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By Emily Rooney
* “Collective Voice of the Voiceless”: Campus Violence, Resistance, and Strategies for Survival Forum Contribution*
Dear Mr. Nathan Cooley,
I’m sure you were confused by the return name and address on this letter. Chances are, you don’t remember me. After all, you interviewed me two years ago and you certainly have interviewed many others since then. Maybe you even interviewed them in the same place. You did pick out a great coffee shop. That interview was my first time at Las Vetas Lounge, a small café tucked away in a wealthy downtown I didn’t know well. Yet, the canary yellow walls adorned with sun sketches felt familiar. A “relaxed vibe, an oasis in this crazy rat race,”according to one Yelp user. The furniture was deliberately mismatched, as were the ceramic mugs. Everything was colorful, including the chalk on the hand-written menu boards. The smell of coffee and pastries hung in the air and was embedded in the worn-in red couches. Ceilings were low, chairs were close, and the thermostat was turned up to counteract the January chill that would infiltrate the shop each time someone opened the door.
It was so cozy that you would think we would be comfortable, like old friends. But I was not. It was a college interview, and my hand was shaking long before it shook yours. We smiled and cordially greeted each other. Your handshake was strong and firm, making me conscious that my own never exuded such confidence. As friendly and “normal” as you were, just a white, middle-aged man of average height and build, you had a power over my future and that was intimidating.
You asked me all about my hobbies, what books I like to read, what I hoped to study, and even my hopes and dreams. That’s what colleges are interested in. I gave pleasant answers and you reacted pleasantly. Just as I was gaining confidence and feeling good about my prospects, you asked, in a deep, casual voice, a question that caught me off guard:
“So, are you planning on being a stay at home mom?”
I remember feeling like I had misheard you. The question was out of the blue and, I thought, completely irrelevant during a college interview. It was certainly not a question you would ask a male applicant. I became hyperaware of the assumption that you were making that because I am a woman: I was going to have children, but also of your implications that educating someone who would “just” become a stay at home mom would be a waste.
With four semesters of college now under my belt, I can say with confidence that it is short sighted to assume that the benefits of a college education are only economic or career related. In fact, twenty-one percent of stay at home mothers are college educated, even though they aren’t using it towards a “career.” A study by Luis E Vila in 2000 showed that education helps to inform habits and has positive impacts on health and life expectancy. Education also has a great influence on “child quality,” or children’s educational development and health. There are many ways that the 10.2 million women in the U.S. who choose to stay at home with their kids can use higher education. But at the time you asked me, I couldn’t point any of this out to you. You were a prestigious man from a prestigious university and this was a prestigious opportunity that I could not mess up.
My smile faltered for just a second, but I quickly regained my composure. I wouldn’t want to sabotage my interview with a scowl or raised eyebrow. But even when I answered honestly, “I don’t know,” you nudged until I answered with the more definitive “probably” that you were looking for, which wasn’t my honest answer. The truth was, I had no idea, which should have been fine with you. I didn’t even know my major. You smiled, sipped your hot beverage, and we continued on, although I remained flustered for the remainder of our meeting, fidgeting in the plush, comfortable chair.
Before you stop reading this letter, you should know this is not an angry letter written by an offended feminist who failed to speak up. This letter is my way of letting you know that while that interview meant nothing to you, I sometimes catch myself thinking of better answers to the question you had no right to ask. For the remainder of the interview while I chatted about The Catcher in the Rye and you recounted your fabulous college experience to me, I was really thinking about how my mom was a working mom, a “modern American woman.” She was my role model for how to balance a career and a family. She was a great mom. Then I thought about my grandma who was a stay at home mom and who was no less intelligent or admirable for making her six kids her career. Instead of asking myself if I would be a “working” or “stay at home” mom, I should have been asking why this was a legitimate question during my college interview. I wish you asked me who my role models were, or what I dreamed of doing with my education. I wish you asked me about my family, the one that shaped me, rather than the hypothetical one you assumed to be in my future. Those questions would have not only have been more appropriate for an interview, but they would have given you a better, real sense of who I am.
Perhaps you meant no harm by your question; it probably came out of an innocent place of genuine curiosity. You were clearly kind, intelligent, and passionate about your school. But I regret letting your impressive career and elite alma mater stop me from being honest about what I was feeling and knew at the time. This letter is what I hope someone would write to me if I had made offensive and discriminatory assumptions. Your patriarchal assumptions harm education and its possibilities. This letter is an attempt to see you as flawed as well as prestigious. More importantly, it is to name myself worthy of teaching and being taught. Respecting oneself isn’t staying silent because of someone’s credentials or institutional power, but valuing myself enough to be honest about my own thoughts on education and gender.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I truly hope you are doing well.