Still Privileged: A Story about Penguins and being a First Generation University Grad

This is me, circa 1980, grade 3. Bad perm. Buck teeth — about 8 years later my parents would renege and finally get me braces — and boys would eventually think I was cute — and then ultimately decide I was too smart for them (but that’s another story).

I’m sitting beside my school science fair project. I sorta remember putting this together. I remember better that a girl named Karen,  who was in grade 4, wanted to be my partner for the science fair. She wanted us to do a project on batteries.  I didn’t know why Karen wanted to be my partner. I don’t remember being friends with her. Besides, I wanted nothing to do with a project on batteries. I wanted to do a project on penguins. And I didn’t want to work with Karen — on some level I knew, even though I was a year younger, I was a lot smarter than Karen.

But I guess I got books from the library and my dad probably let me cut up a national geographic or maybe it was an OWL Magazine or Chickadee. I tore up construction paper to make a penguin nest and I made a penguin out of styrofoam balls and fabric. In large awkward grade-3 printing, in pencil (we weren’t allowed to use pen till grade 4… that I remember), I wrote out some information on penguins and glued it to the old cardboard box I used as a backdrop. I probably plagiarized what I wrote from the books. I was in grade 3.

I brought my project to the school gym the day of the fair. I was proud of what I had done. Then I walked around and looked at my classmates projects. My friend Lisa — her parents were both teachers (her Dad was a Chemistry teacher) — did a project on acid rain. Acid rain was a hot topic when I was in elementary school. No one talks much about acid rain anymore.  Lisa’s project was on a nice cardboard backdrop, covered in coloured paper one of her parents likely scarfed from the school they worked at. Her notes were typed on white paper. Her headings were stencilled on coloured construction paper and neatly cut out. And I remember feeling deflated because her project was much nicer than mine. (And remembering Lisa, she likely went out of her way to make sure she told me how much nicer her project was than mine).

No one helped me with my science project. My mom probably helped me make the little black jacket on my crafty penguin. She probably found me the box that became my back drop. But no one helped me with the writing. Maybe a librarian helped me find the books in the library but I did the reading and I picked what to write out. I’m not 100% sure this is how I put my project together but given I can’t remember anyone in my house helping me with homework at any point in my school years, this is probably how the project happened.

I am a first generation university grad. Third generation Canadian. My parents are baby boomers. They may actually be pre-baby boomer because my dad was born in 1936 and my mom in 1944. My mom never went to school past grade 11. She did vocational training as a secretary and bookkeeper in high school and then went out in the workforce to find a husband. My Dad went to a private school until about grade 10 and then 2 years at a “college” for business training. I don’t really understand how school worked back then but to me that’s not a university degree. He ended up a salesman. He worked for Olevetti-Underwood for a part of his early career. That’s where he met my mom.  When they got married, my mom had to quit work. In 1966 spouses were not allowed to work at the same place. My mom’s parting gift was the typewriter at the top of my blog page and twitter page.

My Dad travelled a lot when I was a kid and he was a traditional 70s Dad. He didn’t do much in the way of parenting except glare at me with wide eyes if I misbehaved. My Mom told me many times that she was not smart. That she’d almost failed history in school — but she could do math in her head faster than anyone I ever knew. And these two people created me. Overachiever. Perpetual book worm. Writer wanna-be. Secretly hypochondriac. A+ student. I probably had an anxiety disorder even then. I was smart in school too but I wasn’t really noticed — not the way the Lisa’s and their typed assignments and stencilled letters got noticed. They did “gifted” testing of select students when I was in about grade 5 and I didn’t get picked to be tested. I was so upset I came home crying and my Mom did something rare (and it was the only time I ever remember her questioning a school action, EVER) — she marched to the school and asked why? They tested me the next week but I don’t know what happened with it. I didn’t get selected for the “gifted” class.

Lisa got selected though. I’m not sure how that happened either. Fast forward a few years in the future (high school) and Lisa is still a pretty good student but I’m kicking her ass in pretty much everything academically. I’m kicking almost everyone’s ass. I still didn’t think I was smart. I assumed it was just that I knew how to work the system.  I continued to think this way through 2 undergraduate degrees, a university gold medal, and a masters through which I published 6 peer reviewed articles. It wasn’t until I started teaching college students and grading their assignments that I realized… whoa…. not every student is like me.

I’m a first generation university grad but  but I have one cousin on my Mom’s side who got an Engineering degree. He worked every summer and paid for it himself. He inspired me. I wanted to do the same. My brother also got an Engineering degree.

I, the middle of the two, got an Arts degree in English Literature and history. I wanted to be a writer. I started writing a journal at 13 and I maintained it pretty steadily till I was in my early 20s. I kept it a secret. My mother would poke her head in my bedroom and make comments like, “What are you doing? Writing your memoirs?” I don’t know what it was but there was a tone when she said it. That tone made me feel strange and misunderstood. It made my stomach twist and it made me not want to talk about my writing. Not to her. Not to anyone.

Then came a nursing degree. Then the masters. Now a PhD. I don’t talk about it much in my family. They don’t really understand. They are proud. If I got an A as a kid they wanted to know why it wasn’t an A+. I was lucky to have non academic parents but live in a house where education was considered important and worthy of working hard at.  I’m first generation but I’m am still privileged. We were not a low income family. Solid middle class. My ex-husband would tell you I was spoiled. I thought it was normal. I grew up in a 1000 square foot house that my parents still live in. We had piles of presents at Christmas. We had a cottage a 2 hour drive away — my Dad bought a lot for $400 in 1965 and they built a tiny rickety cottage on it. That purchase probably delayed my parents getting married. It probably delayed me being born. Maybe it wouldn’t have been me born if they hadn’t bought that cottage lot.

I am a first generation university grad but I have made choices educationally that are below my abilities. I turned down admission to Ryerson College (not yet a University at the time) for journalism. Why? Scared, mostly; scared of leaving home.  I joked I should have applied to Harvard. I had the grades. I didn’t apply. Thought about applying to physiotherapy out of high school but didn’t because it was extremely competitive. Didn’t think I’d make the cut. I should have gone into medicine. Chose nursing instead. I no longer think of this as the lesser choice but at the time I did. I didn’t even know what nurses did. I’ve had many opportunities since to realize I probably should have been a lawyer — didn’t think I was capable of that in the decision making phase. I don’t know if I made these choices because I was first generation or if it was because I was female and there were subconscious societal factors at work. Perhaps it was a bit of both.

I’ve done most, if not all of my studying in isolation. It wasn’t just the penguin project. I still prefer to work alone. Take another look at that picture. I’m wearing a yellow button and a red ribbon.  I won first place at that science fair. Grade 3. Buck teeth. Bad perm. My teacher at the time, I remember, made some remark about me winning.  Something like, the judges must have thought you were cute. (If I had known what being a total ass meant when I was in grade 3… that’s what I would have called him). It made me feel bad. My first experience with imposter syndrome. I didn’t understand why I had won over typed pages and coloured stencils. My project clearly wasn’t better than the other kids.

Fast forward about 36 years and I get it. I was probably the only kid in that entire gym who delivered a project that no parent had laid a hand on. It was a terrible project compared to typed pages and coloured stencils and choosing acid rain as a topic. But the judges knew it was all me and that made it an amazing project.

Still working toward greatness.

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