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Stories from my Education

Rhapsodica's picture


I am seven years old. I sit on my mother’s bed, watching as she puts on her daily mask of makeup. This is only one stage of the morning routine—along with taking her shower, doing her hair, choosing her outfit, and applying her makeup, it usually takes her at least two hours to get ready each day.
As my mother gets dressed, she looks at herself in the mirror. I watch as she runs her hands over her stomach, squeezing the folds of skin together and frowning.
            “I need to lose more weight,” she says.
            “No you don’t,” I answer, “you look fine.”
            “I feel so fat,” she says.
I start to wonder: what should think of myself if my mother, who wears size 2 jeans, is so sure she’s fat? I get off the bed and look at myself in the mirror, though I already know I don’t like what I see. I’m a chubby kid, and my mother isn’t helping me build much confidence.
I start comparing my figure to my mother’s, to the figures of women on television, to the bodies of the popular girls at school. I start to feel insecure about my body and ask my mother to help me find clothes that hide my stomach. She tries to help me diet, but I can never stay on track. I learn that being a young woman is a perpetual cycle of trying to attain an ideal look, but never truly feeling satisfied with my body at any given moment. Before I’ve even hit puberty, I wonder why it is that I had to be born a girl. It must be so much easier to be a boy.
I am nine years old. I am alone in my room reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time. I am intrigued by the idea of performing magic, and I imagine that in two years, an owl will drop a letter off for my 11th birthday, inviting me to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. My favorite character in the book is Hermione Granger, one of Harry’s best friends. She described as having bushy hair, imperfect teeth, and being generally unremarkable in appearance, but she is also told that she is the smartest witch of her age.
As a bit of a bookish misfit myself, I can relate with Hermione’s position amongst her peers: a little misunderstood and more focused on her studies than on fitting in. For a short period of time, I pretend that Hermione is my imaginary friend. I have always thought that imaginary friends are silly, but Hermione seems like the perfect friend for me, and I don’t know anyone like her (or me) in my real life. Having her as a friend, in the pages and in my mind, gives me a little bit of hope that maybe I will one day find good friends like Harry and Ron, and that working hard in school will prove to other people that I’m special somehow, even if I’m not as beautiful on the outside.
At this point in my life, I would give anything to be someone else, to try out a different life, to be able to wave a wand and have more control over the world around me.
I am sixteen years old. I’ve switched schools twice in the last two years, and I live with my dad now. I’m just trying to get my footing in being a “normal” teenage girl, but I feel like I’m perpetually falling behind. It seems like all the girls around me are wearing make-up and dating, whereas I’ve never gone out with anyone, and I don’t spend much time on my appearance. At least I can still get good grades and write good essays. By now, I think I might want to be an English teacher or a writer. I figure I must just be picky about guys, and that the perfect one will come along one of these days. In the mean time, I figure I’ll just focus on school.
I am seventeen years old. I am sitting in my 11th grade Honors American Literature class the morning after we were assigned to read “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Most of the students say they thought the story was weird and creepy, but I loved it, and something about it strikes me in a way no other story has before. My teacher splits the class into groups to analyze the story, and I am put into a group that is told to think about the story as a narrative of the life of a female artist (or something along those lines). I am intrigued by my group’s interpretation of the ways in which the woman Jane sees in the wallpaper represents her repressed muse, or perhaps a piece of herself that is trying to break free from the stifling environment created by her husband. Because she is unable to release her creative energy, Jane becomes mentally unstable and kills herself.
When the final paper rolls around and we are told to develop our own topics, I want to go back and revisit this theme, but I feel intimidated by how hard it is to put my thoughts and feelings into words and write about something else instead. By this point, I know that I want to study English, and that I want to go to a four-year college. I am planning to go to a creative writing program at Bryn Mawr College over the summer because I think it will look good on my resume, and because it sounds like it could be fun. I doubt I could ever get into a school like that for college, though, because I feel like I haven’t worked nearly hard enough.
Now, I am twenty years old, and I am a junior at Bryn Mawr College; I am working on switching my English major for one in Gender and Sexuality Studies.
I realize that there are systems larger than just myself and the people around me that have shaped my life up to this point, and that will continue to shape it as I grow older. I have come to terms with knowing that I don’t look or act like the idealized women on television and in magazines, and I am glad for it.
Who am I? I’m not sure yet.
What do I want to do with my life? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll teach, maybe I’ll do something else that involves working directly with people and trying to make some sort of tangible change, even on a small scale.
I don’t read much fiction anymore, and it’s hard for me to think of a character I would want to be. I can think of plenty real women that I admire and would love to be, whose strength and intelligence I would love to possess. I no longer want to be Hermione; I just want to be myself, with all of my imperfections, insecurities, and experiences that have led me to where I am right now. I don’t want to be a character that’s already been written, whose fate is decided by the will of anyone other than me; I want to keep writing my own story and developing myself as a character within it.
My education up to this point has been a combination of formal schooling and simply living my life as a female-bodied person in our society. I have been influenced by my mother, by the rest of my family and friends, and by the expectations of all of those around me, male and female. I am constantly trying to negotiate where I fit in and rejecting being pigeonholed into the places where I know I don’t want to fit in.
I want my education to be more and do more than it’s been and done so far. My goal is not simply to receive approval from my professors or anyone else; I’m here to learn and do the best I can so that I can make a difference to someone, somewhere.  I’m tired of sitting around talking and writing about books and themes and literary devices and not applying the analytical skills that I’m learning to “real life” situations. I want to be more of an activist. Especially if this is the area in which I am majoring, I feel like education and activism should go hand-in-hand. I feel like my education has spanned the range of McIntosh’s levels of curricular revision in various ways. In trying to design my own major and integrate different perspectives and disciplines, I feel like I’m operating within phase 4 but trying to move closer to phase 5—but I’m not sure how possible that is within an institution within a society that hasn’t quite gotten there yet.
Picture is from here:



Anne Dalke's picture

On not reading much fiction anymore....

this essay makes a lovely move from your longing to be a fictional character to your "not reading much fiction anymore," to your "wanting to be a character that’s already been written, whose fate is decided by the will of anyone other than you." You want rather now to be yourself, "to keep writing your own story and developing yourself as a character within it." This is a move I'd like every young woman to be able to make. Using our imaginations to create ourselves, rather than to recreate others', THAT's  a vision!

Perhaps the image w/ which you begin--which shows the precariousness of trying to build a life w/ its foundation in books--needs to be revised to represent this new, non-fictional and in-the-process you??

My real question, though, is why you are no longer reading fiction. Is this what you have done to balance a life that has more educational activism built into it? Or are there other motives pulling you away from the world of the imagination? Have your tastes changed along with your goals in life?