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What If?

September 29, 2009

For more than thirty years, I’ve saved an article from the newspaper entitled, “Help for Women Searching for New Careers” (Ray Howard, July 7, 1977, Salem Statesman-Journal). It serves as a reminder of the kinds of rational-economic motivators often used to convince students to return to or stay in school and it took me nine years to ignore its advice to enter a field in need of females: “business, architecture, engineering, science, law, medicine, dentistry, transportation and computerization,” none of which interested me.

During junior high and high school, I took aptitude tests and I was told several times that I had an aptitude for engineering. In retrospect, I realize that this is probably because I am an artist who loves working with my hands and I am very detail oriented, but I have never wanted to be an engineer. It is words and images, not numbers, that speak to me. Not so for my oldest son. He’s a math teacher and for him, numbers have personalities.

If you are searching for direction, it can be difficult to separate your personal desires from societally-, familially-, institutionally-determined relevance related to jobs and dominant culture definitions of success. We are all bombarded by messages about what it means to get ahead in life. Success is defined for us daily by the advertisements we see, by the movies and television we watch, by the things we read, by our friends and family. Determining what personal success means is an ongoing challenge because of this bombardment. I wrote the following in my journal in 1987, shortly after I returned to school:

If you are always told what you are not.

If you are never encouraged to pursue the things you love.

If you are raised to believe that what others want of—and for—you is more important than what you want for yourself.

If you do not even know what you prefer because it is not a question asked of you nor one that you have asked yourself.

If.

What if?

As I’ve said before, anyone who’s in school is likely to have to take things s/he isn’t particularly interested in. Sometimes those subjects turn out to be more interesting than anticipated. Sometimes they’re still a drag. But if they fit into the big picture of meeting a goal that resonates with you, it will be much easier to learn from them. As much as you can within the constraints of what’s offered, try to take at least one class each quarter that is something you look forward to and not something you just need to get done.

What messages have you gotten about what you should do with your life?

When I began my freshman year at an Oregon university, I was an elementary education major and all of my classes were pre-scheduled for all four years. My advisor told me that I would be unable to take any Spanish, music, or literature classes, all classes I had been looking forward to taking. I decided right then that my college career would not be something I was going to dread; it was going to be something I looked forward to. So I changed my major to English and Spanish with a music minor, and any class I felt passionate about, I took.
• Master of Arts in Teaching student, literacy history, fall 2008

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