Tag Archives: Expectations

My College Reunion

I’ve just returned from my 50th reunion at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and, as after every reunion, I’m struggling not to evaluate my life in black and white.

Reunions are joyous: catching up with classmates, revisiting Wellesley’s gorgeous campus, and huddling in the dorm with my old roommates until the wee hours, just as we did fifty years ago.

But reunions invite us to take stock of what we’ve achieved. Every five years our class produces a fat record book full of statistics and personal narratives. Reunions invite us to compare ourselves to others, and, compared to Wellesley’s famous “others,” I’m a failure.

Perhaps such comparisons are a hazard of any reunion, but at Wellesley the bar is high. I remember my interview at Wellesley fifty-four years ago. On a table in the admissions office was a Chinese vase given by Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, a Wellesley graduate. As the daughter of a name-dropper, I was impressed. Would some of her fame rub off on me? Today I share the Wellesley name with Madeline Albright and Hillary Clinton, who was a freshman when I was a senior. Perhaps I passed her on campus without, of course, knowing she is likely to become the first woman President of the United States. Being a Wellesley graduate makes for a good game of six degrees of separation.

But there is pain in having known famous women. Cokie Boggs Roberts and I were together in the Wellesley Widows, an a capella singing group, for three years. I adored her. We shared intimacies. She even stayed at my home in Greenwich after the Widows took a spring trip to Jamaica. But we went our separate ways. She became famous, and I know that now she doesn’t remember me. I shared a dorm with Diane Sawyer. Same story. Everyone in the Class of 1966 is proud that one of us became a Wellesley College president and another is a wealthy woman whose generosity built the college’s social center and whose contribution put our class at the top of giving this year. These classmates know me, but they’re too busy, and I’m too intimidated to consider ourselves friends.

And there’s the challenge of Wellesley’s motto: Non Ministrari sed Ministrare. “Not to be ministered unto but to minister” – four Latin words that capture the College’s mission: to provide an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Have I made a difference?

After every reunion I must remind myself that I am me, that apples can’t fall far from the tree, that it’s OK to fill the center of the bell curve. Without the bell, there would be no end-points for the famous others. But this year, while I’m consoling myself with clichés, I receive a letter from a classmate whom I don’t know very well. She’s seen my blog and writes, “I was really glad to have made the time to read your pieces, and I respect, too, your long career teaching in an inner city school. You have made a more lasting and positive impact on America than the rest of us put together.”

What an overstatement, but I’ll take it! I needed affirmation of my contribution. I realize, again, that failure is not the opposite of fame. And if fame is recognition, perhaps I am famous. Last week a security guard at the Sun Arena in Trenton asked if I’d worked at Trenton High School. He hadn’t been my student, but he remembered me bustling around the school on student government activities30 years ago.

My reunion doubt is gone. Why make comparisons? Why be a name-dropper? Instead, like my classmate, I’ll write letters affirming the contributions of others who, like me, are neither famous nor failures. We all make contributions, and we all need recognition.

Half Empty Half Full – Expectations Clarified

An example from Trenton High in my recent post “Half Empty Half Full” may have led some readers to think that only white counselors had low expectations for black students. Not true! Expectations for black students had no correlation to the race of the expecter. And thankfully not everyone had low expectations.

Kyle, who came to Trenton from Jamaica at the age of nine and who had never been to school, was placed in special education and, in high school, became my student. As he blossomed (he had no learning difficulties other than first having missed three years of school and then been treated as special), I began to see college potential. One of my black colleagues taught a summer enrichment and remediation program for minority students at a prestigious private prep school in Massachusetts. She agreed with me that Kyle should try to get into the program—why not? Kyle’s white English teacher was more realistic than I about Kyle’s chances and accused me of pushing Kyle; nevertheless, the teacher wrote a letter of recommendation. Kyle was not accepted to summer school, but he determined to go to college, especially because as a track star, he might get financial aid. He had my backing, and he was supported by his coach, a black man. On the other hand, his counselor, a black woman, was encouraging him to consider the army rather than college—not that I mean to suggest that a career in the army implies low expectations. Perhaps the counselor, given her large caseload, didn’t know Kyle well or was swayed by his classification as a special ed student. The point is that expectations differed widely; thus the kind of advice and help that students received differed too.

I believe that the adults who advised Kyle were well-meaning, but another incident shocked me. When a young black student in the gifted and talented program confided to one of her teachers that she hoped to become a doctor, the teacher sneered, “That’ll never happen. You’re from the projects.” The teacher was a black woman. Such a black-on-black put-down! Why?

When I first came to Trenton High, I assumed that all the black teachers, counselors, and administrators would be doing everything in their power to inspire students, to prepare students to break the cycle of poverty and discrimination. What I found is that a few did; most did not. Black and white staff alike often didn’t have the inclination or perhaps the energy to push themselves as hard as was necessary to overcome the challenges. Whether we adults pushed ourselves and whether we believed in the kids had more to do with our age and idealism than with our race. What I also found out is that any assumption about race is wrong.

The black teacher who judged people based on where they live really isn’t so different from me. My self-esteem surely rests in part on the fact I live in Princeton. But I never put a student down. Why does anyone put a kid down? Happily, both Kyle and the young woman who hoped to become a doctor achieved their dreams.



Half Empty Half Full

Regarding my blog’s tagline, Roberto said, “I certainly don’t believe we are “post” racial by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t think that term will ever be relevant in our lifetime.” I know he’s right, but I don’t want to believe it. And certainly I want to keep such a sad truth quiet. When Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you,” I hope no poor child overheard and misunderstood.

I worry about the children—born curious, energetic, hopeful. Do we warn them about the realities of racism or tell them they can be whoever they want to be? Or both? Do we see a black child as an individual or as a member of his race? When I worked at Trenton High, I heard teachers say “Our kids can’t….” as if they were all alike and as if they needed protection. Here’s an example. A friend from Princeton, who was a graduate of Penn State and an alumni recruiter, had told me that Penn State would welcome applications from Trenton High. After I’d passed the word to the guidance department, I ran into the brother of one of my colleagues in the hall. I’d occasionally driven him to his after-school job at the Princeton Medical Center and enjoyed his easy, bright conversation. The perfect applicant! I was pitching Penn State when a white counselor passed by and overheard. He took me aside and shook his head. “We don’t encourage our students to fail.”

I think of the times I’ve held a babywhite, black, and Asian. I’ve needed to believe that that baby could succeed. The alternative is too painful. We bring babies into a world of war, injustice, and suffering. We pray they’ll be spared.

Are we making progress? I had same-day surgery at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital this week, and I can report that the aide who greeted me, took my clothes, and brought warm blankets, as well as the person who pushed my wheelchair were black men. About ten percent of the nurses who worked in pre-op and post-op were black. A medical student rotating through plastic surgery and my anesthesiologist were both black women.