The Car of Your Dreams
I’ve been carrying around traumatic events from my adolescence for decades. Now that I’ve reached my forties and my parents are gone, it’s time to start telling other people what happened. I don’t want to carry these rocks around forever; I’m ready to have others help me carry them.
I feel a strange urge to defend my well-meaning but harmful parents. I didn’t suffer from physical or substance abuse in my family, it was nothing that traumatic. Even the word abuse seems too strong. But there were events that have had long term effects on my psyche. Sometimes I have irrational insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. No matter how hard I work in life, it never seems hard enough. In other words, my parents gifted me the prerequisite conditions to be a writer, or more broadly, a driven person.
From the earliest age I can remember my parents told me I was going to college. This was not a discussion they had with me, it was an indisputable fact of my existence. As the oldest of two children in a middle-class Jewish family it was my obligation to meet my parents expectations. I wasn’t unique in this regard. In Jewish households across America, every day a kid is told they’re going to college. And they will.
My grades underwent regular scrutiny from kindergarten through middle school, and by the time I got to High School my father became a harsh critic. I dreaded showing him my report cards. If I got a B in Math my father would ask why I didn’t get an A. I don’t know why I didn’t realize it, but no reason would satisfy him. He said I wasn’t working hard enough. For him it was the only rational explanation for why I didn’t get an A. A simple formula was applied: anything less than perfection showed a lack of dedication. On the flip side, always getting an A in English and French was passed over without comment. A was the expected grade; it required no chastisement.
But neither of us understood getting into a great college was going to be impossible for me anyway. I was unaware of the odds against me and my parents were ignorant of the admissions process, which they incorrectly assumed was fair and balanced.
I was getting good grades, that wasn’t the issue. But I went to school in a blue collar town with an undistinguished middle-of-the-road academic program. Ivy League schools turned their institutional noses up at high schools like mine. No one told me and certainly no one told my parents. (Our valedictorian, a painfully shy blond-headed boy who I had the worst schoolgirl crush on for years, went to a two-year community college to study Forestry.)
Anyway, there I was, editing the school newspaper, playing cymbals in the marching band, joining the Honor Society and the French Honor Society, and serving as the President of the Principal’s student advisory team. I don’t remember what else I did to have enough extra-curricular credentials to impress college recruiters, but I did my best to show everyone I was a bonafide nerd and it was working.
As I rounded my last academic lap senior year, my father saw me doing everything possible to accomplish what he expected. He decided to give me extra incentive. He told me if I graduated in the Top Ten of my class, he would buy me a new car. Really? I remember asking him. Yes, he said. Graduate in the Top Ten – Get a New Car.
As a seventeen year old girl the dangling carrot of a new car was beyond enticing. I was thrilled at the possibility my academic suffering could create a real-world result manifested as four tires, a gas pedal and a steering wheel. I dreamed in shades of robin’s egg blue. Whatever academic ambitions I fostered were now ratcheted up to inhuman proportions. I took on extra-credit assignments and became maniacal about the Top Ten goal.
My father knew I was part of the Honors classes. In High School I was in an advanced studies track which put me in the same classes with the other nerds. (This is one reason why I developed such a long standing crush on the blonde-headed boy, I was in every single class with him for four years.) But what my father didn’t know was I had a secret weapon: Denise L.
Miss L was our senior year Biology teacher and a newcomer to the teaching profession. I recall we didn’t have an Honors track Biology class, I don’t remember now why we didn’t, but Biology was a mixed class with goons from the general population mixed in with the nerds from the Honors track. (Of course the blonde-headed boy was in Miss L’s class too, a sweet torture for me.)
Miss L, like many of the teachers at my middle-of-the-road school, wanted everyone to do well in her class. It occurs to me now this might have been a tactic on her part to stay in her job a second year, since she’d be able to cite good grades for students of all levels. At the time I saw her as a nice but naïve new teacher.
Miss L gave all of us the same unconditional offer: turn in every single homework assignment and she’d add 8 points onto our final average at the end of the year. Despite my poor math abilities, I realized this opened the door for a perfect 100 in Biology senior year if I could at least get an A. I enjoyed biology so it was just the extra gas in the tank I needed for the Top Ten convertible of my dreams.
Meanwhile, the long march to college proceeded. I applied to four schools. In my order of preference at the time: Princeton, Cornell, Douglass College which was part of Rutgers University, and Stockton State College. Stockton was my back-up school. I got in with ease but had no intention of going. I also got into Douglass, which was a very good school, even though it was all-girls. Cornell wait-listed me and told me if I could delay my start until the following academic year I could get in, but I didn’t want to do that.
And then there was Princeton.
My father came with me to the Princeton recruiting event in his best dress slacks, a polo shirt and a suit jacket. I also got dressed up but still felt awkwardly out of place.
The nice people at Princeton set up the interview room with cafeteria tables representing each high school, so you didn’t have to wait on line too long to speak to a recruiter. For Westfield, an affluent town fifteen minutes away from where I lived, there were three tables set up for the kids and their parents. I think Montclair had two tables for their school.
For my town, along with the next town over and Elizabeth – the third largest city in the state of New Jersey – there was one table. One. And guess what? There were very few kids from these three towns, so my father and I walked right up and spoke to the recruiter who wore a jacket emblazoned with a Princeton crest. I was suitably intimidated.
Later, when my application to Princeton was declined, my father said it was just as well since he couldn’t afford to send me to Princeton. From his perspective this simple financial logic applied to Cornell too. I don’t know why my parents never thought far enough ahead while they psychologically whipped me year after year to get the best grades possible if they didn’t have the means or intention of sending me to an Ivy League school? I guess it was too logical to equate forcing your kid into academic achievement and the parental obligations that should have proceeded from it.
If I sound resentful it’s not because I resent being over-educated or the only person in my nuclear family to go to college. It’s because of the trail of tears I had to march for twelve years in order to go to our excellent state university. I could have gotten in there minus a lot of drama.
Thankfully though, I had an important alternate incentive. The car dangled within reach if I made it into the Top Ten. It helped me temper my disappointment on college choices. I loved Douglass College and Rutgers as it turned out and their English Literature program was fantastic.
Meanwhile, as senior year drew to a close, we were told final grades would be announced just before graduation. There were about 275 kids in my class. If I made it to the top 27, I reasoned, I’d be in the top 10%. I thought that was pretty good. There were at least 30 kids in the Honors track classes, and although we were a minority in our school, we were representative of the kids we’d be meeting when we got to college. For me, making it into the top 10% would mean I was competitive with my Honors track peers. But I didn’t have to worry: Miss L came through. I got a perfect 100 in Biology.
I graduated 12th in my class. I was so close to Top Ten! My father agreed that 12th was great and he was proud of me. But I wasn’t getting a car. I begged and pleaded with him to reward me: a used car, a motorized scooter, something, anything, as acknowledgment of my achievement. No, he said, rules were rules. Besides, he added, he couldn’t afford to buy me a new car.
I still believe now, decades later, his decision was cruel. It undermined my ability to trust the good nature of human beings. How could I imagine a situation where I worked my ass off and got rewarded fairly? It didn’t happen in my house. Ever.
The American credo, especially for immigrant families, was hard work leads to success. Eight years, three advanced degrees and tens of thousands of dollars in student loans later, yes, my hard work lead to my success. My parent’s brainwashing took root deep in my psyche; I learned how to beat myself up without their assistance. It turned out I was an excellent student after all.
In the end, I guess I turned out okay. I’ve got a well paid corporate career and I make more each year than both of my parents did at any point in their lives. Some might say I’m compelled to do it. I’m still not sure that’s my definition of success, but it was theirs. One day though, I hope to fulfill my real promise and become a successful writer.
Maybe someday I will.
Filed under: Art, Blog post, Creative Non-Fiction, Inspiration, Memories, Writing | Tagged: academic achievement, adolescence, college admissions, creative non-fiction, insecurities, memoir, parent-child relationships, writing | 18 Comments »