Creative Non-Fiction: The Car of Your Dreams

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.

 

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18 Responses

  1. Oh, I can so relate to this. While my parents didn’t push me so hard….well I suppose it was me who pushed myself. By the end of junior year I could barely concentrate, I was forgetting to breathe, and I couldn’t sleep. Senior year I had terrible depression and anxiety and I missed months of school. Scooted by with a D in my AP calc class with an F for the last final there. Proudest F ever. It was sort of F for “f*ck you, high expectations!” Now I’m about to go to Knox College for a creative writing major! Everything’s going to work out.

    And I think you’re already a successful writer and I’m sure many others agree!

    • Oh Lem, I didn’t realize you were on this part of your journey and planning to go to school just now. You’re very articulate and Knox College is lucky to get you.

      The whole college admissions process and the costs of college have changed dramatically since I was in school, of course.

      The one thing you’ll probably want to figure out – sooner rather than later – is whether or not you want to go on to get an MFA. They seem to be in great demand these days.

      As ever, I’m grateful for your comments about my writing. I always find it to be a balm for my suffering soul when people say they enjoy reading what I’ve written… (I could’ve given Freud a real run for his money.)

      • I don’t know if I’ll get an MFA! Writers don’t truly need a creative writing major or MFA after all, but it must help a ton. I’m sure many successful writers have dropped out of college or even high school.

        • I think in today’s market, having the MFA is at least as much about developing deeper relationships that can help lead to getting your work published as it is about anything else. There is a strong network of contacts people develop from their MFA school programs and shouldn’t be under-estimated in terms of its importance.

          You could drop out and not go to school, but it is really not advisable. Despite the high costs of college, it is the single largest factor for you moving forward in your life to determine how much money you will be able to make in your career.

          Then again… as a product of the higher educational system, it’s not surprising I believe these things. Many entrepreneurs did drop out of school (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, etc) but what we don’t see are all the others that also dropped out and never achieved success.

          So… if you can stack the deck in your favor, you should.

  2. Great essay.

    Question: you don’t think it taught you that rules were rules, that a promise was a promise, that words mean what we say they mean? I ask genuinely, because I confront this very issue with my daughter (who’s much younger than at the time, admittedly) all the time: should I be a stickler and follow the letter of the law (I laid down), or err on the side of kindness? I fear that if I am kind too often, she’ll be shattered later in life when she discovers that some rules just ain’t bendable, you know? But your essay here really makes me think about this – maybe it’s better to just let her have that ice cream cone even when she failed to clean up, you know?

    Thanks for writing this.

    • Thanks for your kind words Court, and your question.

      I don’t have children, but I know how traumatized I was from this particular event. I had to work really hard for a really long time (years) to achieve graduating 12th in my class. I believe my father should have found some suitable alternative reward, it didn’t have to be a new car.

      In fact, later when I went to buy my first used car, an $800 dollar forest green Pinto (not the model with the exploding gas tank) … I paid for it out of the monies I made at many part time jobs I was also told I needed to take to “save money for school.” (Don’t get me started… I only touched on some stuff in this essay.)

      Now, as a parent (which I am not) it is important to set certain boundaries for children. Ice cream cones are the least of it, there are essential value systems and guidance children need and must have – and yes, my parents did provide that for me too.

      But I think what you are talking about is whether or not to “spoil” a child (giving in frequently on minor items) vs. the big stuff. And I think it’s a matter of judgement – if your kid really is having a bad day and giving them an ice cream from Daddy will make it better … the world is so transient as a kid it will not be, and should not be remembered.

      I think a good rule of thumb would be – how likely is it that my child will remember what I said / did / or didn’t do in a year from now? How about 5 years from now? How about as an adult? Because what I’m talking about happened decades ago, and frankly, still bothers me enough to write about it. :-}

  3. You’re one hell of a storty teller, and a successful writer in my book. I hope one day you become a “success,” as you define it. In the mean time I will continue to read your work, learn from it, and enjoy it.

    • Thank you so much Sean. I’m glad and grateful to have you as one of my regular readers and supporters!

      I look forward to seeing more published works from you too my friend!

  4. I loved the story. It’s amazing how much influence your parents have during your growing up years, no matter how large or insignificant something may have seemed…it can still have a lasting impact. Your MFA comment discussion was interesting. I’ve been debating whether or not to pursue one. I list the pros and cons, then list the pros and cons, and then do it again…I think I’m leaning towards it, now. If anything, it helps with the credibility, I think, and more formal training.

    Thank you for sharing a part of your history!

    Kat
    http://www.kat-collins.com

    • Thanks so much for your comment Kat, and for following my blog! (A new reader who is also a writer – yay!!)

      Yes, our parents behavior always has a very long lasting effect on us as adults, whether we admit it or not (I admit it easily.) One of the things that has helped me over the years is also understanding the context within which my parents were operating – they didn’t have the advantage of having gone to college, and I think they felt a sense of urgency… particularly my father… that someone in the family have this achievement.

      I’m not sorry to have the three advanced degrees I got, and I know they’ve helped me be immensely successful in the corporate world and in my life in terms of the discipline it required to go for two different masters degrees.

      Regardless, it’s always uncomfortable for me to share really intimate personal stuff and I can see from the many reactions on the blog how worthwhile it is to exercise some of my demons in public. In a way it helps reduce their effect, strange to say but true…

      In any case, welcome aboard and your comments, observations and other sharing are all very welcome here!

      Carol

  5. It’s a familiar story, so busy fulfilling the expectations of others we arrive at a place having met them and wonder why we are not fulfilled. I immigrated myself to get away from that and then started doing part time courses while I was working in an attempt to discover what I was really interested in. The second half of my working life could not be more different than the first and what I learned from my own childhood in terms of education and choices, I can only make sure isn’t repeated in the lives of my children, they have had the freedom to discover and find their own passions and talents whether they are academic or otherwise, it is a joy to watch them grow and develop in this way and I am convinced they will find fulfillment on the paths thay choose.

    • What a wonderful comment Claire, thanks for sharing.

      If you don’t mind… what had you been doing early on, and then what did you wind up changing to?

      This essay has brought out such interesting comments, and I’m glad you shared yours.

      Carol

      • I studied Agricultural Economics at university (in New Zealand) and quietly told myself I’d get back to that 17th century poetry I adored when I was 40. I went for interviews with government organisations and to not disappoint my mother, who had political aspirations. I turned down the offer to crew on a tall ship that was sailing around the world (after working on it for a week) because I felt guilty for not getting back and finding that serious job, but after working in NZ for 5 years I left for good and moved to London where I worked freelance/temporary and slowly began pursuing the things I wanted to do.

        In all I spent 16 years working in government and business and had what would be considered a relatively successful career, though never staying very long in one place. My last big job was as Marketing Manager for the Transport Authority of a major city. Meanwhile during those years I enrolled in a part time course to study for a diploma of Aromatherapy, Anatomy & Physiology and Traditional Chinese Medicine, participated in a creative writing course and also enrolled in a night course on ‘Running Your Own Business’. I also travelled to more than 30 countries.

        I now live in the south of France, have learned to speak French fluently, teach English to adults, write book reviews, short stories and novels (not yet published, but not really trying yet either) and run a mobile aromatherapy practice all around the Provence region. I also have two children. I don’t earn anything like I used to, but my life is better than I ever dreamed possible, it gets better each year and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

        • Thank you so much for sharing your story Claire. I truly admire anyone who can release the “standard” expectations of career and really go for it with a satisfying alternative.

          Since you made the “when I was 40” comment, I can say it does take time to come to these decisions and break away.

          For some artists, doing the corporate thing was never an option, so they don’t get caught up with those expectations…but similarly they usually suffer more financially throughout their lives, unless they are one of the rare ones who make it / make it big…

          But you give me hope for some “later” point in life; not quite retirement, still full of life and ready to live on my own terms. I’m doing it partially now, but I could see myself embracing it more fully in maybe 5-10 years…

          Finally, please dispel the myth I have in my head then that living in the south of France is astronomically expensive? You said you are making a lot less, if you don’t mind my asking – how do you make that work for yourself and your family?

  6. It’s true that by the time I was 40 I had broken away from my previous career and lifestyle, however I started working on it, preparing for it, in my late twenties and slowly replaced each activity, but you are right, those early days also enabled me to pursue those other activities and I learned many of the skills I still use during that time. It is perhaps easier to have had financial freedom and then experience restraint than to have always suffered restraint and never had financial freedom and then have to compromise.

    France is as astronomically expensive as the size of your expectations, or if you are a tourist because you don’t have time to know how to live like a local. If you want to live in a big house, drive a big car, shop at the big supermarket, put your kids into an international school, basically if you transport a foreign lifestyle into France it will be expensive.

    We live in an apartment, my children walk to the local school, we drive a small car, go camping for our holidays, shop in the market and my only real indulgence is books. I am not a typical expat, many are here because of their husbands jobs or for retirement, but I also know writers and artists who have come here for a year or two who also know how to live frugally and make it work; the more difficult challenge is the language and coping with the sudden isolation that many newcomers face. But if you want it badly enough, and you do have to want it badly, its definitely worth it.

    • This comment by you:

      It is perhaps easier to have had financial freedom and then experience restraint than to have always suffered restraint and never had financial freedom and then have to compromise.

      YES, this is completely brilliant. And true.

      There is a way to adjust from having had more financial freedom and CHOOSING to downscale your life consciously because it is a choice you are actively making with (mostly) known consequences, some of which would be planned for very carefully I’d imagine.

      If you’re always in a situation of deprivation, however, I think it causes such a tremendous amount of frustration, angst, anger, and inflicted compromise without control that is better to be avoided when possible.

      Claire, I like your perspective and maturity in how you think about life.

      As for your further comments about living as an ex-pat and “importing” that lifestyle… it also makes perfect sense to me. Whenever I go places I do my best to live as a local (sometimes more successfully than others, depending on where I’m going and time constraints.)

      My trip to New Orleans this past December (extensive blog posts on my trip on the blog, by the way) was my most successful example to date vis a vis “living like a local.” Check it out when you have a moment…

  7. Your father was terribly cruel, and I’m sorry for that. You would have worked hard anyway. No Princeton – no big deal (who’s to say you wouldn’t have gone there on loans anyway?).

    But no car – very big deal. His rules were more flimsy than a piece of paper. To paraphrase Chief Ten Bears from “The Outlaw Josey Wales”: there was no “iron” in your father’s words. (Although there was a stick.)

    I suppose your father might say that you achieved in his terms, but the time will come for Your Terms to be announced, whether quietly or in song – and you will know that you have fully prevailed.

    • It’s funny, I opened that piece saying I almost feel the need to defend my well meaning but ultimately harmful parents. When I read your reply, I realize I still feel that way… maybe what I can say is, I’m guessing my father did the best he could at raising children, although some of his tactics may have achieved certain results he thought were of most benefit, he did not understand or fully comprehend the damage being done at the same time….

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