If I Could Go Back in Time: What Older Me Would Tell Younger Me
If I could time travel back to my young adulthood and offer up the most important advice possible to make the intervening years oh-so-much-easier to bear, what would I tell Young Lorna? I’ve blown off the question more times than I can count. That’s because, until now, I’ve looked at the question from this side of life and have forgotten where I once stood.
Normally, I shrug off the question with the typical advice I give the interns who work for me now. Stuff like:
1. If you want to impress people, pick the toughest task, the one no one wants, and then make it shine. Or,
2. Be careful of whom you piss off in your career. You never know when you’ll burn a bridge with a snotty colleague or even someone you’ve trained…and find out that’s your new boss a little farther up the mountain.
All that advice works just fine, and it would have been good advice for me when I was 19, but I needed something much more basic back then to make my future an easier one. Now that my younger daughter is about the same age I was then, I see Young Lorna differently. I needed to understand something fundamental about myself that I really didn’t realize until now was with me all along, and it’s that ability to swim upstream.
The sweetest man in my world tells me that I am fearless in a way he can never hope to be, but I’m not sure if it’s lack of fear. The fear is definitely there and at times in my life, I’ve let it paralyze me and keep me in a prison of my own making. I’m not sure if, at 19, I was fearless or just that naive about the way the world works and simply flinging myself out there to make something happen.
You know how you bury memories? You can go years, even decades, without resurrecting them? I was sitting in a meeting where someone else’s opinion was questioned but then deemed unquestionable because he was “Mensa-smart.” Though several people disagreed, they kept pointing out that the guy was “really smart,” so they didn’t feel they could question his interpretation. It just annoyed the hell out of me.
Flashback to 19-year-old Lorna sitting in a suit on a floral sofa in a waiting room in Birmingham, Alabama, in some building that was a part of Birmingham-Southern College. I can still see my pantyhose-clad ankles crossed, feet tense inside my low-heeled pumps…still see the rings on my fingers and feel how easily they twirled on my damply nervous hands…still hear the boy on the sofa next to me as we waited to be called in for the tribunal-type interview for the Rhodes Scholarship. I was early for my interview, of course. I was always early in those days and no one ever had to wait on me because I was the one waiting for life to come to me. So I was early. And scared to death. And awkward. In the past 24 hours, I’d been left feeling utterly betrayed by everyone except my mom and I was questioning whether I belonged there. At this point, I was quite sure that I didn’t. And the boy beside me on the sofa was the last straw.
He was in his early 20’s, a product of a prestigious university and a resident of Alabama. He was well-dressed and was quite obnoxious in his insistence that I should have been at the interviews in my home state of Georgia rather than in my university’s state–we had a choice but he felt I was cheating because surely I thought the competition in Alabama would be easier for me. In truth, the location was related to the logistics of travel, not competition strategy. Of course, this boy was sure he was right because he was “Mensa-smart.” Hmmm, even though his Mensa-smart IQ was lower than mine…but I didn’t tell him that. He also had a GPA similar to mine (he asked), but as he pointed out, he attended a prestigious university and I did not, so my GPA wasn’t really on par with his. He did kindly point out to me, as I was called into my interview, that the little gray purse I carried was a cheap knock-off as he’d never seen any uniformly gray alligators. By the time I walked into the interview, I was already defeated and ready to crawl back home.
I don’t recall how the whole ordeal started but somewhere months before, I had seen a small advertisement at my college for applying for the infamous Rhodes Scholarship, which was only recently open to women. The announcement had been posted on the bulletin board outside my favorite professor’s office, and she was the university’s liasion for the scholarship. I sought her advice…my primary professor…my idol. I wanted to follow in her footsteps. I also needed, due to her position in the university, her written recommendation and stamp of approval on my application package. Looking back, I see that she really didn’t have the time of day for me, but I thought she was brilliant. She knew nothing of me outside of her classes, where I was consistently one of her top students. She was frank with me–I didn’t stand a chance.
That didn’t deter me. I had to write an essay for my application and she insisted I submit an essay of mine she’d seen in a recent class. That didn’t feel right. Really, what scholarship application wants an Aristotelian analysis of a poem as the student’s explanation of her goals? It didn’t seem to be what the application wanted but my very logical professor was certain. I stewed over it and the night before the application was due, I wrote an entirely different essay that answered the application requirements. It was raw and honest, and talked about how words have been a unifying theme in my life. I found that essay not long ago and sat and cried over it as I read it because it was then and still is utterly true to who I am. My professor never knew I substituted an essay against her advice, but I followed my instincts. Pretty gutsy of me then, considering the power and knowledge she seemed to have back then.
As I began getting my application together, I felt more and more out there all alone on a limb. I’d started dating someone but if he ever believed I’d actually get the scholarship and leave the US–and him–for a degree in the UK, I don’t remember it. Yeah, I later married him…so? My mom was supportive but worried about me going to England for an extended period. Daddy hit the roof. But then, he was sure I wouldn’t make the cut and be invited for an interview either. Really, my mom was the only emotionally supportive person in my life when it came to this dream.
Mama made me a suit, excellent seamstress that she was, and a cocktail dress for the party the night before the interview. Those were drought years on my parents’ farm when they worked all year for nothing and lived off savings, and even with scholarships to my college and a part-time job, I was on a tight budget. I couldn’t afford to get my hair cut, so I did it myself…something I still cringe over when I look at my official photo that was part of the package. I couldn’t afford professional photos, so I had my university’s printing department do it for me on the cheap. But if I got the scholarship, the payoff was worth it. I’d be off to England for two years and a second degree in English Literature.
Part of the reason for my gutsy move of writing the essay that felt right to me was that I accidentally discovered that I was not the only candidate from my university. In fact, there were two others who’d gone to my professor. One of us was my university’s official recommendation, and it wasn’t me. At that point, I really didn’t feel I had anything to lose by following my instincts. I just wanted to make the cut to the next level and be invited to interview in the State competition.
To my surprise, I was. The other students from my university, including the preferred candidate, did not make the cut.
But the surprises didn’t end there. My mom accompanied me to Birmingham, driving me and keeping me company. We defied Daddy, who made it quite clear to his wife and 19-year-old daughter that if we left for the interview, we need not come back. I guess in some respects, my dad did believe in me after all if he thought I might actually win and go live overseas for a couple of years.
At the cocktail party, I was painfully out of place. It was one of those wine and cheese deals where the competition sizes up the competition while meeting the jury. I’ve never been good in that kind of social situation, and the small talk with the nicer candidates revealed that they had been prepped for the interview from Day One. My university and my professor had never given me a word of advice on the panel interview, let alone set up mock interviews or helped me prepare. The panic, at the point, began to set in.
The competition was tough, and I didn’t know how I could ever stand against students with equally impressive GPA’s from prestigious universities and summers interning with an infamous Congressman or studying in Europe. They all seemed to know how to act, what to say, how to dress. All well-groomed for the interviews, and I was a stray cat that had wandered in.
After the boy on the sofa had destroyed the last speck of my confidence, I walked into the interview and sat in front of a long panel of…well, let’s just say I understand what the Inquisition must have been like. Actually, though the questions were probing and extremely difficult, the faces were kind and friendly. One of the men, near the end, told me the panel had been very impressed with my answers for their honesty and with my package for two things: 1. I’d self-published an insightful and unusual book at 19, and 2. my essay had blown them away. My essay was what got me to the State competition. I knew when I walked out that I hadn’t made the cut to Nationals. I knew it when the panel laughed several times at my honesty during the interview–I wasn’t giving the answers they expected or necessarily wanted, but it must have been refreshing to hear the opinions of someone who hadn’t been groomed for it.
I look back now at that 19-year-old kid who was pushing so hard without any help from anyone who knew how to make things happen and it amazes me now. I was only a few months older than my younger daughter is now, and I wonder how I dared push so hard, to swim upstream, to not give up until I finally got the point in the interview where I was too intimidated to believe it was worth it to keep going. I left saying to myself that I still had another five years that I could try again for the Rhodes, but I never did. Not long after the interviews were over and I knew I wasn’t going to be competing at the National level, I received a thick package in the mail at my parents’ house. I sometimes wonder if they intended to include everything in the package because my professor’s letter of recommendation was in the envelope with my essay. My favorite professor’s recommendation was…withering. Surely, she didn’t think I would ever see it. She’d made a lot of assumptions based on how quiet and studious I was in her classes, but none of her assumptions accounted for determination or vision. I sat at my mom’s kitchen table and read and re-read the letter my professor had sent on my behalf, her words assuring that I would never make the first cut.
But I did. And I made it not only without her help but in spite of her “help.” I felt betrayed. I finished my advanced courses under her with straight A’s, graduated, and never looked back.
There’s a part of me now, Older Lorna, who wants to swoop in and beat the crap (figuratively, at least) out of that professor on behalf of my younger, wounded self. There’s a part of me that is broken-hearted and indigant still for the unprepared girl who followed her instincts and kept pushing, kept swimming against the current even when she got the message loud and clear that she was alone in this venture and she’d better stay in her lane and be quiet. The Rhodes experience, while an expansive one overall, was still painful enough that I made decisions in the next years of my life that echoed that feeling of being out of place and unworthy of reaching my dreams. It was not painful enough, however, to keep me from pushing for them.
So if I could go back in time to talk to my 19-year-old self, here’s what I’d tell her:
1. Stop trying so freaking hard to fit in–it’s your differences that will truly contribute to a better world and a happier life.
2. Don’t let anyone make you feel worthless or inferior. Their ridicule isn’t about you but rather, it’s about their own insecurities. If they can put your face on their own fears, they feel stronger because you’re an easier monster to fight than the one in their own closets they dare not open.
3. Don’t let anyone crush your dreams. Again, it’s about their own insecurities and need for power, and sometimes it comes from people who love you very much but fear your dreams will lead you far away from them, so they’re willing to have an unhappy version of you rather than none at all.
4. Roads won’t always be paved for you and sometimes you’ll find you’re the only racer whose path isn’t paved…or even discernable. That’s when, to make things happen, you’ll have to pull out a machete you’ve crafted and sharpened yourself and hack your own path to get to where you’re going. And after you have, others will follow.
5. Follow your own instincts. Logic be damned. If doing the “logical thing” just feels…wrong…then do what feels right. Always, always, always trust your instincts and don’t let yourself be intimidated into doing the logical thing when you know it’s not the right thing.
6. And most of all, if I could tell my 19-year-old self just one thing, particularly at that moment when she walked out of the tribunal feeling stupid and not good enough because of all the advantages she didn’t have in that competition, it would be to say, “Hey, look how far you got on your own without any outside help. Kiddo, you rock!”