It’s been years now, two decades to be exact, that a poised mentor told me I would never be a writer, I was high school quality at best, and that I was mediocre at it on a good day. After twenty years you think I would have forgotten those cruel words. I did not. Instead, at twenty-one, I remember how much I was mortified and crushed. It was college, and I sat in my advisor’s office and cried. He was young, non-tenured, and had to play the political balance. When I told him what occurred, after pulling his jaw from the desk it had just fallen on, he bluntly said: “You’ll never see that bastard again.”
With that, as the years have rolled on, I’ve published a book or a few, an article or a few handfuls, and sometimes I’m a writer who makes an income from it. I remember my first check from a press involved my paying rent and buying lunch. Just like that. It was a chicken wrap, on a 5.99 special. Just like yesterday, I remember that wrap just as I remember the failed mentor’s words. Unlike some mackerel sushi I had in Amsterdam that I can still taste, the flavor of the wrap was never the point. It was the value of making a living from writing and a resolute moment sitting at the sidewalk cafe dickering to myself that “the bastard” did not win.
By day, I rally college students in the name of higher learning, and in doing so I try to employ on them the power and passion of education, finding your current in life, and why other's perceptions are not your only value. Why, yes, there is something to be said for knowing how to behave socially, understanding modes of conduct, and how to adjust to mistakes, hiccups, and detours. I certainly do not think that everyone should be a ballerina, doctor, housewife, and so on. Instead, as I try to employ to students, we should allow our dreams to evolve and reflect our changing perceptions and the lessons we learn. We should engage in uncomfortable conversations, we should challenge ourselves and our peers, and we should expect failure. But, we should never allow someone else’s perception of our abilities frame us.
As women, we face these unbalances more pointedly as females are still refining the ax and pick to smash the patriarchy and glass ceiling, and we are still struggling to be seen and heard in social, political, professional, and medical circles. Women are still twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression, as so often we are shoved off as being emotional. Of course, in the midst of that, we still battle a world where our bodies are not always our own and crossing the street can be a jungle maze of catcalls and insults. The recent social media rising of #metoo stirred more than just memories, and anger, of sexual harassment. The echoes of being told “that’s just life, learn to deal with it” and being told to “smile” certainly relit old fires. Though, even angrier memories of being told “oh, stop complaining you know you like it” made my blood boil again. These “me too” moments fall firmly alongside that so-called mentor’s words.
If I had been a male, he would not have said those callous words to me. Just as when I was eighteen, a freshman in college, if I were a boy, a fulltime employee of the kitchen I worked at would not have talked about the size of my chest, rear, and the desire to see me naked for months on end. Of course, if I had been a wealthier girl taking my complaints to the college work-study office I might have been taken more seriously. Or maybe if I was thinner. Or maybe... My point, after all these years, fights, and lessons learned, we still have to fight. Complacency never wins, acceptance of injustice and inequality never stabilizes the playing field, and ignoring the matter does not make it go away. Instead, as women—grown and still growing—we have to show ourselves and the world that progress is not stationary. Those lessons from “me too” and those personal experiences like my mentor dumped on me years ago serve to propel us even more. Who knows who we will become. No one has the right to steal your thunder and suppress your desire until you let them.
That old mentor: I hear he’s “proud to have had me as a student” while another mentor, who didn’t have me in class ironically, is proud to have known me then and now. The irony is not lost on me as one shaped me in forceful, social changing ways and the other... Perhaps he is part of what made me the fighter, activist, and writer than I am.