Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Blooming into my winter

As a teen, I always said the worst thing about growing up was becoming a female driver.

Still, I learned to drive pretty solidly, so I can handle that stereotype. After all, my dad raced cars somewhat successfully and taught me to be as aggressive as Emerson Fittipaldi, the Brazilian wonder.

But as I aged, I realized the worst thing about becoming a woman was joining a league that is considered, well, the weaker sex—especially when so many women rely on a man to financially carry them through life. This is a stigma that I simply cannot accept.

Very early on, I resolved that I would never be that woman. After all, my momma would raise no candy ass, as she told me. And relying on someone else to take care of me was never in my cards, never will be, even though the opportunity for me to stay home has almost always existed. Why would I relinquish the chance to succeed simultaneously as a professional and as a mother?

This hit me recently as I pushed through an intense workout during a winter storm.

It came as the snow unleashed its 17 inches of fury on my neighborhood. Since I couldn't run outdoors, I calmly mounted Stella, my trusty Cannondale, within the comfortable confines of our library. In need of a hard workout, I wondered if I could bike 30 miles on the trainer, without the luxury of coasting or lifting my rear out of the unyielding seat of stone. Could I do this without whining?

As I started, I thought about the approaching Saturday when I would begin yet another graduate class to add to my three-page resume. This will be my 21st masters class, which means I will claim 63 graduate credits to my name. Add that to two bachelor’s degrees, and it’s pages of transcripts.

I knew who to blame for this doggedness: Joe G., my high school guidance counselor. However, I realize I should also give him props.

For as I pushed the pedals—with the Pretenders, the Clash, and The Who to motivate me—I thought about Joe G. who long ago told me that I wasn’t “college material.” He suggested “business school” or community college. Learn shorthand, become an assistant, answer phones. I would not accept this at the time. Granted, I didn’t have stellar grades, my family didn’t bestow endowments at small liberal art institutions, I cut a few classes to go out for lunch with my friends. Still, I wanted to go to college.

Without his blessing, I applied to several schools. I got into all of them, eventually choosing Penn State. And I'll never forget the day he searched me out to say he was "shocked" by my initiative.

Had I listened to him, I would most likely be chained to the ankle of someone who would pay my way. Instead, I had to believe in myself and prove to any doubters that I could succeed in a man’s world. Fortunately, for every doubter, there is a believer. One man who believed in me was my English teacher, Dick Tracy, who also happened to be the boys’ basketball coach, a decorated one at that.

Tracy spent most of my junior year focused on the varsity hoops squad, which eventually went on to win states. But once basketball season ended, Tracy morphed into an inspirational leader who once questioned why I wasn’t in a higher English class. I had, after all, aced my grammar tests, could analyze literature, had the highest grade in Period 4. His continual affirmation created an impact on me not found previously in my schooling. Yes, I had other supportive teachers. But Dick Tracy appreciated my strengths, my desire to succeed. And I never forgot that, how this man made me love MacBeth, love identifying prepositions and dangling participles, love writing. Under his tutelage, I began to bloom.

When I headed off to college, I took freshman English composition with Professor P. With a small chip on my shoulder, thanks to Tracy's laurels, I felt I could embrace any challenge. When I faced my first assignment, I threw myself into the topic and wrote a small tome. A week later, Professor P returned it. “D,” it screamed. I cringed, knowing this couldn’t possibly be right. I didn’t get low grades on essays. So I made an appointment to see Professor P. Still a nervous 17-year-old kid, I mightily tried to to control my stutter as I told him that I disagreed with the grade and appealed for him to reconsider.

“Why is this so important to you?” he asked that fall afternoon.

I began to cry: “Well, Professor P, I want to be a writer.”

He reclined in his chair, looked over his reading classes, flexed his fingers like a spider doing push-ups on a mirror, and chortled: “Oh, Miss Reaman, you will never be a writer.”

Never be a writer…

That was all I needed to hear.

Years later, I landed a reporting job at the same newspaper where he wrote part-time. And I quickly discovered that his articles were less than stellar. The way I saw it: I won awards; he did not. I often got plucked for plum assignments; editors often chose him as a last resort. On several occasions, I had the opportunity to edit his copy and found myself rewriting linguistic messes.

I never had the chutzpah to remind him how, years earlier, he discounted my dreams, my goals, my potential. I could contently and silently live with the knowledge that I didn’t need his approval or blessing. That’s because his statement simply challenged me, and I set out to prove him wrong. And I did, even if he'll never remember.

I remain certain that neither my guidance counselor nor my English professor would have uttered such statements if I had the XY factor. And so I thank them both, just as much as I thank Mr. Tracy, for placing high hurdles that forced me to prove myself--even if it was just for myself. For each hurdle that I've encountered, my 5-foot-8 frame has clearly leapt with every ounce of energy that I can muster.

Never will I be content to stay home, pull in a few bucks, and rely on a man to pay my bills. Who can’t do that? Honestly. I deserve better than that. My daughters deserve better than that. They deserve strong, independent role models who can fend for themselves, with a man or without. I am empowered to raise four children—sometimes as a single mother—as I continuously seek higher education, explore avenues to perfect my writing skills, expand my intimacy of culture, inspire the squirrels I teach, knock off 50 military push-ups, run 26.2 miles, and even ride 30 miles on Stella aboard a relentless trainer without whining. Yes, definitely without whining.

For I am not the weaker sex.

Rather, I am the flower that will bloom long into her winter.

After all, my momma wouldn't raise no candy ass. And neither will I.

1 comment:

dreaman said...

'CANDY ASS' 'CANDY ASS'. God, now I know I am getting old. I can't remember this one. "Growing up or growing old is so hard to do." I look at Annie, Grace & Kendall & wonder were will they be 20 years from now.

Big sigh............... Hopefully, I'll have some of Grandma Reaman's longevity and will see them blossom just like our "Denephew" did.

Love your blog