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You can't put your behind in the past

kayla's picture


My mother, 19, with me at age one.
Photo courtesy of: My mom!
It seems to me that I am always changing my expressed opinion about my secondary education. Usually it depends on the circumstances in which I am discussing Altoona High School. I look back fondly to my English teachers and the ways in which each of them attempted to teach beyond the structure of the strict PSSA (which stands for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) curriculum they were forced to follow. However, the fact that this standardized test is referred to as a “school assessment” rather than something more worthwhile, like “student assessment” or “learning assessment” helps to summarize the rest of my high school educational experience. Even after the class of 2007 took the final portion of the standardized test junior year, we were still writing 5-paragraph essays with a thesis that had to include no more or less than three bullet points and mindlessly practicing the same Algebra III/Pre-Calc equations over and over. In fact, when I sat down to write my first essay in college, it took me a couple of tries to realize the 5-paragraph essay form had no place on Haverford’s campus.
As is true at many public schools across the nation, exposure to the history and culture of women and minorities was restricted to no more than a page or two in a textbook. In literature courses we read Shakespeare, Dickens, Poe, the Bible. In my American History course in 10th grade, the teacher made sure to always express his personal opinions about what we were studying, especially during topics of Civil Rights for African-Americans, women and especially homosexuals. After boasting about how he was once a hippie with a ponytail challenging the expectations of his father before becoming Republican, he concluded the lecture by informing his students that in his esteemed opinion, all homosexuals should be relocated to the state of Montana, where they can be fenced in and “live happily ever after.”
I was lucky in AP U.S. Government to at least be able to independently research something of my own choice, and I completed a project about Title IX. I didn’t choose to discuss issues of gender without repercussions, though. The U.S. Government teacher frequently acknowledged with mockery the liberal/female corner in his classroom, as did the old teacher from American History. While I was taking U.S. Gov during senior year, I also had an internship at the local paper, the Altoona Mirror, where I wrote political columns once a month for the Teen’s Page. When I wrote a piece regarding female leadership across the world, I had both male teachers scrutinizing me for my outrageous ideas before class. At the time, I made him apologize for being unprofessional and insensitive, but thinking back on it I wish I could have made sure they would change their ways for students in the future.
Considering these experiences and others throughout my four years in high school, I would have to classify my alma mater as no more than a Phase 2 school, if that. We never read Jane Austen, but a few women and their political careers made it into our curriculum. And I am the person I am not for the overall efforts of that school to produce a capable human being, but because I recognized what they were missing and moved beyond that. Aside from the instances between those two teachers, myself and discussions of women in leadership, I cannot honestly say that my gender had any sort of relation to the shortcomings of my education, but it has a lot to do with what I am seeking. I want a deeper understanding of what it means to be “different” in our society, a label that ought to apply to everybody but is only used to describe homosexuals or people of ambiguous or atypical gender. I don’t want to brush aside the lives of people in the world just because I was fortunate enough to escape from the path set by other women in my family.
I found out when I was applying to college that I am the first woman in my family to continue school past high school. From a young age, I watched, without ever understanding, my mother desperately seek out a man to help her take care of herself and her children—she only found boys and danger and after 20 years is finally figuring out that she can be a mother on her own. I want women to feel safe and capable of leading their lives, much like I do after experiencing both what it is like to live in fear of domestic abuse, poverty and failure and what it is like to have a single-mom who has broken away from these restraints to be able to really support her children. Before I left home for school this summer, my mother and I went out for a final dinner together. She told me that recently she had been feeling like a failure for her generation. Her childhood was made up of the Brady Bunch and her parents’ persistent, though unhappy, marriage. In her mind, she has no achieved the things that mark a successful life, like money, marriage, house and family, and this feeling was overwhelming her until I returned from my summer at the Haverford College Apartments. For her, it looks like for one, that I still have a chance at these things she feels she missed out on and two, that it isn’t necessarily a horrible thing that she’s had to improvise her life alone with six children. And I can confidently say that because of her supposed “failures” she has taught her children lessons that many mothers cannot boast of.



Anne Dalke's picture

Re-defining Success and Failure

One of the issues that seems to be @ the center of your essay -- the point it works toward and ends on -- is that of re-defining what counts as success and failure. In that sense, your work is akin to that of McIntosh, who suggests that we re-think the mountaintops and valleys, what we value and what we dismiss. Can you go further with the additions you are contributing to her story? What "supposed 'failures'" in one generation of your family became contributions to the successes of the next? And how?

Turning from what your family taught you to your more formal schooling: you give a pretty unhappy-making account of the ways in which gender and sexual diversity were (mis)handled in your high school, and a clear statement about how you want to move from those shortcomings of your education to "a deeper understanding of what it means to be 'different' in our society, a label  that ought to apply to everybody." Paul's talk yesterday also gestured in the same direction, suggesting that the naming of such differences, and the political discriminations based on them, cannot be "blamed" on biology. Where from do you think such distinctions arise, and how might we alter them?