“Self-Made” and Lonely: An Educational Autobiography

For a long time, an essential component of my personal mythology was the idea that I educated myself largely on my own initiative and terms. I paid more attention to the books I was reading under the desk than anything the teacher at the front of the class was saying. I planned and completed all the steps of applying to college — the SAT, essays, and a grueling series of not one but six scholarship-interview weekends — all by myself. I was busy running an international nonprofit during the latter half of high school and didn’t have much time for homework. My classmates coined the term “pulling a Sora” to describe the act of “leaving an assignment until the last minute, rushing through it, and still getting a good grade.”

I wrote candidly about my family’s difficulties in my college admissions essays, wanting to prove that I’d managed to succeed in spite of my parents, rather than with their support. I’m still a little proud that Child Protective Services, investigating my mom when I was around 8, told her, “Your daughter has a very impressive vocabulary.” I proved my dad wrong about his prediction that if I moved back in with my mom I’d never get into a college. There are grains of truth in my narrative, but I’m also leaving a lot out. I didn’t live with my dad during elementary or high school, but academic success was one of the only things we bonded over when we did spend time together. He delighted in hearing about my grades and awards. My mom was not able to provide the most stable environment, but she still cared about our educations and invested what she could in them. I remember resenting the time my mom spent drilling my twin brother on reading when he fell behind in school, but now I recognize he needed her time and energy more. I remember many long, boring afternoons stuck in daycare with nothing to play with, but a few years later my mom took out loans to enroll us in karate classes. I was never pressured to spend more time on household chores, taking care of my sibling, or, later on, working to earn additional income for the family. The expectation in my family was that you would not just go to college, but get a higher-level degree; even my mom, who struggles with untreated mental illness, managed to complete her master’s.

I grew up poor, but the schools I went to were average or above-average, and they recognized me as a gifted, advanced student, entitled to the best of all they had to offer, including the contents of their relatively well-stocked libraries and their extracurricular programs. Looking back, I am also grateful to my teachers for knowing when to leave me to my own devices: the first-grade teacher who created a separate reading group just for me and one other boy, the gifted education teacher who taught me to write like my pen’s on fire, the gifted education teacher who let me register as a team of one for that year’s competition, the principal who let me cut a few weeks of classes to go on a trip to Haiti, the track coaches who tracked countless laps around the track.

Track is an individual sport, and so were all my other success during those years: I considered myself exceptional, and so I was wary of working with others. Even in my work in Haiti, which was inherently collaborative, I relished the independence and challenge of navigating the countryside alone. Delpit’s (2006) confession that working in the developing world meant “I could tackle someone else’s failures and forget my own” resonates with me (p. 14). Books, writing, and travel were all forms of escape; they allowed me to feel I was connecting with people without actually getting to know them or myself better. My inability to see myself as a member of a group also meant I was blind to my own privilege and impact. In a high school debate, I actually argued against affirmative action, claiming that I had struggled just as much as black students to get where I was.

College has been a process of learning to view myself as a member of a community, rather than a self-made woman. Choosing to live in the “do-gooder” Spotswood dorm, as a member of the Sharpe program, rather than the “smarty-pants” Monroe dorm as one of the W&M <10%, was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’m sure it’s not the last time in my life I’ll be asked to reject prestige, but it’s significant because it was the first, and because of what it led to. It set me up to take African-American English, where I learned that all the language issues I’d been discussing in the context of Haiti were just as present in my own country’s educational system. It introduced me to a circle of compassionate people who I still turn to today, both as friends and as examples of how to live with empathy.

My biggest struggle at the moment has to do with balance: too often, I get caught up in how my work benefits others, instead of remembering that it must also bring me joy, and I question how I can work overseas when citizens of my own country are under attack. As Banks and Banks (2006) acknowledge with their statement that “periods of the extension of rights have often been followed by periods of retrenchment and conservatism,” the fight for civil rights in the U.S. is indeed a fight, and my group, white people, is determined to win (p. 7). I’m still working to figure out how I will best make my contribution to the resistance, especially the question of how to gain enough power to be effective in my work without sacrificing my ideals in my pursuit of them. I’m in search of mentors and role models in the literature who can challenge, inspire, and reprogram me to do better. I knew I had signed up for the right class when I recognized myself in Delpit’s (2006) description of well-meaning white, liberal educators who “believe that their colleagues of color did, in the end, agree with their logic. After all, they stopped disagreeing, didn’t they?” (p. 23).

Bibliography

Banks, J. A., & Banks, C. A. M. (2006). Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives. Jossey-Bass, An Imprint of Wiley.

Delpit, L. D. (2006). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. The New Press.