Over twenty years ago now, I attended a spring recruitment event at my undergrad institution, Wellesley College. I listened to other girls talk about the other Seven Sisters or Ivy League institutions they’d considered, been rejected from, or were still considering. I didn’t understand half the stuff they talked about — I’d learned about Wellesley from a brochure after I did well on my PSAT’s and accepted my early admission without even knowing the phrase Seven Sisters.
I misunderstood so much of what was happening around me socially in my first year as a college student. It wasn’t my first time feeling like an outsider, but it was the first time I felt the material effects of such a status.
Homesick? Call some friends from home. Your dad will understand why you had to have a $200 phone bill this month.
Sad about a bad quiz grade? Your dad will understand if you charge those boots to your credit card.
I come from a firm middle-class background. I hardly went without as a child and my parents have helped me out tremendously since I’ve become an adult. But I laugh thinking about what my dad would’ve said had I regularly maxed out the $200 limit on the emergencies only credit card my parents helped me get and tried to tell him boots qualified.
Yet when I asked my tour guide at Wellesley about the computers in her dorm room and she told me, “Oh, everyone has a computer,” I assumed the college provided them. Because in what world does everyone have a computer in their dorm room — especially in 1995?
My high school had economic diversity. My public school teacher parents were among the top of the range. Among my elementary and middle school classmates, my family fell more in the middle, but still the daughter of a podiatrist and the son of a middle manager at Warner Lambert’s local plant comprised the top. I spent time with friends in their Section 8 or housing project homes and knew–and loved–kids who were intermittently homeless.
My life had been fine before I went to college. I recognized my own privilege. People who know me well will recognize the details of one of my college memories — when a young woman whose father was a bus driver and I were the only ones to raise our hands when a professor asked who among us felt privileged. I struggled openly and loudly with reconciling the privilege I saw at Wellesley with the other side I knew from home.
Eventually, I learned how to live peaceably among people with much fancier pedigrees than my own. I learned to imitate and to rid myself of the mannerisms and dialect traits some of my professors told me needed to go. This has served me well although I recently have come to wonder if I’ve just been hiding all these years.
One of our rabbis quoted Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s interpretation of Psalms 37:10 at Selichot services Saturday night, “And in just a little bit (ve-OD me-at) there’s no sinner; when you think about his place, he won’t be there.” Rabbi Nachman interpreted the phrase to mean no one is completely bad. There’s a “little bit” of good in everyone and if you look well enough, you will find it. He went further to say we should look for it even in ourselves. It’s easy to interpret his words too simply. The “good” I look for is more similar to the gleam of light, the divine spark, to which Emerson alludes in “Self-Reliance” than to a nice trait in a human personality.
I was so angry at the world my first year and half in college. So angry about the promises I thought had been made by our country: that people just had to be good and work hard and they’d be rewarded. I looked around me and saw students around the Boston-area who weren’t any smarter or hard-working than my friends and fellow students from high school. They’d clearly been handed a better deal. I was angry at them. I was angry at myself because I was reaping rewards I wasn’t sure I deserved.
I was also angry at myself because I was falling in love with my new friends in the way you only can when living in the close quarters of a dorm. I was angry because I worried about betraying old friends and because I harbored resentment toward my new ones. My new friends had tremendous good in them back then. They still do today.
It was very hard to reconcile their good with their privilege. It was even harder to reconcile my own good with my own privilege. My work with that process is not yet over. I sometimes wonder if it’s the greatest obstacle I face in life. I’ve often thought that my adaptability, or my desire to find what’s lovable in everyone, is my little bit of good. Lately I’ve been thinking that no, my anger is also a divine remnant. Bringing together my love and my anger, not masking one with the other, is my project for the new year at least.