Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Why I Have No Degree

I watched Up the Down Staircase this afternoon. Sandy Dennis as an idealistic young teacher on her first assignment, in a slum school in New York (probably would be good on a double bill with To Sir, With Love).

As I watched the frustrations of someone imbued with the love of transferring knowledge to students, coming up against a group of hardened slum teenagers who want nothing to do with the study of Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson, I shuddered and thought about why it is that I have no college degree.

When I graduated from grammar school, most of the girls in my school went to Presentation High School. I had struggled for years to be first in my class, but I could never get higher than third. I figured if I went to a different school from the top two girls in my grammar school class, I might be able to do better.

Presentation was a college prep school. St. Vincent's was the best school in the city for teaching secretarial skills, but had recently added a college prep course to its curriculum.

There was never any question about whether I would go to college. My father insisted on it. He himself had only lasted one semester at San Francisco City College and then quit and I think he was ashamed of that his whole life. Nobody in my mother's family had gone to college and so I would be the very first person on either side of the family to go to college. My maternal grandmother was in a nursing home unable to speak but I remember the glow of pride on her face when my mother told her I was going to college.

I loved high school and I particularly loved the secretarial courses, but I took the college prep courses as well. I excelled in English and French, did miserably in math and fair-to-middlin' in sciences. (Ironically, I graduated third in my class of 60!)

Somewhere in my junior year, I decided I would become a nun. My father was furious. He saw that as a waste of my life, but my mother took my side and he reluctantly gave his permission for me to enter the Daughters of Charity.

In truth, I don't think I ever really wanted to be a nun, but I was carried away with the romanticism of it all. When push came to shove and I had to start assembling my trunk and buying things I would need in the convent, I was less and less enthused, though too embarrassed to admit that. My fears about entering had nothing to do with religion. They were fear that I would not be able to take care of my hair (my mother styled my hair until I was 18 and I was afraid I wouldn't know how to do it). There were fears of what it would be like to wear wool in the St. Louis summers. The Daughters of Charity had three areas of emphasis. Sisters were either teachers or nurses or concentrated on social work. I knew I didn't have the stomach for nursing and knew that I didn't want to be a teacher, but also knew that I would have no choice of what I would be assigned.

In the summer after I graduated, Sister Anne, my good friend and typing teacher, who had been transferred to Phoenix the year before, came back for a visit. I wonder if she came back specifically to talk with me. She did talk with me and gently suggested a 6 month postponement of my entrance into the convent. I would, instead, work at the school while I pondered my decision.

In the end, of course, I decided not to go. Instead of being relieved, my father took over my life. I wanted to take a year off from school and work, he said that he had listened to me once and refused to listen to me again. I WOULD go to UC Berkeley. He reasoned that if I took a year off, I would never go to college at all. Other than my decision to enter the convent (which my mother championed), I had no history of ever going against my father's wishes and so I applied for entrance to UC Berkeley. (It was easier to get in there, and cost much less than now.) Because of my six month delay, I entered mid-semester, so was on my own, without a group of entering freshmen with me.

My father insisted that I was going to be a teacher. You teachers will appreciate his reasoning--you only have to work 9 months a year, you get a great salary, you only work until 3 p.m. each day. He figured it was an easy way to make lots of money for very little work.

The problem was that I hated teaching. I was terrible at it. When I taught Sunday School at Newman Hall, I took the same class two years in a row so that I could have a chance to make up for all the stuff that I didn't teach them the first year so nobody would realize how little I actually taught them.

When classes got tough, there was no incentive for me to work at it because all I could see at the end of the road was a lifetime of working in a job that I knew I hated before I'd taken a single class. I was such an incredible wimp.

Because I never went through orientation I knew nothing about how to work the system at the university. I remember someone once asking me if I were taking a class "pass or fail" and I didn't have a clue what that meant. When a teacher made a pass at me and started cornering me outside the room before every class, I didn't have a clue that there were options available to me and so I stopped going to his class to avoid him. I had never failed a class in my life (or gotten so much as a D) and I thought that by failing his class, I would be kicked out of the university. So I stopped going to all classes. The only time I ever met with my counselor (I never even realized I had one until this happened), I had to go to her drunk in order to have enough nerve to tell her I was quitting school.

If I had known then what I know now about how a university works, about the kinds of majors other than teaching that were available, about the kinds of support I could find in the administration, things might have ended up quite different.

Instead I took the easy road and just quit, extracting my revenge by going to work for the university and having them pay me for a change.

But for most of my life, especially since we moved to a University town, I have felt, as my father did, embarrassed that I had no college degree, when everyone I knew did and assumed that I did. It was especially embarrassing when I started typing psychological reports on people who seemed to have significantly less potential than I feel I did, who had advanced degrees. People tell me it's never too late...but now I don't care that much any more!

I just know that there is no way, even now, that I would even think about a career in teaching--and Up the Down Staircase just makes that point even more clearly for me. You guys, especially those teaching in inner city schools (like my friend Merrell) have my utmost admiration!

Walt got my bluetooth working. He says all I needed to do was RTFM. I actually did, but must have missed something. Anyway, it now works so let's hope my interview on Thursday is worth the money I paid to buy it.


Sunny said...

I can totally identify with what you are saying.
In the '60s there were few options available to young women of high school and college age.
You either became a teacher, a secretary or a nurse.
My parents insisted I go to nursing school. It was all very idealistic.
The problem was I hated it, I hated being a nurse and I was terrible at it. It was awful and to this day I bristle when someone says "Well, you were a nurse..."
Even though I eventually did go back and get my degree (which was pretty much useless) I still hate that I never was able to get into an area that I loved and had a passion for. I still feel my life has never had a direction.

sunny from TMA

Bev Sykes said...

It's been very gratifying to discover that so many people understand and relate!

jon said...

AH! 1960...A wonderful year to graduate. I have a bunch of college, but no degree. education can be fun.
I wasn't dumb but I sure didn't put a premium on getting good grades. I was only interested in the social aspects of HS. I had a great time. I passed.
My resume for college was not impressive. I liked the ology courses. Microbiology, Psychology, Sociology.
i remember when Botulinum toxin was bad, and could kill you very dead. Now woman are injecting into their face.
I must have skipped a page in my microbiology book.