This piece is as much reflections on my education as a continuing graduate student as well as my role as a history and social studies teacher at an independent high school. Scandals like last year’s Operation Varsity Blues bring to the fore the role of socioeconomic status and inequality at elite institutions of higher learning. It even calls into question what it means to be “elite” — either as an institution or as a student/alumnus. Writing of the lowly plebeians seeking an elite education, Daniel Golden wrote for Town and Country in 2016: “Today the prospects for these unconnected applicants, who are predominantly middle-class whites and Asian-Americans, are even bleaker. The poor shmucks have to walk on water—during a tsunami.” There has certainly been a demonstrable advantage for the well-heeled; however, Golden’s observations may be an oversimplification and hyperbole. Allow me to shed some light on how this educator broke into the Ivy League. This first piece will explore: how my family helped me break into the Ivy League, and get into Columbia University.
First, I will provide some key attributes which I shall elaborate upon in this and my next installment in this two part series: curiosity, faith, grit, hardworking, imagination and grace. An excellent book on this subject that I first read four years ago was How Children Succeed by Paul Tough. Consider this passage from James: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4 NRSV. Let perseverance and faith do its work in developing your character and destiny, which can be a painful process but it remains our divine calling to self-actualize and push through–but many of us have both divine and mortal help.
When I was a young child, we moved from New Jersey into rural Pennsylvania and we did not yet have cable television. On account of my father’s career, we had a personal computer — an IBM PS/2. I wrote short stories on the word processor, and I “composed” music with the MIDI music software. The computer was a piece of cutting edge technology that was fun to engage with and allowed me to express my creativity in storytelling as well tinker with a diverse array of musical instruments to produce “entertaining” sounds. This “tinkering” and exploration through play developed into a passion tempered and cultivated by discipline, practice, precision, literacy. As I grew older, I continued to develop a keen interest in history and literature as well as music. I took Advanced Placement and honors classes as well as accelerated college bridge classes. I learned to play four instruments: the clarinet, the saxophone (alto and baritone), the violin and the guitar — with varying degrees of continued proficiency. I would really love learn the piano.
My mother was a high school mathematics teacher that taught AP Calculus to rural high school students. She was also quite creative at home. Delicious meals and desserts from scratch. And made Play-Doh from scratch–our toys. And always encouraged my creativity. For a school project, I made a longhouse from popsicle sticks and craft glue as well as my homemade Play-Doh to make people, bowls and a campfire. My masters thesis explored the struggled for recognition of a local Native American tribe.
My maternal grandmother was the first in her family to attend college and she earned a bachelors degree in economics and later a masters degree. She had the most amazing collection of books and antiques! When I was younger and visited her house, I would have quiet time sitting in the living room scanning through her encyclopedias and books on ancient Egypt. My paternal grandmother always encouraged my learning. Perhaps too much too early, she gifted Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book to me when I was six years old. LOL. My maternal grandfather was a local public official, from a longline of civic leaders dating back to the colonial era. My paternal grandfather was an absolute lion of a man but also a kind, gentle and courtly soul. A decorated war hero, successful business executive and generous community leader. He was a absolute Lion, and we, his family, were his pride.
My struggles made me. You see, its not the “A” that often defines the student but the “C.” I was encouraged to take risks, explore, hit dead ends, try harder, and try a different way. I took risks. I hit dead ends. I was broke. I sometimes worked two jobs. At my lowest point, I was deathly sick and housebound, but I had faith in myself and with God’s help, I got up and pushed through. I had role models. I always “gave back.” My first job was in environmental policy before working in healthcare, and then in banking before becoming a social studies teacher at a Waldorf high school. As a social studies teacher, I encourage students to learn the hard yoga (breathing, flexing and strengthening) of living in a complex, social world. Each one. Reach one. Teach one.
In the words of Kurt Hahn, as I tell my students: “There is more in us than we know. If we can be made to see it, perhaps, for the rest of our lives, we will be unwilling to settle for less.”
So, you see, this is how my family helped get into the Ivy League.