Blanche Dubois proclaimed, in A Streetcar Named Desire, that she had ‘always relied on the kindness of strangers’. I don’t pretend to understand this film, mostly because the first and only time I ever watched it I was in my early 20’s. Note to Self: Add this to my Netflix ‘to watch’ list. That said, this particular line of dialogue has always struck a chord with me. My gut reaction to Blanche’s social situation and how she dealt with her world was one of dismay and annoyance. Was she someone with so little self-esteem that she milked sympathy from others and used her helplessness to her advantage rather than finding (or being able to?) garner strength from within?
Regardless of whether my read on this film hits the mark (and I’ll be the first to admit that it most likely does not) I still maintain that there do seem to be people, sadly the majority of whom appear to be women, who enjoy playing the victim. Truth be told I’ve probably played this role myself at times especially early in my adult life, coming off a hasty marriage and subsequent divorce at a very young age which left me as a single parent and not a clue what I wanted to do with my life. Because I, apparently much like Blanche, had so little self-confidence and was sorely, SORELY lacking in self-esteem, I made many poor choices but never had the wherewithal to question my own contributions to the sad state of affairs that was my life.
Wow. Methinks this might turn into something I hadn’t quite had in mind when I started out…
And so I plodded along making mistakes left and right, friendless and rudderless indeed. My own family was, I’m certain, frustrated and annoyed with my antics (to say the least) and I felt so very alone. If not for my son, the only real joy of my life during that dark, dark time, I may have been (additional) fodder for the gossips wagging their tongues at water coolers and on the production line in the factory where I worked.
The real turning point for me was when I decided to quit my job to enroll in the drafting program at our local community college. I was a Bill of Material coordinator and, having worked closely with the engineering group at our company, I thought drafting might be a good fit for me. I was mistaken but wouldn’t discover that until a few months later. In any case, as a non-traditional student and single parent I was able to qualify for student aid and earned several scholarships along the way. My first class, taken in the summer, was an intermediate algebra class. When I received a ‘D’ on my first exam I was despondent and certain that I’d (yet again) made a colossal error in judgment in quitting my job and embarking on such silliness as thinking I could actually go to ‘college’. However, I was encouraged to take advantage of the tutoring services that were offered and that little nugget of advice made all the difference in the world.
Once I realized that drafting wasn’t for me I did, at the same time, realize that I had a knack for math. Who knew? In high school I took the easiest courses I could to satisfy the mathematics requirements for graduation. With the help of tutors and a strong motivation to succeed, I eventually moved on to take the required courses for a degree in mathematics. I even became a math tutor myself and was designated the honor of Outstanding Math Sophomore. (Fun Fact: My husband, a natural whiz at most everything but especially in math whereas I had to work my tail off to get good grades, was also bestowed the honor at the same time. Both our photos hung on the bulletin board outside the math office where we often studied together. Remembering that makes me smile).
Ultimately I switched my major to Management Information Services and Bill and I both transferred to Iowa State University to finish our studies and obtain our degrees.
This single decision, to quit my job and go to school at the age of 34, a decision my then-boss tried to talk me out of as he thought I was making a grave mistake, was the best, the most important thing I ever did to improve my lot in life. Where I was once overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy, success in school gave me a lifetime allotment of self-confidence. Going to college significantly boosted my earning power as well and, best of all, I met my husband in the process.
I’m a little easier on myself now than I was in my late 20’s and early 30’s. How to separate youthful indiscretions from soul-wrenching errors in judgment, it’s hard to say. Through it all, my son – who deserved better than what he got – to this day sees me as his hero. I can now reminisce about the truly good times we did have together and how I did do right by him in many, many ways. He tells others about the wonderful memories we shared together, how we went camping and spelunking and how he enjoyed and has such an appreciation for the music I loved while he was growing up and our love of movies and yes – film dialogue, to come a bit full circle here.
A few years ago someone, in what I perceived as an attempt to excuse her behavior and poor choices in life, lamented that she was ‘a victim’. She seemed almost to revel in it and I recall thinking of the words Blanche uttered in that famous film. It was, perhaps, then that a seed was planted and I realized I never wanted anyone to perceive me in that way, if ever they did, ever again.
Strength of purpose, clarity of self, motivation to succeed and the drive to challenge oneself are more empowering than the fruits of any stranger’s kindness could ever bestow. Sometimes, though, I do forget these things for myself. Being human I occasionally allow myself to wallow in self-pity but it is an ugly blanket with which to cover oneself and thankfully the mood eventually passes.
While I was taking that first summer math class I befriended another non-traditional student who planned to pursue a degree in engineering. We chatted one day not long after the class first began and she told me she was struck by my self-confidence that very first day and commented on how self-assured I appeared to her. She said I seemed to ‘have it all together’. I was dumbfounded. Surely she was referring to someone else. I cannot begin to convey how heady it was to hear someone tell me that. But I tucked it away and reflected on her words many times as I navigated the course of academia to arrive at that amazing day when I received my degree. What I take from that now and wish all to know and consider is that we are often more capable than we realize. It’s scary to try something new. It takes courage to step outside our comfort zones. I am, however, a firm and true believer that the effort is often worth it in the end – even if, nay, especially if the end result is a stronger, more self-assured YOU in the process.