Background Theme Music: Social Distortion, “Story of My Life”
-Michel De Montaigne
Memory is strange. Striving to recollect my freshman (first-year!) self through now decades-long prisms of time is more challenging than I expected. As Montaigne noted, the most awkward moments are the ones that seem to remain permanently seared into our perpetually deconstructing and reconstructing self-narratives. Thus, many incidents from my first years at Penn State are crystal clear.
In Psychology 2H (now Psych 100), we learned about the “Imposter Syndrome”. Those experiencing this phenomenon believe themselves to be unworthy of whatever positions or achievements they have managed to procure. Though, at barely eighteen-years old, my station in life was not lofty, I still felt myself to be plagued by this syndrome. I was in the “University Scholars Program” with an academic achievement scholarship. In High School, I had never been an extremely enthusiastic scholar. I hovered between A-s and B+s, took a smattering of AP classes, participated actively in marching band, symphonic band, and wind ensemble (despite the fact that I could barely play the flutes or oboes that I carried with me to these activities), and, otherwise slacked. My saving grace came with the SATs. Throughout my life, standardized tests had proven to be my friends. They landed me in gifted programs, advanced sections, and awards ceremonies where I always wondered what on earth I was doing in such environs. Now, the National Testing Services had propelled me into an array of honors seminars and symposiums.
Honors History class began with the usual “fun facts”. Others spoke of scuba diving, science fairs, and political aspirations. I said that I really just wanted to marry a prince and be a princess. I thought it would be charmingly quirky. For real. Mouth, foot, remove, repeat.
I made a tremendous discovery: one way to obtain strong grades (and stay in my honors programs) was to take classes “for non-majors”. While others struggled in “Biology 200”, I enjoyed “BiSci 2: Evolutionary Biology For Non-Majors“. “Introduction to Astronomy 1 For Non-Majors” also proved to be an ego builder for me. Just knowing “my very easy method just shows us nine planets” kept you in the A range. The course even led to my first part-time job: note-taker for Nittany Notes. Each week, I photocopied my handwritten notes and took them down to the office where the employees made dozens of copies to sell to other students in the course who might have missed lecture. Some students relied solely on Nittany Notes and eschewed lectures all together. Nittany Notes was a remarkably innovative and successful small business. The advent of cheap photocopying had revolutionized information dissemination.
I spent most of my Nittany Notes paychecks on Ralph Lauren polos and oxfords: size large, tucked into my pleated and pegged jeans with white socks and penny loafers. This was my uniform not just for class but for “going out”. “Going out” took on a whole new meaning as I eased into the college scene. In high school, a big night out meant my mother driving my few friends and me to a pizza parlor or mini-golf. As I began befriending my fellow Penn State students, I quickly began to conflate “going out” with substance abuse binging. On my first ventures to places such as Sigma Pi, ATO, Beta, and College Republican Meetings (yes, oddly enough, even my first efforts towards “civic involvement” included copious quantities of Coors Light), I sipped the bitter cups of beer that my friends procured for me. Soon, however, I found that I simply couldn’t endure the “parties” without being thoroughly anesthetized. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why. “Parties” in those days were essentially hoards of sweaty bodies pressed against dirty bars, hands grasping for overflowing plastic cups of watery cheap beer, other hands awkwardly striving to “cop a feel”, M.C. Hammer blaring through barely functional stereo speakers, broken down benches circling tables for beer-pong and I-never, bong smoke hazing the air…ok, yes, obviously, it was AMAZING!
One crisp autumn night, as I sweated and sweltered in the basement of some 1930s era stone fraternity house, insight struck like a cigarette butt in your can of Schlitz. I was standing in line — the long line — for the girls’ room. Some “brothers” strolled by and acidly critiqued the “freshmeat”: “nice eyes, but you could lose a few pounds”, “great smile but needs to calm down”, “sexy but loud”. As they fixed their eyes on me I heard, “cute, but big hair just isn’t cool anymore.” My heart swelled and tears stung my eyes simultaneously. Boys had called me cute!! But they mocked my hair. I’d permed my hair since eighth-grade…I didn’t know how to fix it any other way. As a self-proclaimed “shy nerd”, being the object of any male gaze was a novelty to me. I’d been objectified, reduced to an amalgam of physical traits. I didn’t really know what to do with that.
Passed out on friend’s dorm floor. Awoke hangover free because that’s youth. Time for Psych 2H. I made my way through the underground tunnels that used to enable you to traverse the intersection at Pollack and Shortlidge without confronting traffic, passed the construction site for what would one day become Thomas building, and settled into my seat. Professor Herschel Leibowitz was a world-renowned expert on the psychology of vision. An iconic member of the “Greatest Generation”, Leibowitz had fought at the Battle of the Bulge in WWII then developed expertise in neurology and visual psychology that he used to work with pilots and other servicemen who relied on good sight to stay alive. In class that day, the professor introduced a maxim that was known, internationally, as “Leibowitz’s Law”. He explained that “you can’t see a damn thing in the dark”. Deceptively simple, the “Law” reflected the significant neurological discovery that all visual perception was contingent upon light, and also summed up a sort of rule for living. “Open your eyes”, my esteemed teacher seemed to be urging me.
Later that afternoon, dozing in The Fishbowl (a large, glassed-in room that used to dominate the first floor of the HUB), I ruminated. I looked at my life and began thinking about the fact that others were looking at me too. They were looking not just at my physical qualities, but at the choices I made and the words that I chose. Maybe I really did want to be a princess, but perhaps I might prefer to represent myself as a budding psychologist. Perhaps I didn’t need to tone down my big hair to please others, but I could do so if I wanted to sculpt a new image. I thought again of the Imposter Syndrome. What if I didn’t really have to “impersonate” a scholar? What if I could actually be an engaged learner, thinker, and writer? If I was already posing as such, why not just do it? I began to play with notions of self-transformation. For the first time, the possibilities seemed to outweigh the limitations. I was a developing identity, not a finished product, and opportunities for change and re-creation were all around me. For a moment everything seemed to quiver with impermanence: my goals, appearance, social status, political affiliations, spiritual beliefs. I had a lot of questions about life and college seemed like the time to start looking for answers. I began reading for psych so that I could make some informed points at the next class discussion. But first, I stopped in the restroom to brush the mouse out of my hair.