learner, but as a complete human being.




jccohen's picture

lissiem, You name hard


You name hard questions and challenges here (and name the ways in which even naming them is complex!), and do so in a bold and, as you say, raw way that for me makes this an emotionally as well as intellectually compelling piece.  Your use of the word "empowerment" highlights the ambiguity of that term, especially in light of:  empowerment as and for what purposes, and as and for whom/what human beings?  I am thinking that Bryn Mawr shapes you--and all of us who live and work there--and at the same time you/we shape Bryn Mawr, and these two things are happening simultaneously, so seeing it this way isn't a simple answer but a recognition of energy going in both directions and of how crucial it is to stay aware, alert, active.  I read this letter as a testament to and an example of that.  The statement, "I've realized that I need to take Bryn Mawr break free of my class boundaries" is a powerful one.  What does it mean to "break free" and what does this have to do with the kind of empowerment you end by embracing?