Thursday, April 23, 2015

I Am My Own Lilly Pulitzer

I started out intending to write this post about the Lilly Pulitzer-Target kerfuffle that happened over the weekend, but that story seems to have lost its fizz and even I'm tired of reading about it. To make a long, and frankly, not very interesting story short, I've been inspired to start making my own dresses out of quirkily-printed fabrics and be my own Lilly Pulitzer. After all, she allegedly made her dresses with those wild prints to cover up juice stains, a gal after my own heart.

But then I realized that I only have one more week with my work study student and our intern who will be graduating in less than a month. And this year, it'll have been 20 years since I graduated from college.

Yeah, I did the math. It did not seem right at first- 20 years?? Not possible. But yeah. 
2015- 1995=  20 years. 
These pretty people are in no way old enough
to be 20 years out of undergrad.

Oddly, I got to thinking more about the beginning of the process today- the research, the visits, the applications to colleges. Maybe it's all the prospective first-years that have been making trips to campus, strolling around the Commons and gawking with their parents, that reminded me of my own road to Ithaca.

They're everywhere here.
I went to swim camp at Ithaca College when I was 16 and I knew the minute I set foot in town that I loved Ithaca. I knew I belonged here. A year or so later, my dad started talking to me about what I should study when I got to college. He told me that because I liked to write and create (I'd written and designed a computer-illustrated book and won an honorable mention award at the area media arts festival, in addition to other projects) I should study communications or media arts. My dad is a pretty astute judge of character; he's always been able to observe someone and then offer up a remarkably on-target assessment of their abilities. I agreed with his suggestion and I started researching schools with good communications programs. (As we were pulling out of the visitor's parking lot at Ithaca College after our visit, my dad turned to me and said, "You know, if you go here, you'll be surrounded by weirdos." It was really the deciding factor for me in I.C.'s favor. He was right, and they were glorious.)

My parents didn't put any limitations on what colleges I could consider- the only rule was that I couldn't go out to the west coast for my first two years. I initially thought this was because they just didn't want me so far away, but after a trip to San Francisco many years later, my first trip out west, my mom confessed that they'd made that rule because she and my dad knew that if I ever got out to California, I'd never come back.

Starting around 10th grade, I think, we had to start having conversations with our guidance counselor about our future plans. I remember sitting around a small round table with a couple classmates as the counselor made us go around the room and talk about what we wanted to do after high school. I listened as one of our group- a really talented guy- said he thought he might like to become an actor. The counselor pretty much tore that to pieces, dismissing it as an unreliable career choice. Another classmate was applauded for wanting to be an accountant. (I'm not entirely sure she even knew what that job entailed- it might have been the first thing she thought of on the spot.) I was derided for saying I might want to be a writer. There's no future in that, I was told. Do you really think you're talented enough to make a living writing? I remember her saying that in particular. 

Do you really think you're talented enough to make a living writing? I shrugged it off at the time, but it burns me now. Is your job really to make kids doubt their abilities and destroy their confidence in themselves? And for the record, there are plenty of careers that involve and require writing skills. I write everyday for my job. What kind of guidance counselor doesn't know of the options that are out there? She could've steered me into speechwriting or journalism or copywriting or even technical writing, but instead she put all her effort into squashing any latent dreams of being another Stephen King.

In 11th grade, we had to sign up for one-on-one talks with our counselor about our college or trade school plans. I saw it as a nuisance. I knew what I wanted to study, and I had it narrowed down to two colleges. I'd done my homework. I knew the requirements of my chosen major. Hell, I'd even spent a week on campus at one of my choices. I went in to the appointment with my counselor and she frowned when I told her I planned on studying communications. 

"That's not very practical," she said. "Did you give any thought to law or business?" 

"Yeah, and I ruled those out.  I want to study communications. It's what I like and it's what I'm good at." (Ignore the grammar, this was a 17-year-old's conversation.)

She frowned some more, made some notes in my file and decided to let that pass for now.

"Do you have some schools in mind?"

"Yes, I've narrowed it down to Ithaca College or Lycoming College. My parents are making me apply to a couple state schools as backups."

"Oh no no no," she said, reacting as if I'd announced my intention to spend a semester farming in Chernobyl. "I don't think you could handle Ithaca."

"What? Why not?"

"It's too big a school. It would just be too much for you."

Okay, now wait a minute here. Let's pause for a second. I was at the top of my class, excellent grades without much effort, involved in music, theatre, dance, and sports, juggling them all easily. I had been put into a gifted and talented program when I was seven. I was in our local and National Honor Societies. I had no history of mental breakdowns or given any indication that I would crumble under pressure. I was a quiet, pleasant, talented kid. This woman had absolutely no reason to believe I was incapable of attending a mid-sized school like Ithaca College. There was nothing in my history or background that would lead someone to believe that I wouldn't succeed and thrive in that kind of environment. If anything, I was one of the few kids in my class who could handle the academic rigors and atmosphere. Yet, here she was, once again doubting and discouraging me.

"You should think about something smaller and less challenging. Maybe a two-year school close to home?" (I should mention that Ithaca is about 1 1/2 hours from my hometown- not across the country or in a different time zone.) "That would be a good place to try and see if this is really what you want."

I think my face might've revealed my disdain and disbelief. I had no idea what to say to her. She actually ordered me to rethink my choices and she scheduled a follow-up appointment with me.

I fumed. I went home and told my dad and he reassured me that this lady was full of bullshit. He knew me and I knew me, and ultimately, we knew what was right for me. "Just do what you have to to keep her off your back," was his advice. I decided to do it one better.

At my follow-up appointment, she smiled condescendingly at me and asked if I'd found some "more appropriate" choices. 

"Yes," I said, grinning.

"Where?" she asked, eagerly.

"St. John's University in Queens, New York," I answered. "I know they don't have dorms, but I'm pretty sure I can find a place to live and figure out how to get around."

Her heart may have stopped beating for a quick moment (a New York minute, dare I say?). She dropped the subject and let me go back to class.

My dad & I at graduation.
Good god, we were tired from
getting up so early.
I did go to Ithaca College. I studied public relations and advertising in the Roy Park School of Communications (along with a writing minor). I made dean's list. I ranked in the top 25% of my class. And I graduated. 20 years ago next month.

As I was thinking about my struggles with the guidance counselor, I tried hard to figure out what her motivation had been- why would she discourage one of the more successful students from challenging herself? I mean, good lord, if that's how you are with the students who are doing well in school, what the hell are you saying to the kids who are struggling and really do need guidance??? 

I continued to have run-ins with this lady. She gave me grief when I insisted on not taking pre-calculus. I'd looked up the regents diploma requirements which stated I only had to take three years of math,
which I already had covered. She tried to tell me that no college would accept me if I didn't have pre-calc. I replied by quoting from the course catalog from my chosen school and program, which had no math requirements whatsoever. I still have never taken a math class past high school Math III (no idea what they call it now) and I have not felt its absence in any way.

She also tried to tell me what topic I should write my application essay on, although by that time I completely disregarded anything she had to say to me, even though I was still required to have regular visits with her- total wastes of time, in my book. Jim Henson had just died unexpectedly, and I felt real grief and sorrow from this loss. I wrote my essay about his influence on me and how his work had inspired me creatively. According to this deranged old bat, I didn't stand a chance unless my essay was less about personal experience and more about current events, like the fall of communism or the Berlin Wall coming down. 

Turns out, my essay on Jim Henson was one of the deciding factors in my acceptance to the Park School. I found out later that there were plenty of kids who got into I.C., but not the Park School. The Dean made the final choices, reviewing the essays. The Dean at the time was on sabbatical when I applied; the Interim Dean who read my essay and decided whether I made it in the Park School or not happened to have been heavily involved in the creation of the Children's Television Workshop and had known Jim Henson personally. A lot of good the Berlin Wall would've done me.

And so, to all you bright-eyed, enthusiastic, excited, and a little scared high school and college seniors pondering your future, don't let anyone discourage you from pursuing what you love. Don't let well-meaning "professionals" pressure you into putting your dreams away in exchange for a life of conformity. Yes, think about how you're going to make a living, but don't forget to make a life. Give some serious thought to the life you want for yourself, then figure out what you need to do to get it. Talk to people who are doing what you want to do- ask them how they got there. Trust me, they'll be happy to share their story with you. And most of all, trust yourself. You know you better than anyone. Learn to trust your judgement. It's tough- we're conditioned to follow the crowd, not our instincts. The best piece of advice I can offer you is from a slip of paper my dad gave me that I kept above my desk all four years of college and that I remind myself of regularly to this day: 
It's sometimes scary to trust your intuition.
But it's always disastrous not to.


  1. That counselor was an azzhole. I look at the divide around town: the country people from the hills who, no matter how smart, were never taken to the library to get books, never encouraged to write or dream or create or study compared to the spoiled frat boys in BMWs from the suberbs whose parents told them from day one they were SPECIAL and not only going to college, but going to an ivy. My point is that for some reason there has long been suspicion in the countryside, where I also grew up, of people smart and creative who dream of bigger things than being an accountant or pumping gas. Lou Reed said the only thing you can do with a small town is get out of it as fast as possible. You and I both did, even if neither small town is that many miles from Ithaca :) Congrats on the 20...this year marks 28 years for me, holy sh!t, college was just the other day....